If you’ve made it this far after reading that headline, welcome. We live in a universe where life without Joel Embiid is both familiar and inconvenient. However, the aforementioned familiarity shaped the Philadelphia 76ers’ offseason into one of relevance, clutter, and (power) forward thinking.
Joel Embiid has a torn ligament in his left hand. The team, as all teams seemingly do nowadays, will re-evaluate the injury in one-to-two weeks. On the same day of this report, the Sixers faced the Boston Celtics for the third time this season and beat them for the third time.
There’s a phrase bouncing around the internet that the Sixers are “built for the playoffs,” but it’s deeper than that. This offseason, as well as Thursday night’s win against the Celtics, is proof that they’re also built for life without Joel Embiid. In the Cameroonian center’s absence, Al Horford had 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists to go along with two blocks and a steal in the win.
“They [the Boston Celtics] are obviously second in the East, and they’re playing well,” Horford said after Thursday’s win. “I look at tonight…it was a big game, it almost felt like a must-win. We’ve laid some eggs recently in the few weeks here, so we just needed to get this win, and it feels good to beat this team.”
The contract Al Horford received in the offseason was situational, as was Tobias Harris’. One can argue that both are overpaid, but that argument can only be made in a vacuum. Both signings had deeper meanings. Tobias Harris was paid based on what a luxury it is to have him as the team’s third or fourth best player. Similarly, Horford wasn’t only paid for being Al Horford. He was paid to be the best insurance policy in the NBA.
“I think they did [play well] and they had to,” Brett Brown said after the win against Boston. “When you’re missing Joel [Embiid], you better have some people do what Norvel [Pelle] did and Ben with his limited minutes [at center]. Al Horford was huge all over the place, and it’s true, it was next man up. We had to find something to take that massive void that Joel left.”
A lot of us have seen those expensive health insurance plans that’ll gouge your paycheck, and then the cheaper ones that are much more manageable. The Sixers took the premium route, and with Joel Embiid spending some time in the hospital, it is already showing its worth. Last season, the Sixers had a cheap insurance plan called Greg Monroe. A reminder no Sixers fan needs, it bit them in the playoffs when Embiid wasn’t on the court.
This year, when Embiid is out, the ability to replace Joel by plugging Horford in at center is massive. However, it does still leave a void at backup center. Like Brett Brown said postgame, Ben Simmons saw some minutes at the five, but Norvel Pelle, who is the topic of another conversation, stepped up big time. The Sixers have an important decision to make regarding Pelle’s NBA availability. Pelle only has five days of NBA service remaining, which can be spread out one day of service at a time. According to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pelle is receiving interest around the NBA and a couple of teams will look to sign him if the Sixers do not convert his two-way contract to an NBA deal.
Are the Sixers built for a future that includes both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid?
Now, whether we like it or not, as long as Joel Embiid is teammates with Ben Simmons, there will be talk about their fit with one another. While applying for that premium insurance policy, the Sixers seemingly put themselves in a position that favors Ben Simmons, individually, long term. You’d be able to say the same thing for Joel Embiid if the Sixers went out and acquired Malcolm Brogdon this offseason instead of Horford. The shooting and floor spacing would have greatly benefited Embiid while putting Simmons into a weird spot (for example, is he point guard or is Brogdon point guard?). In this world we’re currently living in, the roster structure currently favors Ben Simmons.
Also, in this world we’re currently living in, the NBA world that is, high tempo offense is in. It’s an offense that Brett Brown has preached since taking over as head coach during the Process era. Brown has also preached effort, pace, and conditioning. The gym will speak, as he says. Al Horford spoke about that pace and effort after the Sixers win in Philly against Boston, and his comments were centered around Ben Simmons.
“It’s tough to guard him in the open floor,” Horford told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. “I think his energy, with that, it’s contagious, and it gets us all going. And, obviously, that was the difference.”
The Sixers are a better team with Joel Embiid in the lineup.
Let’s not get things twisted. However, it’s also not unfair to speculate that some players may be unlocked with Joel Embiid out of the lineup. Al Horford seems to potentially be one of them. Certain players can be unlocked with Embiid in the lineup, much like JJ Redick last season. One question worth asking is – What would the team look like without Ben Simmons and who, if anyone, would benefit from this? Joel Embiid is one of them. His comments last week, which seemed to be centered around Ben Simmons, back this.
“We just got to look at ourselves and see what we can do individually,” Embiid responded to a reporter after practice on January 2. “We’ve got to help each other even if it means being outside of your comfort zone for the greater (good) to help the team win. Meaning that if you’ve got to space and shoot it, you’ve got to do it. We need everybody to buy into that and we’ll be fine.”
After an endless summer of Ben Simmons hype videos, which included him shooting threes both off the dribble and in a catch-and-shoot fashion, we’ve seen Ben Simmons make two three point field goals. We’re almost halfway through January. While Ben Simmons doesn’t need to shoot threes in order to be effective, it seems like Embiid could feel as if he’s the victim of friendly fire, via Simmons’ apprehension to shoot from distance.
“We’ll be fine,” Embiid went on to say after that early January practice. “We’re still finding our groove. We haven’t been fully healthy [the whole starting lineup]. Like I said, we’ll be fine.”
”We’ll be fine.”
Ironically, a week later, Embiid is not fine. According to a bunch of blue checkmarks on Twitter, Embiid received successful surgery in New York on January 10. While it isn’t an injury that should impact him long term, it is an injury.
There’s no need to list the number of injuries or games that Embiid has missed through his young career. As you know, any and all of his absences have been magnified aplenty by both the national and local media since he was drafted out of Kansas. Yes, the initial fears of him never being able to play meaningful minutes in the NBA were overblown. That being said, injuries have been an issue, however random and weird they may be (such as the Markelle Fultz breaking his face and a debilitating illness during the most important stretch of games in his Philadelphia tenure).
Some insurance plans are annual and need to be re-evaluated or re-applied for every year. However, the newest Sixers’ healthcare package is signed to three more seasons after this one. A 76ers team source told me earlier this season that there will come a time where the team, due to fit, may need to choose whether they want to build around Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid. To be clear, this article is not and will not be a “trade Joel Embiid” article. However, it’s interesting to at least note that the team is more equipped for life after Joel.