Joel Embiid might be the most star-crossed figure in Philadelphia sports history. Who else compares? Perhaps Eric Lindros. More and more, the two seem kindred spirits, such obvious and marvelous talents, such a promise never quite fulfilled for reasons out of their control. The injuries. The mismanagement. The trap doors that they fall through again and again.
76ers revealed late Friday night that Embiid had suffered an orbital fracture and a concussion in the team’s series-closing victory Thursday night over the Raptors. Of course they did. The injuries will keep Embiid out of the lineup indefinitely. Of course they will.
They happened eight days after he tore a ligament in his right thumb during Game 3 — and hit the game-winning three-pointer anyway. Of course they did. No one knows whether he will be able to play in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat, a series that begins Monday night. Play? Only if his luck changes.
If Doc Rivers ever wanted to see a man who truly had circumstances conspiring against him, all he would have to do is look at Embiid. Better yet, if he could bring himself to stomach it, he could fire up a replay of Game 6, of a masterful Embiid performance — 33 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots — that ended in such sickening fashion.
With the Sixers up by 29 points and cruising to a 35-point victory, with less than four minutes left in regulation, with Embiid still on the floor even though Rivers had no good reason to keep him out there, Pascal Siakam drove toward the basket and, on his way there, drove his left elbow into Embiid’s face. Siakam was called for an offensive foul, but Embiid left the game and didn’t return, the damage done, his coach apparently so fearful of a miracle Raptors comeback and another indefensible postseason loss that he was derelict in his duty to protect the one player the Sixers couldn’t afford to lose.
“I think he broke my face,” Embiid told a TV reporter immediately after the game. “I’m serious. I think he might have broken my face, but it’s all good. It’s the playoffs.”
All good? Hardy. What Embiid had done already this season and in the Toronto series was admirable, worthy of a fresh new respect for a player who, early in his career, had been content to enjoy the life of NBA stardom, who needed time to mature and understand what it took to be genuinely great in the sport.
The two years he had missed after the Sixers drafted him in 2014, the foot surgeries, the back issues, his lack of discipline, his struggles to get into and stay in peak physical shape, the emotional breakdown after Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater broke the Sixers’ hearts in 2019: He had weathered those growing pains and, at last, seemed stronger and sterner for them. This season was the truest test of how far he’d come.
Ben Simmons had danced on the franchise, on his teammates, and though Embiid drew praise for speaking so frankly about the situation, for never being afraid to call out Simmons publicly, his more meaningful retort was the quality of his play. I have led the NBA in scoring. He, more than anyone, kept the Sixers a respectable club, bound for the playoffs, and gave Daryl Morey cause to think that if he could trade Simmons for a star or a collection of solid players, the team could be more than merely respectable.
No, Morey doesn’t pull the trigger at the trade deadline for James Harden if Embiid doesn’t have a season deserving of the league’s MVP award. And no, the Sixers aren’t beating the Heat without Embiid. Maybe he’ll come out of the concussion protocol without a problem. Maybe he’ll find a way to play through the orbital fracture and the torn ligament in his hand. Maybe Miami — the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, with Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo and a deep bench — would win this series anyway, even if Embiid were as healthy as he was halfway through the fourth quarter Thursday night.
The shame is, no one gets to see that series now. No one gets to see Joel Embiid at anything close to full strength, and it’s fair to wonder, after his latest misfortune from him, when anyone ever will.