As an organization, the Philadelphia 76ers have become defined by injuries. The Sixers have been dealing with major injury issues to key contributors for the better part of the past decade, and the issues continue to plague the team during what was supposed to be an open championship window.
Philadelphia's current string of injury issues dates back to the onset of "The Process" in 2013 and, in fact, even earlier than that. When it comes to the health of their prominent players, the Sixers' recent streak of bad luck can be traced back to the acquisition of Andrew Bynum from the Lakers in August of 2012. The Sixers had made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals -- and pushed the Celtics to Game 7 in the series -- the previous season, and at the time Bynum was viewed by the organization as a piece that could potentially put them over the top. The deal cost the Sixers young forward Andre Iguodala, who went on to enjoy major success elsewhere. Bynum, on the other hand, never ended up playing a single game for the Sixers, as knee issues, exacerbated by a bowling-related injury, kept him sidelined for the entirety of the 2012-13 season.
The Sixers didn't bring Bynum back in free agency in 2013 and instead launched into a full-scale rebuild spearheaded by general manager Sam Hinkie. Bynum may have been gone, but the team's health concerns, especially when it came to big men, were just beginning. At the 2013 NBA Draft, Philadelphia kicked off their rebuild by trading an All-Star-caliber guard in Jrue Holiday for a player that would go on to miss the entirety of what would have been his rookie year in Nerlens Noel. Noel had torn his ACL at Kentucky the previous year, and he would spend the whole season rehabbing his knee.
This would become somewhat of a trend for Philadelphia. The following year, the Sixers selected Joel Embiid with the third overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, despite some preexisting injury concerns. Embiid went on to miss the first two seasons after he was drafted in full due to foot injuries. Then, during his rookie campaign, he was limited to just 31 total games after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in January.
The trend of Philadelphia's top draft picks missing the entirety of their first season was interrupted in 2015. The Sixers selected Jahlil Okafor with the third overall pick in the '15 Draft, and Okafor actually played in 53 games that season before a torn meniscus knocked him out for the remainder of the campaign. Then, in 2016, lightning struck again. The Sixers selected Ben Simmons with the top overall pick in the draft, but before the season started Simmons broke his foot and ultimately missed the whole year.
In 2017, there was Markelle Fultz. Where to even begin with this one. The Sixers traded up to grab Fultz with the top overall pick in the draft, as the organization viewed him as an ideal fit next to Simmons; a guard capable of both initiating offense and playing off-ball. An apparent shoulder injury suffered before his rookie campaign got underway robbed Fultz of his ability to effectively shoot the ball from the outside, and his stint with the Sixers quickly spiraled downhill. Fultz was ultimately diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, an issue he's still dealing with, and he appeared in just 33 games over two seasons for Philadelphia before he was traded to Orlando.
The Sixers traded for Zhaire Smith in the lottery of the 2018 Draft, and he subsequently fractured his foot before the season started. An allergic reaction interrupted his rehab and ultimately limited him to just six games in his rookie season. For those keeping track, that's six straight seasons that a Sixers lottery pick missed all -- or a large chunk -- of their first season due to injuries; a truly remarkable streak.
Initially, the injuries were palatable for the organization, as delaying the addition of top-tier talent afforded the team more opportunities to acquire assets (by performing poorly and in turn landing in the lottery). For instance, the Sixers may have never been in a position to land the top pick in the '16 Draft (which they used on Simmons) had Embiid played the previous season. The organizational thought process was that they would continue to amass young talent -- injured or not -- and when the team was ready to flip the switch from building to contending, those young players would be healthy and ready to roll. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the flip was switched a couple of years ago at this point, and the Sixers still can't seem to shake the injury bug.
In 2018, Embiid missed the beginning of the postseason with a fractured face due to a freak collision with Fultz. This year it's Simmons who is expected to miss the entire postseason following knee surgery. Simmons likely would have missed the playoffs had they started in April like they were originally scheduled to as well, as he was sidelined indefinitely with a back injury at that point in time. With Embiid specifically, injuries are a constant concern. The big man has consistently missed time due to various ailments over the course of his career. There are a whole lot of great things that could be said about Embiid as a player, but when it comes to night-in, night-out availability, he's far from the most reliable player in the league.
Both Embiid and Simmons were largely healthy last postseason, and the Sixers were a couple of unfriendly bounces on a Kawhi Leonard jumper away from a potential conference finals appearance. Instead of getting to build off of that performance this season though, Simmons' absence in Orlando leaves several lingering unanswered questions for the Sixers as currently constructed. Was that their best chance to win a title? Was that the closest they'll ever get? Was that the healthiest that Embiid and Simmons will ever be simultaneously in the postseason? Can Embiid and Simmons lead the Sixers to a Finals berth together?
With Simmons sidelined, we likely won't find out the answer to any of those questions in Orlando. One thing is for certain though: few things close an open title window quicker than injuries to key cogs in their primes. Moving forward, the Sixers have to hope that they are able to move past this seemingly endless cycle of injury issues. If not, they may never reach their lofty ceiling as a unit.