The Sixers Must Protect Joel Embiid from Himself

Managing Joel Embiid's health is the most important aspect of Brett Brown's job. He shouldn't be playing the Sixers' centerpiece for 49 minutes.
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In the latest Open Floor Podcast, Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver are fired up about the 76ers' mismanagement of Joel Embiid's minutes in a three-overtime loss to OKC. Embiid, who previously was on a minutes restriction, logged 49 minutes and flew all over the court. 

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Ben Golliver: I thought it was unconscionable that Sixers coach Brett Brown left Joel Embiid on the court for nearly 50 minutes. This is a guy who was on a strict minutes limit all last season—still broke down with injuries. This is a guy who hasn't been playing back-to-backs and has been getting mocked for that fact by his opponents all season long, whether it's Andre Drummond or other guys. This is a guy who was limping all over the court because he had back issues. He was being worked on by the trainer during the game. He's flying all over the court during triple-overtime, seemingly losing control of his body at times. Granted, he played phenomenally. Granted, he's a competitor and doesn't want to come off the court.

I don't understand how you do that if you're the Sixers, especially given that they've already signed him to this long-term extension. They've already put the money on the table for him. What are they doing? 

Andrew Sharp: I'm glad you mentioned it, because I didn't think we were going to have an excuse to talk about it. But, yeah, I was mystified. I had to do a double take looking at the box score, seeing that he actually played 49 minutes. And to me, I think one of the reasons he probably played that much is because it was on national TV, because it was the Thunder, and it was a moment for the Sixers. The entire week ESPN had like "Sixers Week" and it was sort of like the arrival of that team, and so I sort of understand why they would feel pressure to play him. But I think it's almost the worst look to have a national audience looking in on the team like that and seeing them just completely mismanage Embiid.

I just don't understand how anyone who's been around that team over the last two or three years could think it's OK to play him that much, and let's not forget that five days earlier he missed the Pelicans game with a sore back. So it's not like this has just been smooth sailing for Embiid, and he was clutching his back in that Thunder game. The whole thing, I was just mystified. 

Golliver: I thought if I just cooled off for the weekend, I'd come back with a more rational take on Monday. Guess what, Andrew? As you were talking, all the rational parts of my brain escaped me.

Sharp: It's really bad. It's a massive red flag for them to play him that many minutes.

Golliver: It really is, and look, I understand why he would want to play in that game. He's trash talking back and forth with Russell Westbrook, he's making some unbelievable blocked shots on Westbrook in that game, he's going mano-a-mano and it's very difficult to tell a guy in that situation, 'Thanks, but we're going to go ahead and take this loss because it's only mid-December and it's only one game out of 82 and we need to save you for the playoffs.' That is a tough ask for a coach, but that's why they're paying Brett Brown. This is his most important task as a coach is to manage Embiid's ramp up, and that was just totally, totally out of line. Go back, 'What would Pop do?' If Brett Brown is this Pop disciple, is there any way Gregg Popovich would have played Embiid in that situation for 49 minutes in a game that ultimately was meaningless.

Sharp: That's below the belt, though. You don't have to bring Popovich into this to guilt trip Brett Brown.

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Golliver: I absolutely do, because there needs to be a reality check. I thought that was absolutely crazy. In the moment, it's hard to tell him that. I would not want to be the bearer of that bad news. But maybe what you do at the end of regulation is you say, 'Look, Joel, I'm going to play you the first overtime. Anything past that, you're done. Can we agree on that?' You have to have some sort of a conversation on that.

Sharp: You have to have sort of a set rule for everyone, and part of the magic of Embiid, certainly this year and even last year, is that you can play him 27 to 30 minutes per game and he still sort of lifts everyone else on the roster. And so, that's the part that I'm missing this year. For some reason, they've just decided that the limits don't matter as much anymore. He played almost 40 minutes against the Wolves on Tuesday night as well. Granted, you get into tricky territory when there's overtime.

Golliver: That's when you should be erring on the side of caution—that tricky territory. If it starts to feel dicey and there he goes flying into the third row because he blocked a shot, and here he goes stumbling across the court and holding his back and getting treatment on the sidelines, come on, man. Let's take care of this guy. 

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Sharp: And having him available for 70% of the minutes is so much more valuable than potentially losing him, even for a three-week stretch. We're not even worried about a season-long injury here, but just having some of Embiid is a huge win for the Sixers and, again, it's one of those things where I don't understand how people who have been in that building for the last couple years could allow that to happen. 

Golliver: Part of it to me too is just the scene after that amazing Lakers game he had in L.A., where he had that big breakout and absolutely crushed Julius Randle. They were all so excited after that game about the condition that he was in, and this wasn't even that long ago. It was like, 'Wow, he held up for 30-plus minutes in two out of three games. We're ramping it up. He's showing progress.' Well, here's a good way to throw away all those good feelings and all that progress and all that steady work over the last couple years from Embiid. Protect this many from himself. Of course he wants to be out there. That's the coach's job. And look, I've defended Brett Brown at every turn throughout The Process. I've never criticized him until this moment. I was, I don't want to say disgusted, but it was pretty close.