Maybe there are a bunch of black cats roaming around the Wells Fargo Center, or the 76ers accidently dribbled under a ladder during pregame drills, or an errant bouncing ball broke a mirror in their locker room. Something had to have happened, because this team and its fans have had to endure an amazing string of bad breaks – literally as well as figuratively – the last several NBA seasons.
That is especially evident in the injuries to their big men, all of whom were supposed to be the centerpiece as well as the center of the Sixers. The latest setback came on Wednesday when Joel Embiid was ruled out for the rest of the season because of knee injuries, which put the Sixers’ much-ballyhooed “process’’ on the backburner for yet another season.
But the string of bad luck – and sometimes bad decisions – really started with a different kind of process. In 2012, the Sixers, under coach Doug Collins, blew up their barely-better-than-average roster and, in a big gamble, attempted to land a franchise-changing big man. Anyone who even remotely follows this team knows how that ended up. Andrew Bynum made $16.1 million during his one season with the Sixers, but he never played a game for them before – you guessed it – a chronic knee injury eventually ended his career.
Then, in another dramatic effort to reshape the roster and the future of the Sixers, general manager Sam Hinkie played rope-a-dope for three seasons and the Sixers lost games at a record pace as they stockpiled “assets,” which were mainly draft choices. The Sixers promptly added three more centers who were all lottery picks – Nerlens Noel, Embiid and Jahlil Okafer – and all three of them missed considerable time because of injuries. And, of course, one of them – Noel – isn’t even on the team anymore as he was traded to Dallas last week.
In the meantime, the other two big men have spent as much time in the trainer’s room as they have on the court. And Embiid, well, you probably know this sad story. He has the potential to be a game-changing player, but you can’t change much when you’re sitting on the bench in street clothes.
The most disturbing thing about Embiid’s injuries is that it’s plural – he always seems to have something wrong with him. In his one year of college at Kansas he missed the NCAA Tournament with stress fractures in his back, and then in pre-draft workouts he broke a bone in his foot, which he re-injured after the Sixers gambled again and drafted him with the No. 3 overall selection.
And now it’s a knee. At first, the team called the injury a bone bruise, but anybody who saw Embiid injure the knee against Portland on Jan. 20 knows better – twice Embiid came down hard and his leg bent the wrong way as he appeared to hyper-extend the knee. Later it was revealed that his had a tear in his meniscus and what apparently started out as a day-by-day situation has devolved to the point where Embiid won’t play again until next year (we hope).
Embiid, for all his size and strength and athletic ability, is brittle. He’s had four major injuries (counting his foot twice) in as many years and it always seems to be something different. Counting his one season at Kansas, Embiid has played in just 79 out of a possible 281 games the last four years. Some people are just more injury prone than others and in every sport there are players who never miss a game or even a practice and there are others who spend more time with doctors and trainers than they do with coaches and teammates.
And that brings us to the latest in a long line of crushing injuries, the broken foot of forward Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in last season’s draft. It was recently announced that Simmons would not play at all this season, which means the Sixers have had four straight first-round picks who missed all or most of their rookie seasons.
Maybe at this time next year we’ll be watching a Sixers lineup that includes Embiid and Simmons as well as Dario Saric and one or two of the lottery picks they’ll get in this year’s draft. Maybe the process will prove fruitful. Maybe the Sixers’ luck will finally change.