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How Joel Embiid's Injury Changes the 76ers and the NBA Playoffs

Joel Embiid’s injury spells trouble for any Sixers playoff dreams and adds an incredibly frustrating coda to the most thrilling Philly season since Allen Iverson left.

It's never a good sign when an NBA superstar posts live video from a hospital bed. And in case that wasn't clear enough, Joel Embiid added a caption—"Not good"—to make the message even clearer. But still, there was room for hope. The Sixers called the injury "a facial contusion" during their game Wednesday. Embiid passed the NBA's locker room concussion protocol at the game. Maybe it wasn't that serious? Mostly, there was room for hope because it seemed impossible that Markelle Fultz could return from a five–month absence with a bizarre shoulder injury, only to have his shoulder collide with Philadelphia's most beloved athlete in a generation, derailing the first healthy season Embiid he's enjoyed in his entire career. Even for the Sixers, that would be too Sixers. And yet here we are.

On Thursday night the bad news became official: Joel Embiid has a fractured orbital bone. He will miss 2–4 weeks, which means he will return close to the beginning of the NBA playoffs (April 14) or he could miss the first round entirely, a development that spells trouble for any Sixers playoff dreams and adds an incredibly frustrating coda to the most thrilling Philly season since Allen Iverson left.

For now, this development will handicap the Sixers in some obvious ways. Embiid was a borderline MVP candidate this year. He's Rudy Gobert's defense crossed with Karl-Anthony Towns offense. With Embiid on the floor this season, the Sixers have a 111.4 offensive rating—a number that would rank No. 4 in the NBA—and a 99.7 defensive rating—a number that would rank best in the league. Without Embiid the ratings slip to 105.7 on defense (No. 14) and 101.8 on offense (No. 27). Anyone who watches the Sixers can see his impact on both ends of the floor, but there's a good argument that he's been even more dominant this season than most people realize.


As for the rest of the 76ers' roster: Markelle Fultz is completely blameless for his role in what was clearly a freak accident, but yes, his cursed rookie year continues. Ben Simmons will now have an opportunity to prove that it wasn't just Embiid driving his team's success, and how he fares in that role could swing a Rookie of the Year race with Donovan Mitchell that has been dead-even for months. And everyone's favorite intriguing third big man, Richaun Holmes, will have more opportunities after a year in which he's mostly been marginalized behind Embiid. 

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J.J. Redick and Robert Covington will get more opportunities to help from the wing, and Marco Belinelli will get his shots up. Also: Sixers home games have given us some of the wildest crowds in the league this season. Those fans should get even wilder as the team tries to salvage things shorthanded.

Whatever happens, if we're keeping this specific to Philly's outlook, there are two big silver linings. First: this year was never supposed to be the season where everything clicked for Team Process. The franchise is playing to contend for titles a season or two down the line—Philly has max cap space this summer—and that timeline remains in tact. Likewise: On the scale of freak accidents that could befall Embiid and drive everyone into a depression, "2–4 weeks" isn't nearly as devastating as the injury timelines that the Sixers have been concerned about over the past few years. It could be worse.

It's still pretty terrible, though, and not just for Philly. A year of healthy Embiid injected new life into the league. For the past three weeks, every conversation I've had about the playoffs has started with the Sixers and what's possible in April and May. Process playoff questions have replaced LeBron's free agency as the go-to small talk for anyone who cares about basketball. Are they really as good as they've looked for the past few weeks? What could do they against the Cavs? How many teams in the East are secretly praying to avoid them? Are they the 2010 Thunder (first–round loss the Lakers) or the 2011 Thunder (went to the Finals)?

"We have enough fire power in this room to really cause some disturbances in the ecosystem of the East," 76ers coach Brett Brown said earlier this week. If Embiid can't make it back to the court in the next few weeks, that's not true anymore. That scenario comes with some obvious implications for the Sixers and the rest of East—Toronto, Indiana and Cleveland will sleep better—but more than anything else, it means the next month gets less entertaining for everyone.

So while we wait to see how Embiid's orbital bone heals, it's morbid, but I think the league–wide dread over this news might be the best testament yet to just how much Embiid and the Sixers have actually accomplished this year. A year ago it was impossible to imagine Embiid staying healthy for an entire season, and a year later it's pretty tough to get excited for the playoffs without him.