WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 12: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts after getting injured in … [+]
When Joel Embiid landed awkwardly after a dunk Friday against the Washington Wizards, it appeared as though his season might be over.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Shams Charania of The Athletic, that isn’t the case.
Considering Embiid’s importance to the Sixers and the degree to which his left knee bent the wrong way, that diagnosis is just about the best-case scenario.
If Embiid returns on the early end of that timetable, he’ll miss the Sixers’ next seven games and come back for their road tilt against the Los Angeles Clippers on March 27. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they play it cautiously and hold him out through their six-game road trip beginning March 21, which means he’d miss at least 10 games and sit out through April 1.
The Sixers do have some tough tests over that stretch, including a home game against the Milwaukee Bucks and road tilts against the Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets. Seven of their next 10 games come against teams that are currently in the playoff bracket, and their other three are against the Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. If Embiid misses all 10, they’d be fortunate to break even at 5-5.
Until Embiid returns, the Sixers figure to turn to Dwight Howard and Tony Bradley at center. While neither can replicate what Embiid brings to the table on both ends of the court, they’ve proved capable of holding down the fort.
The 35-year-old Howard is nowhere near the player he was in his prime, when he made received eight straight All-Star Game nods and won Defensive Player of the Year in three consecutive seasons, but he remains a ferocious rebounder and shot-blocker. (He’s perhaps too ferocious when pursuing blocks, as he’s been called for six goaltending violations this season, which puts him in a four-way tie for the third-most in the league.)
Howard is grabbing a career-high 17.9 percent of all offensive rebounds while he’s on the floor and 25.5 percent of all rebounds, the latter which is the third-highest mark among all players who have played at least 500 minutes this season. He isn’t the type of go-to, three-level scorer that Embiid is, but he remains an offensive threat on lobs, putbacks after offensive rebounds and easy dunks around the basket.
Other than his propensity for goaltending, turnovers are the biggest hiccup with Howard. He’s already been called for 28 offensive fouls in 38 games, and as ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted Friday, he’s giving the ball away on 24.6 percent of his possessions, which trails only Draymond Green and DeAndre Jordan.
Howard has been serving as the Sixers’ primary backup center even with Embiid healthy, so he’s more or less a known quantity. Bradley, meanwhile, is somewhat of a mystery box.
The 23-year-old will likely fill in for Embiid as the Sixers’ starting center, if head coach Doc Rivers’ recent lineup decisions are any indications. (He prefers to keep Howard with the bench unit to allow them to continue developing chemistry with one another.) Bradley has played only 11.3 minutes per game across 14 appearances this season, but his performance Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls was eye-opening.
With Embiid sidelined by the NBA’s health and safety protocols, Bradley drew only his second start of the season and made the most of it. He finished with 14 points on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting, five rebounds and three blocks in less than 22 minutes in the blowout 127-105 victory over Chicago.
Like Howard, Bradley does not have the same variety of tricks in his offensive bag that Embiid does. However, he’s able to finish around the rim after establishing deep post position or on pick-and-rolls, so the Sixers may not have to overhaul their entire offense in Embiid’s absence.
If nothing else, Embiid’s injury likely cements Bradley’s spot on the Sixers through the March 25 NBA trade deadline. Team president Daryl Morey might have used his $3.5 million expiring contract as salary flotsam in a bigger deal, but he’ll now be playing too critical of a role over the next few weeks to get moved in that fashion.
Embiid’s upcoming absence will likely end his chances of winning this year’s Most Valuable Player award, but that’s a trade-off both he and the Sixers should gladly make if it means he’s back healthy by the playoffs. As deserving as he is of individual hardware, Giannis Antetokounmpo can vouch for how little it means without a championship at the end of the season.
The injury is undeniably a blow to both Embiid and the Sixers, who may struggle to stave off the Brooklyn Nets at the top of the East without him. Although it may cost them home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, it’s far more preferable to not seeing Embiid play basketball again until 2022.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.
I cover the Philadelphia 76ers and NBA salary-cap issues for Forbes. I’ve been writing about the NBA since 2009 on websites such as Bleacher Report, BBALLBREAKDOWN,