The city of Philadelphia breathed a collective sigh of relief on Saturday morning when it was reported that the injury All-Star center Joel Embiid suffered to his left knee against the Washington Wizards on Friday night was a bone bruise, and not something more severe. When Embiid fell to the court in obvious agony and grabbed at his left knee -- an area where he has previously dealt with injury issues -- during the third quarter of the contest against the Wizards, it certainly looked like the injury had the potential to be a season-ending one. The Sixers dodged a bullet though, as an MRI on Embiid showed no structural damage - just a bruise that will leave him sidelined for weeks instead of months. He is set to be re-evaluated in two weeks, per the Sixers.
Everyone inside of the Sixers' organization is relieved, as is Embiid and the Philadelphia faithful, and understandably so as Embiid is in the midst of the best season of his career. Embiid was the MVP frontrunner before the injury occurred, and the Sixers' championship aspirations rest almost entirely on his broad shoulders. Those title hopes would have died a sudden death if Embiid was forced to miss the remainder of the season. Instead, they're still very much alive.
But, while the news regarding Embiid's injury is undeniably positive, his extended absence will make things much more difficult for Philadelphia in the short term. If Embiid is sidelined for the rest of the month of March, and potentially longer, it will be tough for the Sixers to hold on to the top spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and it will be equally as tough for Embiid to hold pole position in the MVP race.
As it stands, the Sixers hold a one-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets for the top spot in the East, and the Nets are on fire. They've won nine out of their last 10 games, and that's been without the services of Kevin Durant. The fact that the Nets have played as well as they have even though their star trio of Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving has barely got to play together is pretty impressive. One has to assume that once Durant returns to the rotation and the team gains some chemistry and familiarity they'll begin to rip off wins at a high clip.
It's not just the Nets either. The Milwaukee Bucks sit just 2.5 games behind the Sixers, and they've also been playing some very solid ball lately (they're 7-3 over their last 10 games), thanks largely to the return of Jrue Holiday to the active roster. As the team that finished with the best record in the league in each of the past two seasons, the Bucks know how to win in the regular season, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see them go on a big run during the second half of the season.
Meanwhile, the Sixers are just 2-5 in games without Embiid on the season so far. They outscore opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the floor, and they're outscored by over four points per 100 possessions when he's not, per ESPN Stats and Info. That differential in on-off court net rating is the largest in the league this season. This is obviously a concern for Philadelphia, especially considering the fact that they have a really tough stretch of games coming up.
The Sixers are scheduled to play the Bucks on March 17, and then they set off on a long road trip the following week that includes games against the Lakers, Clippers, and Nuggets. It's likely that Embiid will miss all of those games, and in turn, it will be tough for Philadelphia to win any of them. Given how close the top of the standings in the East are, Embiid's absence could ultimately cost the Sixers the top seed in the conference. This is unfortunate for Philly, but again, the fact that Embiid's injury isn't super serious is the most important thing. If he were forced to miss the postseason, the Sixers' seed wouldn't matter -- they wouldn't get very far. As long as they have him, they'll have a chance to make serious noise in the playoffs, regardless of seeding.
Just like the top of the standings in the East are close, so is the MVP race, and ultimately missing a chunk of games could cost Embiid the award. Embiid has already missed seven games on the season, and he's likely to miss at least 10 more following this latest injury issue, assuming he's sidelined through March. The season is already shortened by 10 games this year, and that means Embiid will likely miss close to a quarter of Philadelphia's games. Embiid's impact when he's out on the court is undeniable, but in a close race, missed games could be the difference. The two players directly behind Embiid on the most recent edition of NBA.com's MVP ladder, LeBron James and Nikola Jokic, have missed a total of one game combined -- James sat out for a game against the Kings earlier this month, while Jokic has played in every game for the Nuggets. This is disappointing for Embiid, who is having an unbelievable season. But the fact that he should be healthy for postseason play, and thus will have an opportunity to try to bring a title to Philadelphia, is what matters most.