Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid hardly could have picked a worse time to suffer an injury. The All-Star big man broke his orbital bone and was concussed in a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz Wednesday, and ESPN's Zach Lowe reported Thursday that Embiid is expected to miss 2-4 weeks, making him questionable for the first round of the playoffs, which begins on April 14. Embiid has a chance to make it back prior to the playoffs, but four weeks from the night of Embiid's injury is April 25—if he takes the full length of his reported timetable, he could risk missing the 76ers' entire first-round series.
Philadelphia played the Atlanta Hawks without Embiid Friday night and won with relative ease, entering the fourth quarter up 27 points and finishing the night with a 10-point victory. Ben Simmons was his typical dynamic self, posting his 11th triple-double of the season. Power forward Ersan Ilyasova saw an expanded role in Embiid's absence, playing 30 minutes, and he responded well with a big 21-point, 16-rebound performance. Every starter had a plus-minus of plus-10 or higher, and first overall pick Markelle Fultz continued to round into form with 10 points (4-of-8 shooting), two steals, and no turnovers.
The 76ers are a strong, well-rounded team, but once they make it to the playoffs, their competition will be much tougher than this 21-55 Hawks team, which didn't even have top gun Dennis Schroder. Who the 76ers will play remains up in the air in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff race—they could end up facing anyone from LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers to a Miami Heat team with nine players averaging double-digit points per game. Against teams like those, would the 76ers have a chance to advance to the second round if Embiid is on the sideline?
Friday was Embiid's 12th missed game of the season. With the win, Philadelphia is now just 4-8 without Embiid in the lineup. The team's winning percentage drops from 65.1 with Embiid to 33.3 without him. They have some solid wins (Denver and Utah on the road, as well as potential first-round opponent Miami), but the losses definitely stand out more (a 34-point defeat at the hands of Toronto, losses to Chicago and Sacramento on back-to-back nights). Looking at that track record, it seems virtually impossible for the Embiid-less 76ers to beat a playoff-caliber opponent in a best-of-seven series.
That being said, there are a few reasons to believe that Philadelphia will be better without Embiid this time around than they were without him earlier this season.
The first reason is the presence of Ilyasova, who wasn't on the team for Embiid's first 11 missed games. He was a monster in the absence of Embiid Friday, and it seems like head coach Brett Brown is willing to play the natural power forward at the center position. Ilyasova has been prone to the occasional outburst of scoring throughout his career and can hit the glass hard, which are aspects the 76ers desperately lacked in past games without Embiid. Ilyasova has nine 20-plus-point performances in 61 games this season, and he is a strong shooter (44.3 career three-point field-goal percentage). A big man who can space the floor is crucial to the success of players like Simmons and Fultz, who thrive on their ability to get inside and create looks for themselves and teammates. The center position was missing floor-spacing ability in Embiid's prior missed games, but Ilyasova can now fill that void.
We're also talking about a young team that gets better with each additional game it gets under its belt. Simmons and Fultz are ultra-talented rookies, and Dario Saric is in just his second year—these players are getting better and building chemistry every time they take the court together. In addition, Fultz wasn't even available for 10 of Embiid's first 11 missed games due to a shoulder injury, and he's now finally starting to look comfortable on the NBA hardwood at the end of a rocky debut season.
With sharpshooters J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli (another midseason addition), three-and-D specialist Robert Covington, and grinder Amir Johnson perfectly filling their specific roles, the 76ers are by no means a pushover, even without Embiid in the fold.
Of course, the Eastern Conference playoff teams look much stronger than they have in recent years, and the 76ers have yet to prove that they can consistently beat decent teams without their best player. The additions of players like Ilyasova and Belinelli certainly help Philadelphia, as does the still-blossoming talent of youngsters like Simmons, Fultz, and Saric, but without Embiid, one has to think that the 76ers will be underdogs against whomever they face in the first round.
Hopefully, Embiid will get healthy quickly and make it back by the time the playoffs get started, but his health can obviously not be taken for granted. The 76ers have a strong enough team to put up a fight against any of their likely first-round opponents, but the loss of Embiid is significant, and Philadelphia is not built quite as well as a team like, let's say, the Spurs, who are capable of racking up wins against top teams without their most dangerous weapon.
Here's to hoping Embiid makes a quick recovery, because the Process was just starting to pick up steam.