What does Joel Embiid‘s injury mean to the Philadelphia 76ers‘ chances of reaching the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since drafting Embiid in 2014 as the centerpiece of their rebuilding process?
On Friday, the Sixers announced that Embiid suffered an orbital fracture and a concussion during the late stages of Thursday’s Game 6 win to close out the Toronto Raptors. Philadelphia did not offer a timetable for Embiid’s return.
With Game 1 of the 76ers’ conference semifinals matchup against the top-seeded Miami Heat set for Monday in Miami, Philly must prepare to play without Embiid, a finalist for the NBA’s MVP award this season. Embiid was a strong candidate in part because he played a career-high 68 games this season, missing just four since a stint in the NBA’s health and safety protocols in November.
Let’s take a look at how the Sixers might adjust their offense, with James Harden set to play without Embiid for the first time since being traded to Philadelphia as well as how quickly Embiid might return. Can he resume a breakthrough campaign and go deeper in the playoffs than ever before?
How Philadelphia’s attack must shift without Embiid
Embiid’s durability this season makes it difficult to predict how the 76ers will play in his absence. Remarkably, Harden has yet to play without Embiid, having missed both games (including a seven-point home loss to the Heat in March) that Embiid sat out after the trade deadline.
It’s hardly challenging to predict that Philadelphia’s attack will be different stylistically. Embiid has been an enormous part of the team’s offense; his 37% usage rate this season ranked 10th all-time since individual turnovers were tracked starting in 1977-78 (minimum 1,000 minutes) per Stathead.com. Given Embiid’s unique ability as a scorer in the post and out of isolations, the Sixers can’t shift those possessions to whoever replaces him in the lineup.
Instead, most of them will surely go to the perimeter trio of Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris. Harris boosted his scoring average per 36 minutes from 17.4 to 21.2 in nine games without Embiid this season, while Maxey’s skyrocketed from 16.2 to 24.8.
After veterans Paul Millsap and DeAndre Jordan proved lacking as backups for Embiid, Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers embraced using energetic second-year big man Paul Reed in those minutes late in the regular season and against Toronto. Reed solidified non-Embiid lineups, though the Raptors still outscored the Sixers by seven points in 44 minutes with Embiid on the bench and Harden on the court during the first round.
Harden and Reed have developed pick-and-roll chemistry, and Reed will undoubtedly play a key role in Embiid’s absence. Still, Philly’s best strategy with Embiid out might be to go small and stretch the floor with Georges Niang as a center.
Admittedly, the 6-foot-7 Niang provides limited resistance at the rim. His 13 blocks this season were a career high. That’s the reason Rivers all but abandoned using Niang at the 5 after experimenting with it early in the season; 72 of Niang’s 91 minutes as the Sixers’ center came in October and November, per analysis of lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats.
Philadelphia might need Niang’s floor spacing to give Harden and Maxey the ability to get to the basket when they beat their defenders in this series. Miami opponents attempted a league-low 17.3 shots per game in the restricted area, according to Second Spectrum tracking, a measure of how aggressively the Heat have protected the rim.
The flip side of that strategy: Miami also gives up 3-pointers in bunches, as an NBA-high 46% of their opponents’ shot attempts came from beyond the arc. Niang, a 40% career 3-point shooter who made a career-high 2.1 per game this season, can feast on those opportunities when his defenders help and make them think twice about crowding the paint.
Playing Niang at center might also be more palatable in this series because the Heat don’t put much pressure on the rim on offense. Their own 18.2 shot attempts per game in the restricted area were fourth lowest in the NBA, per Second Spectrum.
Why Embiid’s timetable is uncertain
Just how long Embiid might be out remains unclear. The timetable for orbital injuries often vary widely depending on the location and whether the bone is displaced. A handful of players who have suffered orbital injuries missed only a game or two, while others — including Embiid in March 2018 with an identical injury that required surgery — have been sidelined for an extended period.
Embiid suffered the injury on March 28 of that year and missed the remaining eight games of the regular season as well as the first two of the 76ers’ first-round series against Miami. He returned on April 19, 22 days later. Naturally, that kind of timetable would rule Embiid out for the entire series.
Unfortunately, serious orbital injuries are more common. Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com noted that the average time missed due to an orbital injury during the regular season is about 10 games.
Of course, even if Philadelphia gets a break on the severity of the orbital fracture, Embiid’s concussion is a serious concern in its own right. For Embiid to be able to return, he’ll first have to clear concussion protocol.
As a result, the Sixers should prepare to play at least the first couple of games of this series without Embiid, as they did in 2018. Back then, Philadelphia was able to split the first two games at home using a smaller lineup before winning the next three games after Embiid returned to finish off the Heat.
This time around, the 76ers will have to start on the road, making the timing of Embiid’s injury more difficult — especially with Miami potentially affected by injuries to Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry at the start of this series. With Harden, the 76ers have enough offense to win without Embiid, particularly if they go small.
The bigger questions are whether Philadelphia can get enough stops without their defensive anchor — and whether he’s able to return at all this series.
The betting market doesn’t seem optimistic about those answers. Before the Embiid news, the lines at Caesars Sportsbook (+150 for the Sixers, -180 for the Heat) implied a 38% chance of Philadelphia winning the series. The current line as of Friday night (+300 for the Sixers, -380 for the Heat) has cut that to 23%.
We’ll have a better idea after Game 1 whether Philly can find the right answers.