What Joel Embiid’s uncertain future means for the Sixers this season — and beyond

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On Sunday night, the Philadelphia 76ers made official what we all assumed was coming: Joel Embiid will undergo a surgical procedure to address his left meniscus injury.

The details coming from the team remain vague — “a corrective procedure this week to address an injury to the lateral meniscus in his left knee” is the information that was shared in public. The surgery “will address a displaced flap of the meniscus and he will be sidelined for (an) extended period of time,” according to The Athletic, and “the door isn’t closed” on a return this season, per ESPN.

This is massive news, one that will impact the Sixers’ season, their future, the upcoming trade deadline, the Eastern Conference standings and the MVP race. Let’s break it all down.

What does this mean for the Sixers?

They’re cooked. At least for this season. The door might not be closed on a return for Embiid this season, but let’s do some quick math. The playoffs begin April 20, just over 10 weeks from now. As sports injury expert Jeff Stotts points out below, the team won’t know the sort of timetable for a recovery until after the procedure. But it’s hard to imagine Embiid returning before the playoffs, or even in time for the first round.

It’s also worth pointing out here that there’s no guarantee the Sixers will reach the first round. They might be 30-18 on the season, but they’re 4-10 without Embiid in the lineup and there are three teams within striking distance of them in the Eastern Conference standings: The 28-13, sixth-place Indiana Pacers (3.5 games back); the 27-23, seventh-place Orlando Magic (five games back); and the 26-24, eighth-place Miami Heat (five games back). 

Do the Sixers have enough of a cushion to avoid the play-in tournament? The Pacers (if they can get Tyrese Haliburton healthy soon) and the Heat (who seemed to have found a bit of a rhythm after dropping seven in a row) could make it close. And given Embiid’s injury history, and how big he is, and how hard it’s been for him in the past to remain in peak physical shape when sidelined for an extended period of time, well, it would be stunning to see him suit up at any point before next fall.

What do the Sixers do at the trade deadline? 

Before Embiid went down, the Sixers were a championship contender looking for ways to bolster their roster. Remember, that was the whole goal of the James Harden deal — fetch enough assets in return to flip for another star. Tyrese Maxey’s emergence as a legitimate No. 2 option gave the Sixers some leeway in the sort of pieces they could target, but the goal was still to add talent before Thursday’s deadline. 

Now the Sixers have to look at things differently. They have two options: One is to see if they can find a big man to plug into the starting lineup and help the team hold the fort until Embiid returns. The other is to basically punt this season, hold on to their assets and prioritize maintaining the max cap space they’ll have this coming offseason. The bet here is that they could go through Door No. 2. 

What does this mean for the Eastern Conference?

With the Sixers seemingly off the board now, the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers are primed to make deep playoff runs. Both are surging (the Knicks own the league’s fifth-best net rating; the Cavs are seventh) and both have elite defenses. We’ll see how things go with Doc Rivers in Milwaukee, and you don’t ever want to count out Giannis Antetokounmpo, but there’s an opening here for both those squads — especially if they can climb up to the 2 or 3 seeds and avoid the Boston Celtics in the second round. With the trade deadline approaching, let’s see if either one of these teams’ respective front offices decide to up the aggression and take advantage of this opportunity.

What does this do for the MVP race?

Before the injury, Embiid was having an all-time season, and seemed like a lock to take home the MVP award for the second-straight season. Now, though, the race is open. Nikola Jokic is the new favorite (and if he does win it, he’d become just the ninth player in NBA history to win three MVPs), but there’s also room now for players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kawhi Leonard to swoop in. And think about what an MVP would do for Kawhi’s legacy — it’s the only award he doesn’t have. 

What does this mean for Embiid’s future?

This is the tougher question, but one that must be asked. Will we look back at this injury — and it occurring during this Embiid season — as sort of the inflection point of Embiid’s career? At what point do all the surgeries and all the injuries become too much for Embiid to overcome?

That’s not to say that his career is over. But it is fair to wonder whether the days of him scoring like Wilt Chamberlain and anchoring a defense like Rudy Gobert are now over. Will the Sixers have to turn him into a 30-minutes-per-game, 50-games-per-season type of player? Can they continue to construct systems in which everything on both ends of the floor is predicated on Embiid’s greatness? Watching Embiid over the past few years, but especially this season, where he basically perfected basketball, has been a treat. But I’m worried we may never see that player on the floor for an entire season again.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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