Sixers wonder how good they’d be if Embiid was healthy
The 76ers wonder: “What if?”
What if, after establishing himself as one of the NBA’s elite big men, Joel Embiid hadn’t suffered a season-ending meniscus tear in his left knee?
“A lot of us talk about it all the time,” T.J. McConnell said. “Not only Joel, but Ben 1/8Simmons3/8. If we had everyone that was supposed to play, I don’t think the game on Wednesday 1/8against the New York Knicks3/8 would be our last game of the year.”
But McConnell went to say that Embiid was and still is the team’s focal point. He’s the reason there’s a belief that the Sixers will make a strong playoff push next season.
“If you can tell me there’s 1/8another3/8 guy that’s scoring 20-plus points a game in 25 minutes, I’d like to know who it is,” McConnell said.
Embiid’s ability to do that – he averaged 20.2 points in 25.4 minutes – is one of the reason why the Sixers are optimistic about their future. That is, of course, assuming that the center can stay healthy. It’s also the reason he’s still receiving rookie of the year consideration despite playing in just 31 games this season. The Sixers were 13-18 with their rookie center in the lineup.
Embiid advocates will tell you that the number of games should not matter. They believe the way he impacted the games he played in should be taken into account.
One can argue that only a handful of players – Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, Houston’s James Harden, Cleveland’s LeBron James, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard – had a bigger say in the outcome of their teams’ games than Embiid.
“He’s one of the best rim protectors in the NBA even before you get to the offense,” Sixers guard Nik Stauskas said. “He was the backbone of our defense.”
On the offensive end, Embiid was the guy the Sixers (28-52 before Monday’s game) knew they rely on when things broke down.
“Not only could he score pretty much whenever he wanted, he would get the other team in foul trouble,” Stauskas said, “and find people for cuts or open threes. So our offense was kind of running through him, as it should be.”
At 7-foot-2 and 275 pounds, Embiid was a handful to deal with in the low post. He also had a knack for hitting 3-pointers.
And the league took notice.
He was the Eastern Conference rookie of the month in November, December, and January. Embiid was also the conference’s player of the week for Jan. 16-22.
He was nearly chosen as an All-Star starter and then as a reserve despite his restricted playing time. The rookie center also was benched for the second of back-to-back games. The team made an effort to keep him healthy after he missed the last two seasons following surgeries on the navicular bone in his right foot.
Embiid still managed to become the seventh NBA rookie to average at least 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks. The others were Charlotte’s Alonzo Mourning (1992-93), Orlando’s Shaquille O’Neal (1992-93), San Antonio’s David Robinson (1989-90) and Tim Duncan (1997-98), and Houston’s Ralph Sampson (1983-84) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1984-85).
Embiid also joins the Philadelphia Warriors’ Wilt Chamberlain (1959-60) as the only rookies to average at least 28.7 points per 36 minutes played.
“The thing I get most excited about with Joel is he has such a long ways to go,” coach Brett Brown said. “He is just scratching the surface of what ultimately he’s going to be.”
A novice to the game, Embiid didn’t start playing organized basketball until 2011. Then he missed a lot of time because of injuries.
A stress fracture in Embiid’s lower back kept him out of the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments during his lone season at Kansas in 2013-14. Embiid hurt his back on Feb. 8, 2014, in a game against West Virginia. He aggravated the injury on March 1, 2014, at Oklahoma State.
The third overall pick of the 2014 draft had his first two NBA seasons wiped out because of the foot surgeries. His final game this season was on Jan. 27 because of the meniscus tear and a bone bruise in his knee.
Embiid had knee surgery on March 24 in Los Angeles. The Sixers anticipate that he’ll resume basketball activities in the summer. They’ll be eager to welcome him back into the fold next season.
“He does everything, really,” McConnell said. “He commands double teams, which gets us open shots. … He’s a threat in every aspect of the game. There aren’t many like him.”