Remember January 25th, when the Sixers beat the Milwaukee Bucks, without Joel Embiid, to earn their eighth victory in 10 games, their 10th in 13 games, and their ninth win in just 12 tries in the calendar year? There was a time — just two weeks ago — when the Sixers were the hottest team in the NBA and Embiid’s talk of making the playoffs seemed not only possible, but feasible.
The Sixers have lost five straight games, seven of their last eight, and Embiid has only played in one. He has missed seven straight games and 10 of the team’s last 11.
“He’s coming along fine,” Brett Brown said after shoot around on Wednesday. “Nobody needs to worry that there’s anything deeper than that.”
Wednesday’s 111-103 loss to the San Antonio Spurs was hard-fought without him, but Brown’s team was outmanned, again, against a better team.
At 18-34, the Sixers again have the second-worst record in the East, the fourth worst in the NBA, and cheers of ‘Trust the Process’ and ‘MVP’ are being drowned out by frustration and disappointment.
It’s hard to trust the process when the head coach says the team is ‘just being cautious’ with Embiid’s knee after he fell more than two weeks ago. There is surely more to it, with four prevailing (conspiracy) theories to run through.
Theory 1: ‘Extreme Caution’
“There is no conspiracy theory going on,” Brown told the media before Wednesday’s game. “I believe that we’re going to see him not too far away.”
Brown also said, via Corey Seidman at CSN Philly, “It is taking so long because we are just erring, we will err on extreme caution. Joel is as good a fighter as I’ve coached in regards to challenging everybody.”
Long-term, Embiid is probably going to be fine, but missing seven straight games is very extreme when he played 28 minutes on national TV against the Rockets before the absence, and after missing three games prior to that. With the All-Star break coming soon, and Embiid slated to participate in the Rising Stars game on Friday and Saturday’s skills challenge, fans are understandably frustrated with how extreme this caution seems to be.
Nobody really thought the Sixers were going to make the playoffs, but at 17-27 (.386), there was hope. At 18-34 (.346) there is none. The Sixers have 30 games remaining in the season and will have to go 23-7 just to get back to .500. To make the playoffs? They’ll need to win at least 20.
Maybe it is time for some conspiracy theories.
Theory 2: He’s hurt, they’re lying
Brett Brown is a forthright guy, but there are times when the coach just can’t tell people what he may want to say. With injury timetables always fluctuating, it’s hard to put a hard number on when a player will return — he refused to say when Embiid will be back and the Ben Simmons conversation has become a repetitive loop of ‘he’s coming along’ at this point — but maybe the team isn’t just being cautious. Maybe Embiid is really too hurt to play.
Why Sixers beat writers have to get ‘sources’ to tell them that information and the team won’t say that is incredibly frustrating. When the lead soundbite from the coach is that Embiid is ‘fine’ — Brown did say more than that, but the takeaway was that he’s fine — it makes people think the Sixers are liars. (Or, more to the point, maybe the Sixers are liars.)
The Sixers have turned their favor in the city around. People care about the team again, thanks to Embiid’s presence both in the Philly and, more specifically, on the court. Telling people the day of the game he won’t play, and the timetable for when he will is still up in the air, feels disingenuous. People buy tickets expecting to see the best player in a decade on the court. Hoping at least.
If he’s hurt, he’s hurt. But when the team throws out words like “fine” and he doesn’t play for two weeks, paying customers get mad, and everyone starts to wonder if something else is going on. (Insert tank image here.)
Theory 3: Trade Bait
Jahlil Okafor started for the Sixers on Wednesday, playing 25 minutes. He scored 20 points and grabbed eight boards, shooting 10-for-11 from the free throw line.
He was a minus 12. The Sixers lost by eight.
Okafor is averaging 11.8 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, logging just 23.2 minutes. That’s obviously not the whole story, as the second-year center has played in just 36 games, sitting for a few recent games with his own knee injury, while being benched in many others.
Okafor has only played in nine games in 2017, riding the pine in 11. He has, however, played in four of the last five, logging 24 minutes or more, and scoring 16 or more points three times. And yet, minus 12, minus 15, minus 13, minus 17.
When Okafor is on the floor, the Sixers struggle to keep up with their opponents. Nerlens Noel had a plus/minus of zero last night. Against the Pistons, he was minus 1 to Okafor’s minus 15 and the Sixers lost by 17. Now, it’s not like Noel has been fantastic and he’s not getting minutes, as was the case earlier in the season. Noel and Okafor are ostensibly splitting time with Embiid out, and in the game Okafor didn’t play either, Noel was dreadful against Hassan Whiteside and the Miami Heat, a minus 15 in the 23-point blowout loss.
Okafor, however, is the guy higher up the trade block. There were rumors last week about Chicago, then a report that Bryan Colangelo is in talks with as many as eight teams, with New Orleans the most likely trade partner.
It’s surprising that Okafor hasn’t been dealt yet, with how hot the Pelicans rumor was earlier in the week. The hangup is reportedly about what protection the pick the Sixers would get back might be. Okafor, remember, was the third pick in the draft, so if the Pelicans won’t give up enough in return, or lock the pick outside the top 15, it might not be worth the move.
Still, it does make sense that the Sixers are showcasing their two bigs on the block, as Noel could possibly be dealt instead, or as well. Noel has less time left on his contract and there’s no guarantees he’s going to be willing to stick around for mid-level money to serve as Embiid’s backup. Ideally, the Sixers could deal both either before the deadline or in the off-season, then showcase Richaun Holmes more and supplement that with a veteran big man who doesn’t mind being a bench guy.
No matter what happens in the future, it’s clear that Okafor getting more minutes — even with him being routinely exposed on the defensive end — is giving teams a look at what he can do with the ball. It’s not a reason to keep Embiid out of the lineup, but it may be a decent byproduct.
Theory 4: Tanking…again
We need to stop this. The Sixers aren’t tanking the season again. That’s just lazy sports talk banter.
The Sixers have the Lakers’ first round pick if it falls outside the top three, plus the rights to swap picks with Sacramento. Should the Lakers (again) get a top-three pick, the Sixers get that pick next year no matter where it falls. They also have a bunch of second-round picks and the Kings’ 2019 first rounder, in addition to all their own picks.
Tanking, like they did the last few years, makes no sense. Sitting Embiid just to get a better draft pick is ridiculous, when the entire process (read: Process) is predicated on his development. Brown abandoned the two center lineup because he thought it was hurting Embiid’s development.
Sitting Simmons just because they want to lose makes even less sense. Simmons is the key to this rebuild every bit as much as Embiid, if only to figure out what position he’s going to play in the NBA. If he’s a power forward, then what will the Sixers do with Ilyasova and Saric long term? If he’s a small forward or point forward, then that’s a position they won’t need to focus on as much in the draft. And if he’s a true point guard…well that changes everything.
The Sixers only have 30 games before the next draft to figure that out.
Sitting these two guys in order to lose games on purpose this season, with all their other elements, is foolish. Brown and Colangelo know that. But it’s become a thing in the city because the Eagles aren’t worth talking about, the Flyers aren’t worth talking about, the Phillies haven’t started yet and there’s hours to fill on radio and inches to fill in print.
Theory…5: All of the Above
To be clear, I do not subscribe to this theory, but if the Sixers can finish with a worse record than the Lakers, the likelihood of Los Angeles falling outside the top 3 is higher. The odds of a team with the third-worst record landing in the top three is 47 percent. The odds of the fourth-worst team is 38 percent.
That’s significant, but it’s also incredibly cynical to think the Sixers are sitting Embiid just so they can finish with a worse record than the Lakers in hopes of getting their pick this year.
The Sixers know they can’t win with Okafor, but they also know that sitting him isn’t raising his trade value. We’ve seen what we need to see from Embiid for the future, and while more time on the court is key to his long-term growth, in the next two weeks, maybe it’s better to showcase the two bigs Colangelo will be trading soon.
And…and maybe Embiid is really hurt. And also maybe the Sixers are just being extremely cautious.
And maybe Embiid will go to the All-Star game and play in the Rising Stars game and otherwise reasonable Sixers fans will want to burn down the Wells Fargo Center. It’s going to be an interesting few weeks, conspiracies or not.