Can Joel Embiid Save the 76ers?

Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Adversity has a way of revealing truths that otherwise remain obscured during periods of normalcy. Sometimes, what we learn about ourselves while enduring a challenge can be positively life-changing, and the limits of what we thought was possible turn out to be arbitrary borders. Other times, we bitterly learn just how limited we actually are.

As the Philadelphia 76ers return from an empty trip to Miami facing a 2-0 hole in their Eastern Conference Semifinals series against the Heat, the franchise and its fans cannot have liked what they discovered about this roster.

The Sixers cannot survive in the postseason without their star center. As Joel Embiid goes, so go Philly’s playoff fortunes.

Well of course, an astute reader might declare, the team cannot win without its MVP candidate! And maybe that’s fair; perhaps it is too much to expect a group constructed around Joel Embiid’s talents to continue to stand for any length of time with the franchise cornerstone removed from the lineup.

It’s not just winning, however. This 76ers team simply cannot compete for four quarters with a Heat squad that lacks a transcendent talent like Embiid but features a deeply talented roster anchored by Jimmy Butler.

And, unlike the Sixers, Miami has demonstrated an ability to succeed in the playoffs despite injuries. The Heat closed out its first-round series against the Hawks with both Butler and Kyle Lowry out of action for the decisive Game 5. Although Butler, who has been dealing with inflammation in his right knee, has returned to the court, Lowry remains on the bench as he works through a hamstring injury.

After two largely noncompetitive games, the series shifts to Philadelphia. And once again, the only person who can keep the broomsticks in the closet is Embiid. If he can play, the Sixers can hold serve and return to Miami for a best-of-three contest. If not, the organization will once again fail to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs, which has become their ceiling during the Post-Process era.

Yes, Joel Embiid can make an incredible difference in this series, even if injuries to his thumb and face limit his production. With Embiid on the floor, do-it-all Heat center Bam Adebayo loses some of his versatility on the defensive end, opening up space on the court for Tyrese Maxey and James Harden to exploit. Embiid’s scoring prowess also reduces pressure on role players like Danny Green and Georges Niang, who have struggled to find their shots in the second round. Finally, Embiid’s presence will relegate DeAndre Jordan to the bench, immediately improving the team’s defense.

“The Process” can certainly mask a lot of deficiencies, but he can’t be expected to save the 76ers from themselves. If the team continues to struggle with scoring, they aren’t winning. The Sixers followed up their 6-34 effort from the three-point line in Game 1 with an 8-30 effort in Game 2. And they continue to have no answers for Tyler Herro, who has shredded the 76ers in both games of the series.

Meanwhile, James Harden continues to look like a shell of the gamebreaker and perennial MVP candidate he was in Houston. I don’t think anyone expected Harden to carry the 76ers in Miami — not this version of James Harden — which should give Daryl Morey and Elton Brand some pause as they consider whether to offer the point guard a max contract in the offseason. At the very least, the front office needs to think carefully about the types of players with whom they need to surround Harden to maximize his strengths as his speed diminishes and his scoring touch drops off.

For his part, Doc Rivers seems hell-bent on going down with a losing strategy. For a guy who recently complimented himself for his coaching prowess in steering an 8th seeded Orlando Magic squad to the precipice of a first round victory twenty years ago, Rivers looks like someone who can’t find answers when his players need him most. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge DeAndre Jordan’s limits as a player at this stage in his career is reminiscent of another one of Rivers’ greatest hits — when he attacked the great Kevin Kinkead (full disclosure: Kevin is my editor, but that in no way impacts my opinion!) for the crime of “not knowing basketball” when he asked whether Ben Simmons should be benched to counteract the Wizards’ “Hack-A-Ben” strategy during last year’s playoff run. Oddly enough, Rivers promptly ran with the strategy in the next game, so maybe he isn’t as intractable as I imagine.

Nonetheless, I would personally rather have a coach that is more focused on changing the narrative about his career by winning in the present than aggressively relitigating his past, but that’s just me.

In the end, maybe Embiid’s return can lift the Sixers past the Heat. Without the reddest of rose-colored glasses, however, I have trouble seeing the playoff ride continuing much longer. That’s at no fault of Embiid, who has worked very hard to become a reliable and foundational piece of the organization. The 2021-22 season was his best as a pro, and he played a career-high 68 games. The total would have been even higher if not for a tough bout with COVID that sidelined the center for a handful of games.

Joel Embiid showed us who he is and what he can be during a season of adversity, with his co-star in self-exile and the long-term future of the team in flux while Ben Simmons’ holdout was resolved. He delivered, and he carried this roster back to the postseason.

Now it’s time for Embiid’s teammates and his head coach to rise to the challenge this moment presents. Talent has punched the 76ers’ ticket to the playoffs, but it will carry them no further. Without a collective resilience that has thus far been absent in this semifinals series, the second round will continue to be an impenetrable barrier. And the payoff of The Process will continue to be as elusive as ever.