Playoffs 2021

Joel Embiid: What does injury to star centre mean for Philadelphia 76ers?

The Philadelphia 76ers appeared to be on their way to a first-round sweep of the Washington Wizards, taking a 3-0 lead into Game 4.

When All-Star centre Joel Embiid went down with an injury midway through the first quarter, the idea of a sweep would soon be washed away.

The Wizards would go on to defeat the 76ers in overtime without the MVP candidate, recording their first win of the series.

How did Joel Embiid get injured?

Embiid suffered a hard fall in the first frame and appeared to have hurt his back, leaving the game immediately.

Embiid was seen stretching his right leg on the sidelines before trying to re-enter the game, but he headed back to the locker room after a quick stint back on the floor. He spent the entire second quarter in the locker room before the 76ers officially deemed the star big man out for the remainder of the game with right knee soreness at halftime.

How long will Joel Embiid be out?

According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Embiid has been diagnosed with a small meniscus tear in his right knee and is considered day-to-day, but he will be out for Game 5.

It makes sense that Philadelphia would take a precautious approach with the 7-footer's knees. He was forced to miss nearly a month of action back in March with a bone bruise on his left knee and he had an awkward fall back in February that hyper-extended his right knee, although he avoided missing any time for that particular ailment.

Embiid missed a total of 21 games this season between knee and back injuries. His 76ers went 10-11 in those contests compared to 39-12 in the 51 games he suited up for.

How the 76ers have fared without Joel Embiid

If the top-seeded team in the East is forced to try and close out this series - and potentially beyond - without their superstar centre, what might that look like?

If the numbers are any indication it ... might not be pretty.

Joel Embiid's on/off stats in 2021 Playoffs
Minutes Off. Rating Def. Rating Net Rating
On court 95.0 138.0 103.4 34.7
Off court 97.0 100.0 107.7 -7.7

The 38-point differential per 100 possessions on offence is jaw-dropping in its own, but the overall 42.4-point differential per 100 possessions with Embiid off of the floor is more than troublesome for Philly.

According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, Embiid's on/off point differential marks the eighth-largest of any player in the 2021 NBA Playoffs so far.

And while four games is certainly a small sample size for those numbers, the regular season on/off splits don't look all that much different.

Joel Embiid's on/off stats in 2020-21 regular season
Off. Rating Def. Rating Net Rating
On court 117.8 105.8 12.0
Off court 106.6 106.5 0.1

That just further clarifies that the Sixers have struggled mightily all season to produce offence without its go-to scorer

Rivers went to veteran centre Dwight Howard and reserve forward Mike Scott to fill Embiid's minutes for the remainder of Game 4, but that tandem didn't handle much business.

Wizards star Russell Westbrook had a field day on the glass with 21 rebounds, and Howard and Scott failed to present much of an impact elsewhere. Howard finished with just one point and four rebounds in 15 minutes while Scott had zero points, going 0-for-4 from the field, 0-for-3 from 3-point range and just two rebounds in 18 minutes.

With the game on the line in the fourth quarter and overtime, Rivers elected to slide All-Star guard Ben Simmons to centre, a look we've seen from the Embiid-less Sixers several times this season.

Is going small without Joel Embiid the answer?

Where things get difficult moving forward is that Rivers has been hesitant to play Simmons and Howard at the same time this season, since the combination doesn't present much of a scoring threat at all. According to Basketball-Reference, of Simmons' most common two-man lineups this season, his 367 minutes playing alongside Howard marks his worst net rating (-8.7) with any teammate.

Presumably, because of those reasons, we've only seen the two players share the court for a total of 4.3 minutes in this series, according to NBA stats.

If Embiid isn't available for Game 5, will Rivers start Simmons at centre? Will he give in and see what a Simmons-Howard frontcourt looks like to prevent Westbrook and bigs like Daniel Gafford from dominating the glass again?

The 76ers will have one day to get things situated before hosting the Wizards for a potential series-clinching Game 5 in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

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