Having avoided a recurrence of the knee and foot injuries that have hampered his NBA career, Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid had stayed healthy for the season's first 73 games before a fluke injury Wednesday night put him on the sidelines.
Embiid collided with teammate Markelle Fultz going after a loose ball during the second quarter of the Sixers' win over the New York Knicks, and the team announced Thursday that Embiid is in concussion protocol and will require surgery to repair an orbital fracture.
While we won't know a firm timetable for Embiid's return until after the surgery, ESPN's Zach Lowe reported that Philadelphia is expecting him to miss two to four weeks, which would finish his regular season and put the opening round of the playoffs in jeopardy. So what impact will Embiid's misfortune have on the 76ers and the rest of the Eastern Conference?
Sixers without Embiid
Few players have made a larger difference for their teams this season than Embiid, who has had enormous impact at both ends of the court. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Embiid in the lineup, far better than the Houston Rockets' league-leading plus-9.3 net rating. When Embiid goes to the bench, the 76ers have been outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions, barely better than the New York Knicks' net rating (minus-4.4).
Amazingly, that's true despite the fact that Philadelphia coach Brett Brown has staggered the minutes of his two stars, keeping Ben Simmons on the court more than 80 percent of the time Embiid is on the bench. With Simmons but not Embiid, the 76ers are still outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions. As Lowe has noted, however, that has been better lately. Philadelphia's net rating with Simmons alone is a healthier plus-4.2 since the All-Star break.
The Sixers are deeper since adding Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova via the buyout market, and that has given Brown more flexibility to play without a traditional center. That was the case much of Wednesday's game, which veteran backup Amir Johnson missed due to illness. Third-stringer Richaun Holmes played 22 minutes and Philadelphia gave 17 to lineups with Ilyasova or Dario Saric as the nominal center. The 76ers were plus-5 in those minutes, and the smaller units offer ample extra floor spacing on offense if they can get enough rim protection from Simmons and the team's forwards.
Ultimately, I'd expect the Sixers to play more like a league-average team during Embiid's absence than the below-.500 team they've played like with him on the bench this season. Still, that's a drop from how well Philadelphia has been playing with Embiid. The 76ers are up to the NBA's fifth-best in point differential at plus-3.4 points per game, a big reason -- in conjunction with a relatively easy schedule -- simulations using FiveThirtyEight's CARM-Elo projections and ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) both had them as the favorites to claim the third seed in the Eastern Conference before Embiid's injury.
The good news is that easy schedule won't change. Philadelphia faces just two playoff-bound teams the rest of the year, compared to four games against teams with 50-plus losses (two vs. Atlanta, Brooklyn and Dallas) and two more against teams likely but not yet certain to finish in the lottery (Charlotte and Detroit). The bad news is one of those playoff opponents is a showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 6 that could determine the third seed in the East. A Cleveland win in that game would also give the Cavaliers the head-to-head tiebreaker, making it a huge swing for the Sixers. (The other is on the season's final night against the Milwaukee Bucks, who may be locked into their seed by that point.)
Impact on playoff picture
The Toronto Raptors are surely keeping a close eye on the race for the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Assuming the Raptors finish with the first seed -- a race the Boston Celtics have made somewhat interesting by closing within three games in the standings, but still one the Raptors are overwhelmingly likely to win -- they'll face the winner of the 4-5 matchup in the second round. Toronto would surely prefer to delay a third consecutive playoff meeting with the Cavaliers until the conference finals, so the Raptors will be hoping that Cleveland can hold off Philadelphia for third.
The Indiana Pacers are lurking a half-game back of the 76ers. Because of their more difficult schedule, BPI projections had Indiana finishing two games behind the healthy Sixers on average. If Philadelphia stumbles without Embiid, that could be an opening for the Pacers to move up to fourth, claiming home-court advantage in a potential first-round matchup between the two teams.
With the Washington Wizards losing Thursday in Detroit to drop 3.5 games back in the standings, the 76ers can feel comfortable they'll avoid falling as far as sixth in the East. But anywhere from third through fifth remains a possible outcome.
When will Embiid return?
The Sixers will surely need Embiid in the lineup to win a playoff series, and that's where the outcome of his surgery will be crucial. The timetable Lowe reported matches up well with research by Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com on past NBA facial fractures that required surgery.
Among players with orbital fractures, Stotts found players who returned as quickly as after five games -- a little bit less than two weeks -- and three (Tarence Kinsey, Larry Sanders and Etan Thomas) who missed more than 10 games. A two-week timetable would put Embiid back just in time for the start of the postseason, while a four-week recovery would cost him the bulk of the first round. A short difference in severity could make an enormous difference to Philadelphia's hopes of advancing.
The timing of Embiid's injury is obviously difficult for him and the Sixers with their multiyear rebuilding process on the cusp of bearing playoff fruit. However, if Philadelphia manages to perform better without Embiid and he returns at the front end of schedule, it's possible the 76ers could still be a threat in the Eastern Conference.