View of Joel Embiid most affects Philadelphia 76ers' path to future

How oft-injured (yet talented) center bounces back from latest injury should greatly shape GM Bryan Colangelo's next moves

Fran Blinebury

Fran Blinebury NBA.com

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Mar 3, 2017 11:28 AM ET

Joel Embiid scored 20 or more points in 19 of the 31 games he played this season.

Another trade deadline came and went last week for the Philadelphia 76ers without the kind of deal fans wanted. Then, the team announced Ben Simmons was being shut down for the season and Joel Embiid limping off the stage right behind him.

So when the best that GM Bryan Colangelo could do on the market was to swap Nerlens Noel and Ersan Ilyasova for a couple handfuls of beans, out came the pitchforks and torches and angry braying by the citizenry. In other words, a typical day in Philly.

It’s been nearly four years since Sam Hinkie began The Process, a plan that he admitted up front was going to be very painful. But he never gave an indication of how long everyone would be asked to keep paying their dues for the House of Sadism membership.

Hinkie, in fact, did not give much of an indication of much of anything at all, preferring sequestration to letting the customers or the media know what exactly he was up to besides stockpiling wounded big men and hording second-round picks.

1:34

The Starters debate: Should Joel Embiid be named Kia Rookie of the Year?

Give Hinkie credit for the bold stroke of turning Elfrid Payton into Dario Saric on Draft night in 2014, a move that could keep paying dividends for years to come. But little else that he did has produced anything but questions that are left for Colangelo to answer.

Of course, the answers that Colangelo can’t provide as yet are only the most important ones going forward:

  1. Will last year’s No. 1 Draft pick, Simmons, be able to fully heal from the broken bone in his foot that cost him his first NBA season to become the tall, long-armed, multi-talented weapon that leads the Sixers’ offense?
  2. Can the exciting, engaging Embiid recover from his latest injury -- a torn meniscus in his left knee -- to show that he can become more than a slam-dunking Halley’s Comet whose brilliance is only visible on occasion?

Over the last four seasons, starting with his lone season at  Kansas, Embiid has had a stress fracture in his back, a broken bone in his right foot, a year-long delay in healing of that fracture, as well as a bone bruise and a meniscus tear in his left knee. While he did average 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in just 25 often-electric minutes per game, it’s also a glaring fact that Embiid played in only 31 games before going back onto the shelf. You can’t contribute to the games you don’t play.

Even if Embiid is fully recovered and ready to go for 2017-18 training camp, his questionable durability is the dagger that hangs over the head of Colangelo and the Sixers as free agency -- and a decision to push all the chips into the center of the table on the 7-2 bundle of talent and concern -- approaches.

It wasn’t Colangelo that lined up Noel (2013) and the knee injury that cost him his rookie season, the Embiid gamble (2014) and Jahlil Okafor (2015) in consecutive drafts. That was a recipe that only could be swallowed by Hinkie, who had certainly planned to swap them like trading cards, but was boxed in by all of the injuries. By the time that Embiid showed his stuff this season, Hinkie was long gone, Noel had openly expressed his discontent, Okafor had been thoroughly exposed as one-dimensional and Colangelo might as well have been peddling used furniture on Craigslist.

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Joel Embiid goes for a career-best 33 points in a win against the Nets.

What Colangelo got for Noel was hardly what you’d expect for a talent that might have gone No. 1 in the draft if not for the knee injury. What the deal for Ilyasova brought was merely more loose change and the necessary room for Saric to both grow in the lineup and feel secure about his place in the organization. By the time he eventually unloads Okafor, probably before the 2017 Draft, it will be another fire sale. But those are the ashes that were left behind by his mum and reclusive predecessor.

There is plenty of reason to believe that Simmons can recover to still become everything the Sixers hope -- a linchpin, a leader, a franchise star. But it is the determination on Embiid that will endure. Before the end of next season, it will be time to decide if Embiid is a foundation to build upon or or just brilliantly brittle.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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