As Sixers Enter Grueling Final Stretch, Managing Embiid and Harden Should Be Top Priority

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (L) and center Joel Embiid (R) before action against the Chicago Bulls at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers are about to enter a grueling portion of their schedule. Their final 10 games begin with a West Coast trip that includes a back-to-back against the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns before wrapping up against the Denver Nuggets. This stretch also consists of games against the Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. The supposed “easier” matchups the rest of the way are against teams playing for playoff seeding such as the Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets.

To make matters worse, the Sixers head into this difficult stretch with both their stars banged up. James Harden was clearly labored in a loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday. He missed the following game, a 116-91 win over the Bulls, due to left Achilles soreness. Joel Embiid did not play in the second half of the win over Chicago due to mild right calf tightness.

Head coach Doc Rivers downplayed Embiid’s injury. He told reporters after the game, via Ky Carlin of Sixers Wire, that he had “not much” concern and that the team “just took precaution.”

The Sixers did have a 28-point lead coming out of halftime. Getting Embiid extra rest makes some sense, especially with the team heading into a back-to-back. Embiid told Keith Pompey of The Inquirer after the game he had received treatment inside the visitors’ locker room during the second half. The big fella also made it clear he is keeping his eye on being healthy when the games truly matter.

“Like I always say, it’s all about the playoffs,” Embiid said. “Trying to make sure that I get there healthy. We’re just going to see how it goes the next few days. … If it feels good, of course I want to play. But if it’s not right, then we’re going to figure out.”

Harden’s injury seemingly warrants more concern than Embiid’s. He missed 19 games so far this season, with the majority of them (14) coming in November after he sustained a right foot tendon strain. Since returning to the lineup on Dec. 5, he has missed some scattered games due to rest or what was described on the injury reports as either foot soreness or heel soreness. His current injury, left Achilles soreness, could likely be connected to his original injury earlier in the season. Harden playing a heavy amount of minutes, 36.9 per game this season, is also a contributing factor to him being banged up.

Rivers, after the win over the Bulls, said he tentatively expects Harden to return to the lineup against the Warriors. However, he also told reporters they will not push Harden to play if he is still experiencing soreness.

“We don’t want him playing if it’s sore,” Rivers said. “So if it’s sore enough, we still won’t play him on Friday. We just—we’re at that point. Like probably early in the year, everybody still played. We’ve gone into playoffs two years in a row with injuries. We all know you don’t win in the playoffs when your key guys aren’t healthy, period, and so we’re going to do whatever we can to be healthy.”

Embiid and Harden are both listed on the injury report as questionable heading into the contest against the Warriors.

The Sixers have a decision to make for the remainder of the regular season. Should they push the throttle in an attempt to get better playoff seeding? Should they put it on cruise control in an attempt to put the focus on getting Embiid and Harden fully healthy for the postseason?

As of Friday morning, the Sixers are third in the Eastern Conference with a 49-23 record. They are one of only five teams to have already clinched a playoff spot. The top seed, currently held by the Milwaukee Bucks, is not attainable. Milwaukee is ahead of the second-place Boston Celtics by 2.5 games and ahead of the Sixers by three.

However, in theory the second seed is very much in play. The Sixers currently sit just a half game behind the Celtics. Getting the second seed would provide home court advantage in a potential second-round series against the Celtics. Boston has the tiebreaker via a 3-0 edge in the season series. The Sixers would have to finish a full game ahead in order to pass them. For a team with the toughest remaining schedule in the league, doing that would be very difficult.

The Sixers’ primary focus the rest of the regular season should be on making sure Embiid and Harden are fully healthy for when the games truly matter. Home court advantage in a potential series against the Celtics is good to have. However, it is not enough to warrant sprinting to the finish at the expense of the superstar duo’s health. The team will not go anywhere in the postseason if their superstar duo is not playing up to their peak capability.

This team has proven what they are capable of all season long. Their play in recent weeks has even taken yet another step up. Since the beginning of March when Rivers put Tyrese Maxey back in the starting lineup and had Harden lead the second unit, the Sixers have been far and above the best team in the league. Over that stretch, the team is 10-2 and possesses a dominant plus-13.1 net rating. The next best net rating during this time period is the Bucks at plus-7.

In order for the Sixers to continue playing at that high of a level come the postseason, both Embiid and Harden need to be fully healthy. With both of them currently banged up, it would be in the team’s interest to take every precaution necessary, even if that means them missing a few games in the final weeks of the regular season.