As reported by Keith Pompey on Saturday, and fully processed by me nearly 48 hours later, Joel Embiid’s injury has reached the point where he will require another surgery. This surgery likely puts to rest any hope that Embiid, the third overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft, will play a game this upcoming season.
If you’re superstitious, you can blame me. One day prior to this news breaking, I bet someone that Embiid would play 30 games this season. I am almost certain to lose this bet.
Sam Hinkie confirmed the seriousness of the setback and the likelihood that Embiid will not step on the floor for the Sixers this year. Other sources quoted by Pompey theorized that the injury could be career threatening, citing Yao Ming’s similar foot fracture as a comparison.
The somber nature of the those first three paragraphs and the title of this post does not derive from a Sixers fan disappointed that the team’s chances to compete with the league’s best decreasing (they have, but more on that in a bit). No, my emotional reaction to this news is as a basketball fan and a human being.
Joel Embiid is, by all accounts, a top level NBA prospect. He is a 7’2 center who moves like a gazelle, has developed a muscular frame, has instincts well beyond his level of experience, and a soft shooting touch. His swift, precise footwork harkens back to his childhood playing soccer, and his athleticism and body type flourished in his time as a volleyball player. If you wanted to build a big man who’d be successful in today’s NBA in a lab, I’m not sure you could do any better than Joel Embiid.
We may never see him get the opportunity to live up to that potential. Sure, he looks like he was built by a basketball scientist, but at a certain point, his size is a burden. Embiid fractured a key bone in his foot at age 19, as he acclimated to a new sport, one which his body was still getting used to. He reportedly grew as much as two inches this year and put on a significant amount of weight (first due to his lack of activity, but he kept the weight on and built it into muscle). I have no medical knowledge, but logically, a body that big and still developing will make recovering from an injury to such an important piece of the body much more difficult. In 1985, Michael Jordan broke the same bone that Embiid and Yao Ming fractured. Ming never played again in the NBA. Jordan became Michael Jordan.
The thought that a player this talented may never play a single game in the NBA is tragic. Compounding that feeling is the widespread understanding that Joel Embiid is a person people would want to root for. Coaches, teammates, and fans have gushed about his charming personality. We’ve all laughed at his social media hi-jinks and his general sense of wonder. He beams fun and has been endless entertaining, without even stepping on the court. He’s the background of my cell phone’s lock screen!
If he became a great player, he had the extra something to make himself beloved in Philadelphia and a superstar across the country.
Now, that looks far less likely. Worse yet, he may never even get the chance to make it happen.
When the Sixers drafted Embiid, they knew the risks associated. He would have been one of the top two picks had he been healthy. But the Sixers had been through a similar process with Nerlens Noel and are absolutely in no hurry. His position, relative to Sam Hinkie’s plans and the Sixers franchise, has for the last two years, been one of hope and promise. He was the Sixers’ best chance to possess a top level NBA player. That may no longer be the case. “Healthy Joel Embiid” will continue to have the highest ceiling of any Sixers’ asset. The chances of him reaching that ceiling have obviously changed for the worse.
Hinkie opponents will now speak even louder. Their rallying cries do not change but they will grow in volume and fervor.
“You tanked for this?”
“There goes another season down the drain!”
Sure, the Sixers will not win as many games this year as they would if Embiid was healthy and could contribute. But these arguments don’t support one another. So many people who oppose tanking focus their eyes on specifics. When the Sixers did not win the lottery and didn’t land Andrew Wiggins, they called it a failure. Now that Embiid became the focal point of the rebuild, they’ll label his issues as a failure on the entire process of tanking. Rebuilding in the NBA is not about one player. In today’s NBA you can not win with just one player, and generational talents don’t just fall into your lap. To build your plans and strategy around one player or one draft would be ludicrous. Someone with the basketball and venture capital experience of Sam Hinkie is sure to know this.
Rebuilds take time because one offseason won’t change your fortunes. Draft picks are going to miss or bust for reasons both inside and outside of your control. Even in a perfect world, where you nail every pick, something can and will go wrong. If it doesn’t, you still need to amass multiple elite players, and role players capable of contributing at a high level. To expect all of that from one or two drafts is naive. Any rebuild requires patience. The Sixers have shown more patience than any team, possibly in NBA or even sports history. And they’ll continue to do so. Sam Hinkie has four first round picks in 2016, the rights to one of the best young players in Europe, and record levels of cap space (and the new TV deal set to explode the cap even further).
Rebuilding in the NBA is like playing bingo. Every trade and every draft pick is another card sitting in front of you, a chance to win. Sam Hinkie is the little old lady in the front row with 30 cards in front, marking them all after each ball rolls out of the hopper.
It’s that war-chest of assets that work as a safety net in this rebuild. If most other struggling NBA teams lost their top prospect or their most valued asset, they’d be lost. The Hinkie plan rolls on.
Embiid’s injury may well be serious enough to warrant two years off the court. But who knows if any other franchise would be patient enough to wait that long? Were he a New York Knick or a Sacramento King, would he have played by now? Would they continue to be this cautious? Kevin Durant was rushed back to the court after suffering a similar injury and then re-injured his foot.
Joel Embiid may never play a game of professional basketball, but this is why you tank for this long. If he never plays, you haven’t put all of your eggs into one basket. Maybe Jahlil Okafor is a franchise player. Maybe Dario Saric is. Or one of their four first round picks in 2016.
The chances that Joel Embiid becomes an elite NBA player have taken a serious hit. The chances that the Sixers acquire or develop the elite level of talent required to compete in the NBA have taken a much smaller hit.
It’s a setback for “The Process”, but merely that. For Embiid and for basketball as a whole, it may be more damning. Adjust your emotions accordingly.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.
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