NBA betting: How the Joel Embiid and Julius Randle injury outcomes shake up the East

ByAndré Snellings ESPN logo
Friday, April 5, 2024

While the Boston Celtics remain favorites to win both the East (-140 on ESPN BET) and the NBA championship (+185), the return of Joel Embiid from knee injury on Tuesday and the announcement Thursday that Julius Randle (shoulder surgery) is out for the season could have major ramifications for how the playoffs play out.

Return of the MVP. Will Embiid's health allow him to dominate?

Embiid's return could make the 76ers contenders again ... with a lot of ifs.

If Embiid is healthy, and if the 76ers can play their way out of the play-in tournament and into the playoffs, then they would have a team capable of competing against anyone, including the Celtics. At the time he went down with a knee injury, Embiid was the clear favorite to win what would have been his second straight MVP award.

The 76ers have a 28-8 record in the games Embiid has played this season, a 77.8 win percentage that is only slightly behind the Celtics (60-16, 78.9 win%) and significantly better than the next best in the NBA (Timberwolves, 69.7 win%). The Bucks are the second seed in the Eastern Conference, and they only sport a 61.8 win percentage.

If Embiid is healthy, the 76ers are contenders.

But, is he fully healthy? And if so, will he remain that way?

Embiid is eight weeks removed from surgery to repair the lateral meniscus in his left knee, and just did his first full-contact 5-on-5 practice on Saturday. He had no setbacks from that practice, so he was able to return to the starting lineup on Tuesday despite being listed as "out" even two hours prior to game time.

He played 29 minutes on Tuesday, and despite looking rusty and tired at times, had an impressive game with 24 points, 7 assists, 6 boards and 3 steals in a win over the Thunder. He followed that up on Thursday with 29 points, 4 boards and 3 assists in 33 minutes of a win over the Heat. Through head coach Nick Nurse, the 76ers have intimated that Embiid will continue to play limited minutes and be listed as a game-time decision moving forward based on how his knee continues to respond.

The 76ers have five games remaining over the final 10 days of the regular season, four against teams deep in the lottery and one against the Magic. That isn't a lot of time for Embiid to work the rust off, but it does give him almost two full weeks of "boot camp" to get up to speed before the play-in tournament begins.

And that's the next big question mark: the play-in. Because the 76ers struggled in Embiid's absence, managing just a 14-27 record, they have fallen from the pace of a No. 2 seed challenging for the top spot to the No. 8 seed and a potential road game in the first round of the play-in.

After defeating the Heat on Thursday, the 76ers are now only a half-game behind the Heat for the seventh spot and a game behind the Pacers for sixth.

This makes these last five games more than just an extended training camp for Embiid, because grabbing that No. 6 seed would make a huge difference. The Pacers are a strong home team sporting a 23-15 record in Indianapolis, while the Heat have made a habit of stepping up their game dramatically in the playoffs as conference finalists or beyond in three of the past four years. Either would be difficult matchups as potential play-in opponents, particularly if the 76ers remain in the No. 8 spot and have to play on the road.

The No. 6 seed is crucial: it is the last guaranteed playoff spot and would lead to a matchup against the third seed (currently the Cavaliers, though the Magic and Knicks are still in play). If the 76ers stay in the play-in, a win would yield the No. 7 seed and a likely matchup against the Bucks, who have shown some vulnerability this season but remain a recent champion with some of the best high-end talent in the NBA. A loss in that play-in game would mean a win-or-go-home matchup against the winner of the nine vs. 10 game, where the prize for winning is an extremely tough matchup against the top-seeded Celtics.

76ers Futures outlook

According to ESPN BET, the 76ers have improved to the third-shortest odds to win the East at +1200. This groups them with the other secondary contenders in the Cavaliers (+1300), Knicks (+1500) and Heat (+1500), well behind the favored Celtics (-140) or Bucks (+320). A similar story plays out for the NBA title, where the 76ers (+3000, tied for eighth-shortest odds) are part of a group of nine squads with odds between +2000 and +4000, well behind the Celtics (+185), Nuggets (+325), Clippers (+700) and Bucks (+750).

Those odds are tied directly to the uncertainties discussed above, but it also gives a unique upside opportunity. If Embiid is healthy and remains that way, the 76ers' chances would realistically be just behind the Celtics and Nuggets as a favorite.

It's rare to get long shot odds this late in the season on a team with the achievable upside to win a championship. So, though risky, I find long shot value in the 76ers for both the Eastern Conference and NBA championships. I wouldn't make them favorites, but they're getting enough juice to make them worthy of some speculative picks.

But, what about the other Eastern Conference team that received big man news this week?

Randle's absence and the Knicks' ceiling

The news isn't as good in Gotham, where Randle was unable to recover from his separated shoulder with rest alone and will have to undergo season-ending surgery. Randle was in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career before injury struck, having earned his third All-Star nod in the past four seasons. But, even more than the personal and statistical accolades, Randle was a key part of what made the Knicks so dangerous and successful this season.

For those not old enough to remember the original Voltron cartoon, it was about five robot lions that were all strong but defeatable on their own. But together? Together, they formed the components of a giant super robot, Voltron, who was unstoppable.

This is a very apt analogy for this Knicks team that is largely comprised of players on their second or third teams who thrive in specific roles and are enjoying the best personal success of their NBA careers. Randle and Jalen Brunson were both considered undersized for their positions, scorers more than defenders, but both have grown into All Stars with the Knicks because the team allows them to focus on their strengths in well-defined roles.

Similarly, Brunson's Villanova brethren Donte DiVincenzo and Josh Hart thrive as strong 3-and-D threats on the wing. Isaiah Hartenstein, Mitchell Robinson and Precious Achiuwa have been a three-headed defensive-minded, walking double-double at center. Once the Knicks brought in OG Anunoby to be the Defensive Player of the Year-caliber anchor on that side of the ball, the Knicks' Voltron evolution for this season was complete.

Unfortunately, to mix my cartoon analogies, injuries have become the Knicks' kryptonite this season. The Knicks only got 14 games of Randle and Anunoby playing together before injuries cut everything short. From Jan. 1 to 27, the Knicks went 12-2 with that duo on the court together, including a 38-point blowout over the defending champion Nuggets, a win over the West's top-seeded Timberwolves, and a 46-point win over the 76ers in Philadelphia with both Embiid and Tyrese Maxey in the lineup.

The Knicks were utterly dominant for that entire month, with Anunoby anchoring the defense while Randle and Brunson provided the scoring. But with Randle and Anunoby out, the team has struggled. They have lost 13 of their past 22 games. Brunson has had an All-NBA season and will even get some votes for MVP, but he just can't maintain a championship level without his two main lieutenants on the court with him.

Knicks Futures outlook

According to ESPN BET, the Knicks still have similar futures odds as the 76ers with the Knicks at +1500 to win the East and +4000 to win the championship.

I disagree with those odds, though, because without Randle I don't believe the Knicks still have championship upside. They will be competitive, they will be a tough out that plays hard defense and Brunson will continue to produce offense at a remarkable level. If Anunoby comes back, they will be even more competitive. But without Randle's consistent scoring and offense creation as the counter to Brunson, their offense becomes too one-dimensional for them to beat a team like the Bucks or Embiid-led 76ers four times in seven games, let alone a team like the Celtics.

With Randle out, I would fade the Knicks to win either the Eastern conference or the NBA championship.