Joel Embiid’s Knee Injury Has Sixers’ Season Hanging In The Balance

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 12: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers is helped up after getting … [+]

The Philadelphia 76ers’ fairy-tale season came crashing back to reality Friday.

In the third quarter of the Sixers’ 127-101 victory over the Washington Wizards, All-Star center Joel Embiid landed awkwardly after a dunk and immediately grabbed for his left knee.

Embiid eventually got up and hobbled to the locker room without assistance. According to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, he seemed to be saying “I’m all right,” but it was “hard to tell.”

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The big man is set to undergo an MRI upon his return to Philadelphia, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the results of which will determine the Sixers’ fate over the remainder of the season.

“He just fell awkwardly,” head coach Doc Rivers said about Embiid’s injury after the game. “I thought there was a little contact when he went up to dunk the ball. Thought he fell with his balance off. I’m not going to speculate, tomorrow we’ll know, we’ll have all the information for you. Hoping for the best. I did talk to him, he was in the locker room. He’s in pretty good spirits, so let’s just hope for the best.”

It’s no exaggeration to say Embiid was playing at an MVP-caliber level over the first half of the season. Most oddsmakers had him favored to win the award heading into Friday night, as he entered the game averaging a career-high 30.2 points on 52.1 percent shooting, 11.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals for the Eastern Conference-leading Sixers.

Losing him for an extended period of time—much less the rest of the season—would likely be a death blow to the Sixers’ chances of winning a title this year.

With Embiid on the floor this season, the Sixers are averaging 117.9 points per 100 possessions, which trails only the Brooklyn Nets’ league-leading mark of 118.4. When he’s on the bench, they’re averaging only 104.2 points per 100 possessions, which is one-tenth of a point behind the Cleveland Cavaliers’ league-worst mark of 104.3.

Bench-heavy units share some blame for the anemic scoring sans Embiid, but the Sixers have designed their offense to run through the big man. He leads the team with a 34.1 usage rate, while none of his other teammates are even above 24. Embiid also ranks second on the team with 76.0 touches per game, trailing only Ben Simmons’ 87.8, and he’s third in the league with 51.5 frontcourt touches per game.

When the Sixers’ half-court offense gets stagnant, Embiid has proved capable of single-handedly destroying double- and triple-teams, as he did Friday against the Wizards prior to his injury.

Embiid’s combination of scoring touch, physicality and footwork makes him a nightmare to defend, which is why he leads the league with 11.6 free-throw attempts per game. Not only does that help the Sixers generate easy points—he’s knocking down his freebies at a career-high 85.6 percent clip—but it also gets opposing bigs into foul trouble, weakening the opponent’s frontcourt.

There’s no better way to sum up Embiid’s value to the Sixers than this: They’re outscoring opponents by 12.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, while they’re being outscored by 4.3 with him off the floor. That 16.3-point swing is more than five points higher than the next-highest mark from a rotation member (Seth Curry’s plus-11.0).

The Sixers do still have Dwight Howard and Tony Bradley, both of whom performed admirably in Embiid’s absence in Thursday’s win over the Chicago Bulls and after he went down Friday. They’ve built a large enough lead in the East that they should maintain a spot in the playoffs either way, but they’d be a clear tier below the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks without Embiid.

The results of his MRI will thus determine the Sixers’ trajectory heading into the March 25 NBA trade deadline. If they don’t expect him back to full strength by the playoffs, they’ll have less incentive to swing for the fences on a win-now trade for a veteran such as Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry.

For now, the Sixers can only wait and hope.

“We don’t do anything right now because we don’t have any information, so we’re just gonna wait,” Rivers said. “I thought our guys took care of the game, which is great, and then tomorrow we’ll get some more information and then we’ll go from there. Listen, it’s a long season, so at the end of the day, hopefully it’s not something where we lose him, obviously. But our guys will be good, we’ll be ready.”

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,

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