Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid’s troublesome back remains an issue

(Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers best player, but playing him through a back injury is never going to be a good idea, especially against the Los Angeles Lakers.

In an outcome that should surprise no one, the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers by a score of 121-105.

This was to be expected, as Luke Walton‘s squad has been pretty atrocious without the best player in the world, falling to a 26-24 record after dropping 11 of their last 17 games, but in a game where Philly never trailed, it certainly had an inordinent amount of drama for fans in the 215.

Mainly: Joel Embiid‘s back.

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Embiid has been plagued with a pesky back injury for much of January, and in a mostly dead Tuesday night snoozefest at the Staples Center, ‘The Process’ went down with a worrisome back injury on an awkward alley-oop from Ben Simmons, one game removed from recording a DNP against the Denver Nuggets for similar reasons.

Though it obviously didn’t matter in this game, as the Sixers was able to weather most of the fourth quarter without their best player, and he was able to return to the court in the waning minutes of regulation it brings to mind an issue that has persisted all season: Joel Embiid’s workload.

You see, the Sixers winning formula is simple; when Embiid plays, the team usually wins, especially when Simmons and Jimmy Butler are also available, but if Brett Brown plays him too much, the big fella is going to break down.

What is an NBA head coach to do?

Last season, the 76ers had a similar issue but were (mostly) able to mitigate it with strong bench play by Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes, who both averaged about 15 minutes of action a night in 74 and 48 games respectively.

This season, Johnson is still in the mix, but he’s only appeared in 37 of a possible 50 games and is primarily used as a bench clearer or as a spot foil when Embiid is limited. From there, the Sixers remaining big men reserves are Jonah Bolden and Mike Muscala, a pair of solid rotational pieces, but power forwards by trade.

No matter how you slice it, if you’re giving 14 of Muscala’s 22 minutes of action a night at center, it’s going to be tough to remain competitive when the best center in basketball isn’t on the court.

While Embiid should have been able to finish out the Lakers’ game counting his lucky stars on the bench, he was instead reinserted into the game because Los Angeles whittled the lead down to 11. Embiid’s health is obviously a priority, but even a limited JoJo is better than a DNP Johnson, and a loss would have been demoralizing.

So Embiid went back into the game with four minutes to go, and the Sixers pulled out the W. This time they got away with it but had he re-aggravated his back or god forbid worse, the Sixers very season may have been in the balance.

That decision was irresponsible, but so is the Sixers roster construction.

For as long as Embiid is on the team, the 76ers can’t afford to keep a second top-40 center on their roster like, say, Toronto‘s current situation with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. While winning can help to sway an over-the-hill veteran to accept a lesser role, no above average player wants to be stuck on the bench for 34 minutes a night in their prime.

However, for as long as Embiid remains an injury risk, maybe for the remainder of his career, the Sixers can’t confidently keep misfits and marginal players as backups for the most valuable player on their roster.

Next. Trading for Josh Hart is a major win-win. dark

Though fans around the world have hypothesized about which player, typically a shooter, the Philadelphia 76ers should target before the trade deadline, if Embiid’s recent health struggles are of any indication, maybe Elton Brand should instead place a call to the Atlanta Hawks about Dewayne Dedmon, as opposed to Jeremy Lin, Kent Bazemore, or Taurean Prince.