NBA playoffs 2024: Joel Embiid's health and the supporting cast remain major questions for the 76ers

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Friday, May 3, 2024

GAME 5 FELT over. As did another Philadelphia 76ers' season.

A 15-foot jumper by New York Knicks guard Miles McBride had just put his team up six points with 28.9 seconds remaining, and the sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd rose to its feet in preparation to celebrate closing out a series at home for the first time since reaching the NBA Finals in 1999. Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse tried to rally his team as fans danced in the aisles.

But then Tyrese Maxey baited Knicks big man Mitchell Robinson into a shooting foul on a made 3-pointer. And moments later, the first-time All-Star guard pulled up from the center court logo to bury a game-tying 3 with 8.1 seconds left, which forced overtime and rescued Philadelphia from elimination.

After the Sixers prevailed in the extra frame, Maxey stomped down the MSG court and let out an unbridled roar while the courtside celebrity row looked on in disbelief.

This first-round series was defined by wild finishes: Game 2 ended with a similarly historic comeback by the Knicks, andThursday's deciding Game 6 featured more clutch-time heroics from New York.

It also marked the end of Philadelphia's longtime quest to find its reigning MVP's sidekick.

"It is amazing, just seeing the growth and seeing what he's been able to accomplish," Joel Embiid told ESPN about Maxey's development this season.

"We've talked about Jamal Murray, and what he's always done for [Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic] in the playoffs. ...

"[Maxey is] not afraid. Make or miss shots, he's going to keep going. I've always seen that from him, and I always knew that he had it in him. So I'm just glad that in these moments when I just can't do it, I have someone else that can pick me up."

Since Embiid arrived as the third pick in the 2014 draft, a series of setbacks have surrounded the Philadelphia franchise: ill-timed injuries for the All-NBA center; postseason heartbreak, such as Kawhi Leonard's miracle bouncing jumper in 2019; and disappointing acquisitions, such as Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz via the draft and Jimmy Butler and James Harden via trades.

This season, it was Embiid's meniscus injury that required surgery in February that derailed the season -- the seventh straight in which the team has exited in the first or second round of the playoffs.

But 23-year-old Maxey's ascension, and a number of pathways for the franchise to improve this offseason, have the 76ers in a far better situation than after past playoff failures.

"We've got some work to do," Nurse said after Game 6, "We'll have to figure that out here this summer, but I certainly like where we're going, especially with Tyrese.

"I think people were wondering where he fits in this thing, but I think we all know now that Joel and Tyrese is a hell of a combo to start with. We just have to get back to work."

EMBIID WAS ATOP the NBA world. It was Dec. 14, and he was in the midst of a scintillating start to the 2023-24 season, leading the league with 33.8 points per game. (That number would swell to 34.7 as he'd finish the season with more total points than minutes played -- something only Wilt Chamberlain had done.)

The 76ers, a few weeks removed from dealing Harden to the LA Clippers, were tied for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. Maxey had begun his ascent to his first All-Star selection and the league's Most Improved Player award. Nurse, Embiid's former tormentor as coach of the Toronto Raptors, had replaced Doc Rivers and given Embiid new creative license offensively, leading to a career-high 5.6 assists per game.

But no player is more aware of how quickly things in the NBA can change than Embiid, whose 10-year career has been plagued by untimely injuries -- many suffered during the postseason.

"Every single year of my career, I've had a bunch of freak injuries," Embiid told ESPN then.

"My first playoffs, I get hit in the face by my teammate. In the second year, 2019, Toronto series, I got really sick and I had a [knee] problem. In 2020, bubble don't count. 2021, meniscus. 2022, broken face and the finger. 2023, freaking Grade 2 LCL sprain.

"I just need a little bit of luck. But, then again, I always believe that everything happens for a reason. If that's meant to be, then I'm OK with it."

Less than two weeks later, Embiid missed Philadelphia's Christmas Day loss with the Miami Heat due to a knee injury. He returned from that injury to put up spectacular performances -- including a 70-point masterpiece against the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 22 -- but bad luck struck again Jan. 30, when Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga fell on Embiid's left leg.

Embiid's meniscus injury required a two-month absence, during which Philadelphia went 11-18 -- part of an overall 16-27 record when Embiid didn't play, compared with a 31-8 mark when he did.

Not only was Embiid out of the MVP race due to not playing in the 65 games required for the award but Philadelphia was sent tumbling into the play-in tournament.

But Maxey said his stint as Philly's No. 1 option sped up his learning process, on offense and as the team's de facto leader with Embiid sidelined.

"There's a lot of things I need to work on, but reps are the biggest thing for me this season," Maxey said after Game 6. "Especially when Joel went out, I saw a lot of different coverages, a lot of different game plans and a lot of different schemes, and it really made me a better player, a better person, better basketball mind."

Embiid returned before the end of the regular season, had a pivotal role in helping Philly outduel the Heat in the 7-8 game of the play-in tournament, and put up a 50-point performance in Game 3 of Philadelphia's first-round series against the Knicks. But Embiid revealed after the win that he was also playing through a case of Bell's palsy, which had impacted the left side of his face.

"Every single year, you start asking yourself questions like, 'Why?' Every single year it's ... very annoying. Maybe it's just meant to be. Just gotta take it as it is," Embiid said in December.

"But the one thing I'm not going to do is give up, no matter what happens. Gotta keep pushing, gotta keep fighting, gotta keep putting my body on the line, for my family, for this city, for this team."

Embiid, playing through his various ailments, finished Game 6 of this series with a team-high 39 points and 13 rebounds and his fourth double-double of the series. Maxey, despite a relatively paltry 17 points in Thursday's deciding game, finished the series averaging 29.8 points per game and shooting 40.0% from 3.

And while Embiid and Maxey will be back for another run, Philadelphia once again will be changing out many of the players around them.

IN DECEMBER, EMBIID lamented the fact that, unlike previous championship teams such as the Nuggets and Warriors, his supporting cast in Philadelphia has been constantly changing.

"There's never been any continuity," Embiid said then. "You look at Denver last year. They've been together for, what, five, six, seven years? Golden State, they've been together for a long time. So, at some point, if you really want to win, you gotta have some key guys. And then, here and there, you can add a bunch of guys and just learn how to play with each other and grow together.

"At some point, it's going to happen."

That point won't be this summer. Philadelphia enters this offseason with 12 open roster spots and just three players under contract: Embiid, backup center Paul Reed and rookie Ricky Council IV on a non-guaranteed deal.

Even Maxey will become a restricted free agent this summer, although that will all but certainly be rectified with a max contract offer as soon as free agency begins June 30.

"Tyrese is great. He's just at the beginning of who he is, and Joel is at the top. Even when he's coming back from injury, he's still a great player," 76ers forward Nicolas Batum told ESPN.

"That's a great recipe when you have those two guys, especially a guard and a big man who love playing together. ... They fit well together."

The franchise will spend the offseason determining who fits best around them.

Maxey isn't signed to an extension yet because Philadelphia has hopes of signing a star in free agency to add alongside him and Embiid. There were designs on pursuing guard Jrue Holiday, sources told ESPN, but he signed an extension with the Boston Celtics. The same holds true for the top two wing players currently slated to hit free agency, LA Clippers forward Paul George and Knicks forward OG Anunoby, although both are also expected to remain with their current teams.

Sources told ESPN there are a variety of different paths the 76ers could take. One is to use several picks the 76ers will have available -- up to five first-rounders -- and pursue a trade for a star. Executives around the NBA have told ESPN that they expect this to be an active summer across the league, as high-spending teams grapple with restrictions under the new collective bargaining agreement.

Another option is to add multiple high-level role players around Embiid and Maxey, building out a well-rounded starting lineup similar to what Denver has done around Jokic and Murray. Philadelphia could also re-sign some of its pending free agents to shorter-term contracts, with an eye toward using its draft capital on future superstar trades.

The 76ers' biggest potential free agent is forward Tobias Harris, who averaged 17.2 points in the regular season but only 10.8 in this series while making nearly $40 million. League sources expect Harris, who has been at the center of fan frustrations in Philadelphia, to be elsewhere next season.

Meanwhile, the team's major trade deadline acquisition this season, sharpshooting guard Buddy Hield, went a combined 1-for-7 from the field and missed all four 3-pointers in the first five games against the Knicks before scoring 20 points in Game 6.

Several key contributors during this run -- Kelly Oubre Jr., who signed a one-year minimum deal last summer, plus veterans Kyle Lowry and Batum -- have been valued by the 76ers this season, and all could return. The same goes for De'Anthony Melton, a starter last year and for much of this season before a back issue limited him to just eight games in 2024.

An hour after Philadelphia's season ended, Embiid sat at his postgame news conference. Normally, he sits on the podium by himself. This time, he had Maxey by his side.

And, after speaking on the disappointment of how this season finished, Embiid looked to the potential he sees in his partnership with Maxey and the front office's ability to build around them.

"It kind of looks exciting," Embiid said after Game 6. "I don't know what they're going to do. But they do have a lot of cap space and picks, so they have the opportunity to do something good. [But] that's a great position to be in.

"You got a young superstar, face of the franchise for his whole career, really, in Philly. That's exciting ... [we're] trying to build something great here."

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