For the Sixers, here’s the bad news: All-Star Joel Embiid will continue to be out for the foreseeable term. Because of his rich injury history, he will most certainly be taking a conservative stance on his convalescence from a fractured orbital bone; he figures to be sidelined until close to the end of the first round of the playoffs. In short, they’ll have to make a push to improve their postseason position and then negotiate their first best-of-seven series without him, on paper a tall order given his importance on both ends of the court.
To assess Embiid’s value to the Sixers’ cause, fans need only note that they boast of a fourth-ranked offensive rating and a National Basketball Association-best defensive rating during the times he’s on the floor. Meanwhile, their ratings drop to 14th and 27th, respectively, in his absence. Which is to say they need him to be in uniform if they want to be more than mediocre in producing points and avoid being downright atrocious in preventing opponents from scoring.
The numbers notwithstanding, here’s the good news: The Sixers aren’t just surviving without Embiid. They’re thriving. Over the last four matches since his face collided with the shoulder of reserve guard Markell Fultz (who, irony of ironies, had just returned from an injury to, yes, the shoulder), they’ve managed to pound their opponents into submission. Every single one of their victories has been by double digits, allowing them to stay just half a game behind the similarly streaking Cavaliers for the third seed in the East.
The schedule has been kind, to be sure. Embiid went down early in the second quarter against the woeful Knicks, who were then already behind by 11. After the victorious outing, the Sixers went on to upend the Hornets, Nets, and Pistons, all bound for the lottery as well. On the flipside, it bears pointing out that rookie Ben Simmons has been nothing short of spectacular in holding the fort. In fact, the latter has been historically transcendent, averaging a triple-double through the last 12 outings, all triumphs, and further bolstering an already-strong case for the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy.
How the Sixers will fare from here on is anybody’s guess. Tomorrow’s match against the Cavaliers is particularly crucial and could well determine their place in the playoffs. On the other hand, no one, not even their most avid followers, projected them to progress this far this fast at the start of the season. Which is to say they’ve exceeded expectations, and all else is gravy. In any case, Embiid is doing well, so much so that he actually went on social media after he woke up from surgery and resumed his long-distance courtship of longtime crush Rihanna. That it’s just about the only thing he’s failing at is indicative of an extremely bright future.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.