Joel Embiid has a torn meniscus. Now what?
Hello darkness, my old friend. Joel Embiid has once again fallen to injury amidst a playoff run, this time with a slight lateral tear of the meniscus in his right knee. He will not play in Game 5 against the Washington Wizards, and is considered day-to-day in the short term.
This comes as a crushing blow to Embiid and the Sixers. As the No. 1 seed in an Eastern Conference with only three serious contenders, they were in pole position to get to the Conference Finals unscathed. But as luck would have it, Embiid suffered the tear on Monday night, in Game 4 of the Conference Quarterfinals. Philly was up 3-0 heading into the Memorial Day meeting; now they have a 3-1 lead that could easily be blown.
Games 1 and 4, the two in which Embiid played the least, were the closest of the series. The other two were convincing victories for the Sixers. The rest of this series is going to be a dogfight without Embiid. And if the Wizards are a tough pull for the non-Embiid version of this team, this playoff run is going to be short. Very short.
As one of the most injury-riddled sports teams of the century, the Sixers have a lot of test cases for what happens when X player gets Y injury. Every injury is different, and those outside of Embiid's camp are only privy to so much information, but going off what we know is all we can do. And what we know is that Embiid tore his meniscus.
This thread by Jeff Stotts explains the injury and some context pretty well. In summary: Embiid might be able to play through the injury, but he will have to constantly nurture it and hope that he doesn't make it worse. And even if that is doable, the most likely outcome at the end of the short-term playoff push is still surgery. This is a delicate situation that could have ripple effects for years to come.
As for the immediate term, Doc Rivers is going to have to get really creative. Dwight Howard has done a fine job eating backup center minutes, but it's clear that he's no more than that. Games that Embiid misses entirely will require some radical lineups.
Is Ben Simmons ready to be a full-time center? The numbers suggest otherwise. Historically his minutes at the 5 haven't gone well, and we got a microdose of that at the end of Game 4. Despite generating over a point per possession from "Hack-a-Ben" (which is good offense, by the way), the Sixers couldn't close it out because they got blitzed on defense. Maybe the lineup wasn't ideal, but the cards around Simmons have been shuffled all kinds of ways. It simply hasn't worked.
There is hope, however. Simmons getting more touches a roller on offense, rather than in the dunker's spot, would open up the floor quite a bit. Seth Curry and him have a nice two-man game when they're allowed to, and now he's not the only member of the rotation that resembles a ball handler. George Hill and Tyrese Maxey are more than comfortable in the pick-and-roll, and Shake Milton's stock in this offense just went up too.
Defensively, they've got their work cut out for them. Putting Simmons at the defensive 5 neutralizes what makes him such a good defender. He should be out on the perimeter, wreaking havoc on whoever the opponent's best man is. He makes sense as part of a switch-heavy, positionless group, but the Sixers don't currently have the personnel to pull that off. Few teams do.
And that takes us to Mike Scott. There's not a soul in Sixerdom that wants to see him start a game, especially in the playoffs, but Rivers may have no choice. Simmons at the 5 doesn't make sense on defense, and Howard can't coexist with Simmons offensively. Scott is the team's middle ground for achieving competency on both ends.
The good news is that Scott's been here before. He was on the 2019 Sixers team that almost made the Conference Finals, and knows how to survive in a playoff environment. His job on offense will be to shoot when open and make the right play when not; if Simmons has a bigger role, those decisions should be easy to make.
Rivers is going to have to reach deep into his bag for the Sixers to make a deep playoff run. Zone defenses centered around Simmons and Matisse Thybulle are legitimately in play now. Four guards plus Simmons could be a lineup. Tobias Harris guarding 5s, like he did in the 2019 Toronto Raptors series, is on the table. Nothing should be out of the question.
Ultimately, the Sixers need Embiid to win a championship. But if they can survive the time that he's not on the court, that goal becomes much more attainable.