The Philadelphia 76ers will be without Joel Embiid, the center whom former coach Brett Brown used to call the “crown jewel” of the franchise, in Game 5 of their first-round series against the Washington Wizards. Embiid has a “small” meniscus tear in his right knee, suffered when he fell the floor attacking the basket in Game 4 on Monday, according to the team.
After Wednesday’s game, Embiid will be listed as day-to-day, and the Sixers say his torn meniscus “will be managed with a physical therapy and treatment program.” If this prevents him from being available — or from playing at the MVP-caliber level he’s reached this season — then it will be the latest in a series of devastating, untimely injuries that have gotten in the way of Philadelphia being at its best in the playoffs in the Embiid era.
- 2017-18: With two weeks left in the regular season, Embiid broke his orbital bone when he collided with teammate Markelle Fultz. He missed the remaining eight games on the schedule and the first two of the Sixers’ series against the Miami Heat. When he returned, he had a rocky relationship with his face mask, but Philadelphia beat the Heat in five games. The team’s season ended in the second round after five much closer games against the Boston Celtics.
- 2018-19: Embiid missed 14 of the Sixers’ final 24 regular-season games because of tendinitis in his left knee. According to Yaron Weitzman’s book “Tanking to the Top,” then-coach Brett Brown screamed at the training staff and medical staff about Embiid’s condition before their second-to-last game: “We’re all going to get fired because Joel’s out of shape!” He logged only 24 minutes in a loss to the Brooklyn Nets to open the playoffs and 21 minutes in a blowout victory in Game 2, then sat out with knee soreness in Game 3, a contest I will always remember covering because Philadelphia started waiver-wire pickup Greg Monroe at center. Embiid didn’t miss any second-round games, but he wasn’t always himself, either, playing through a stomach virus and flu-like symptoms against the eventual-champion Toronto Raptors. After a rough Game 4, he revealed that he hadn’t slept the night before and was given intravenous fluids early that morning. Philadelphia lost in seven games when a Raptors forward hit a jump shot in the corner.
- 2019-20: At long last, Embiid was healthy for the beginning of playoffs, but his co-star wasn’t. After recovering from a back injury that sidelined him before the pandemic-induced hiatus, Ben Simmons suffered a knee injury in the NBA bubble. Simmons needed surgery, and, once the postseason started, Embiid desperately needed someone on the roster who could feed him the ball. He put up impressive individual numbers, but Boston swept the Sixers in the first round, taking advantage of the poor spacing that had plagued them all season and the poor passing and compete lack of a transition game that resulted from Simmons’ absence.
It was supposed to be different this time. Philadelphia earned the No. 1 seed in the East, a testament to Embiid’s career year and the most balanced supporting cast he’s ever had. If the staff can indeed manage his injury, perhaps the above exercise in revisiting painful playoff exits will seem silly and dramatic. If it can’t, Embiid and the Sixers will be forced to enter another offseason wondering what might have been.