Joel Embiid’s Latest Setback Is Not the End of the World

It just feels that way. Why the Sixers are extremely well-positioned to absorb the bad news — and why it still feels devastating.

76ers general manager Sam Hinkie (right) talks with center Joel Embiid during pre-game warm-ups at the Wells Fargo Center on December 15th, 2014.

76ers general manager Sam Hinkie (right) talks with center Joel Embiid during pre-game warm-ups at the Wells Fargo Center on December 15th, 2014.

Late Saturday night Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76ers made official what many had been fearing for the last month: that Joel Embiid would require a second surgery to repair the Navicular bone fracture he suffered last June and would miss the 2015-16 NBA season.

“We have been consistent in our philosophy that our focus will be Joel’s long-term health and wellness to ensure he will have a long and impactful career in the NBA. After receiving the input of the aforementioned medical experts, as well as conversations with Joel and his representatives, there was careful consideration given to a number of options related to this particular situation. A collective decision has been made that the best approach to promote full healing would be to proceed with a bone graft of the fracture site. We anticipate the procedure will take place in the next 7-10 days and result in Joel missing the upcoming season. ”

Sixers president and general manager Sam Hinkie.

The announcement, which came almost exactly a month after the Sixers announced Embiid’s setback, is one you could say the Sixers were almost preparing for.

Not that the team drafted Jahlil Okafor because of Embiid’s setback — although Hinkie did tell members of the media the day after the draft that it was impossible to unknow what he had come to know about Embiid — but because the Sixers’ quest for optionality, and their strict adherence to drafting the best player available, are meant to limit the damage of any one individual outcome.

Sixers rookie Okafor was described by many as a potential franchise player. Center Nerlens Noel was considered by most to be the top prospect in the 2013 NBA draft, and showed the ability to be a true game-changer on the defensive side of the court last season.

They’re joined by Nik Stauskas, drafted No. 8 overall in 2014 and acquired by the Sixers this past week for virtually nothing, and Dario Saric, who himself was drafted 12th overall in the 2014 draft and who continued to expand his game over in Turkey, adding a three-point shot to his incredible passing skills and creativity.

Those players are then joined by blue-chip assets such as two picks that have the potential to be high in the 2016 draft — the Sixers’ own pick and the Lakers’ pick — the rights to swap picks with the dysfunctional Sacramento Kings in 2016 and 2017, and the ability to get a potential unprotected pick from Sacramento in 2019.

The Kings trade was especially shrewd, picking up a combination of both current (needed) perimeter talent ready to play on day one along with high-upside assets that could return huge dividends for a patient front office.

If you had to bet on a team imploding from a combination of unrealistic expectations, long-standing frustration, and combustible personality types, the Sacramento Kings — whose VP of basketball and franchise operations Vlade Divac just called the relationship between star player DeMarcus Cousins and head coach George Karlnot pretty right now” — would be at the top of a list of teams you would want the right to swap picks with. Getting a lottery talent in Stauskas, the right to swap two picks, and a potential unprotected pick down the line gives the Sixers a number of options in the future.

With so many options independent of Embiid, the Sixers have done just about all they can to rebuild in spite of any one individual outcome failing to work out in their favor. All of this is meant to ease concerns over Embiid’s latest setback.

Except it can’t. Hiding that level of disappointment would be impossible.

IT’S NOT SO MUCH the wasted lottery pick that’s disheartening, as many lottery picks are wasted over the years, for various reasons. The goal at the top of the lottery isn’t to draft for production, or even to get good players. Those players come along every year, and missing out on them isn’t a drastic setback for a rebuilding organization.

The goal, for the Sixers and for most teams in the position the Sixers found themselves in after the Andrew Bynum trade, is to find the potential for greatness, to find a guy who can elevate the team into being relevant in the NBA. Joel Embiid had (and, possibly, still has) that potential, whereas I’m not sure I see that in Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon or Julius Randle, some of the other options available to the Sixers at No. 3. Those guys are pieces, but replaceable. Embiid had/has the potential to be much more.

The sadness for Sixers fans comes in the form of what could have been. Embiid has the type of talent to dominate on both ends of the court. The combination of size and strength, elite explosiveness, and the coordination and fluidity that suggests an incredible natural athlete, along with the high learning curve necessary to be truly special.

For as much ability as Nerlens Noel has to change a game defensively, he has to make significant strides in his offensive game to be dominant on both ends of the court. And, for as skilled as Okafor is in the post, his defensive game has significant question marks. Embiid, at least in his basketball résumé, had no such major concerns.

The real devastation for Sixers fans is not what the team could have missed when selecting No. 3 overall in 2014, but that the team could have had a generational talent in their hands, only to have it slip away. It’s the kind of missed opportunity that haunts fanbases.

Joel Embiid looks on from the sidelines during the January 7, 2015 game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center.

Joel Embiid looks on from the sidelines during the January 7, 2015 game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center.

THAT’S NOT TO SAY Joel Embiid’s career is done. Many will point to Yao Ming and the constant struggles he had when attempting, ultimately unsuccessfully, to come back from his stress fractures, which occurred in the same Navicular bone that Embiid is working to recover from. There are success stories as well, as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, after three surgeries on his left foot, including a bone graft operation similar to the one Embiid is set undergo, came back and played 10 years without another recurrence.

Most studies show that this type of operation has a high success rate, but most studies also aren’t being done on 7-foot, 250-pound athletes going through the rigors of NBA life. Using either Yao or Ilgauskas, or any other athlete who had the same injury, isn’t necessarily proof in either direction. The sample size of NBA players who have tried to come back from this is just too small to draw a meaningful conclusion.

What the injury does say is that for Sixers fans craving certainty, craving that hint of basketball immortality that truly transcendent players carry with them, the wait continues on.

Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.