Nature will let you know when a new season has arrived. The temperature, weather patterns, and trees all change. Philadelphia can tell that Sixers basketball is back when reports surface that Joel Embiid is dealing with an ambiguous, nagging injury. ESPN reporter Ramona Shelburne delivered some troubling remarks about the Sixers star on Wednesday.
“He told me after this game in New Orleans, he couldn’t walk for two days,” Shelburne said on NBA Today. “He still went out and played in Oklahoma City and, obviously, he played against the Knicks.”
When host Malika Andrews asked why Embiid was playing through the sore knee, Shelburne said, “He’s playing because Ben Simmons is not playing, and they need one of them on the court and he wants to show leadership. At this moment, you don’t want to fall behind where you cannot come back.”
On one hand, that is an obvious attempt to appeal to Simmons by threatening that blood would be on his hands if Embiid plays through the discomfort in an effort to make up for the former’s absence and suffers a catastrophic injury. On the other hand, that might be a convenient way of hiding another motive for Embiid playing through the pain.
“He’s trying to show leadership by being out there,” Shelburne said at the end of the segment. “But at some point, you’re not going to win an MVP if you’re playing like that.”
Members of the Sixers have been effusive in their public praise of the strides Embiid has made as a leader. He has also averaged a career-best 4.5 assists per game through the first four contests of the season. He’s trying to keep his teammates engaged by trusting them to make plays, and he’s physically showing up to play every night. So framing Embiid’s unwillingness to sit as a leadership device does not seem to be inauthentic. But, perhaps the more dominant reason is that last season’s MVP award essentially being a function of participation between the two leading candidates did not sit well with the runner-up.
Perhaps there’s even an element of exaggeration to what Shelburne is reporting. The Sixers hosted the Nets less than two days after the New Orleans game. Embiid played.
Still, he departed for the locker room before the end of the first half to presumably tend to the knee. He’s also had a noticeable wrapping around the knee each time he’s appeared publicly. Beyond that, the big fella has been listed as ‘Questionable’ on the league injury report every day since the season-opener.
Shelburne even offered some definition of what is bothering Embiid, saying, “It’s a meniscus injury. It flared up after the knocking knees with Valanciunas.”
The discomfort Embiid is dealing with has shown up in both the eye test and stat sheet. On the court, he’s playing an outside game. He’s unwilling to battle with other big bodies around the rim, and he’s settling for a lot of midrange jumpers. Such a characterization indicates that Embiid feels he lacks the explosion and agility to get around defenders and attack the basket. Embiid settling for midrange jumpers isn’t typically a bad thing, though. Last season, he connected on 47 percent of his middies, ranking in the 76th percentile of the league. But, he’s connecting on just 38 percent of those midrange attempts to start the season. Many of his makes have come on pull-ups. That’s a sign that Embiid is having trouble generating lift under his jumpers in a stand-still setting. He’s not doing that efficiency many favors by throwing his body around to make heroic plays on the defensive end of the court, either.
Embiid will tell you that the injury does not excuse his substandard play thus far. But, Embiid acknowledging the injury when probed by the media — even if it’s to denounce the ailment — allows the public to make excuses on his behalf if they so desire.
At the end of the day, Embiid has done enough to warrant the benefit of the doubt. Whether he’ll say it or not, the early returns suggest that the discomfort is affecting his play. One thing is for sure — the Sixers haven’t shown any signs that this group can make much noise with Embiid available. If he’s less than 100 percent or unavailable, Philadelphia can forget about it. So if the Sixers truly think they can do something this season — with or without Ben Simmons — it’s better to sacrifice some early regular season contests to get the crown jewel back to shining bright.
For now, Embiid is questionable for Thursday’s game against the Pistons in Philadelphia. “There’s a sense that maybe he plays a couple of minutes, he goes 25-26 minutes to get them off to a good start,” Shelburne said on Wednesday. “Or, sit down for a game or two to get that knee right.”