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Joel Embiid Is Back And The Eastern Conference Playoff Race Just Got A Whole Lot More Interesting

Thearon W. Henderson. Getty Images.

Outside of the top seed in the East, pretty much everything else in terms of seeding is still up for grabs as we wrap up these final 8-9 games of the regular season. A couple bad losses here and there can have a pretty significant impact on your potential playoff path, which is part of what makes these final weeks so fun. We have the same thing going on in the West, but there's one difference in the East that in my opinion makes things a little more interesting.

A healthy Joel Embiid.

That's the question we all want to see the answer to. It's been 62 days since we've seen Joel Embiid on an NBA court, and given that 1/30 feels like another lifetime ago, it's important to remember where the Sixers were at that time of the year. 

The Sixers were 29-17 and had spent the majority of the NBA season up until that point in the 3 spot. They owned the 6th best offense in the NBA which was paired with the 8th best defense and 3rd best net rating. Joel Embiid was doing insane shit pretty much on a nightly basis, and there was a strong case that he was playing at a back to back MVP level. 

Since Embiid went out? The Sixers are just 11-18 with the 22nd ranked offense, 23rd ranked defense, 22nd net rating, and now find themselves in a Play In fight for their lives. Safe to say this Embiid fella is pretty important. 

Which brings me to what his return could mean moving forward. Again, here is how things look at the moment in the East

I would certainly hope that the Sixers are only bringing Embiid back because he's either 100% or as close to 100% as he's going to get at this point. 

If he is, and adding a healthy Embiid has the Sixers looking like the team we saw before his injury, is it crazy to think that with a closing schedule of OKC/MIA/MEM/SA/DET/ORL/BKN that the Sixers could play their way into as high as 6th and avoid the Play In all together? If things hold how they look now with the top 5 seeds, that would not only mean the Sixers end up on the side of the bracket they probably prefer, but it also means a date with the Cavs in RD1, a team that PHI matches up well against. 

The tough part will be leapfrogging the Heat, given the best the Sixers can do is tie the H2H series if they win that final game. Since they are not in the same division, the tie breaker after H2H would be Conference Record, and as you can see the Heat are up 3 in the loss column there. They close the season with NYK/PHI/HOU/IND/ATL/DAL/TOR/TOR so it's not a lock that they can keep the Sixers in 8th, but let's say this is how things end the year and the Play In game is MIA/PHI.

One would think that with a healthy Embiid, that's a game the Sixers would win, as the Sixers won the only meeting between those two teams that Embiid played in. If you're the Bucks, are you pumped about having to potentially face a healthy Embiid in RD1? The only time they've played Embiid was in the very first game of the year, where if you remember there was definitely some bullshit that helped the Bucks squeak out the 118-117 win.

Then, if the Sixers win that Play In game, it becomes even more likely that the Celtics meet the Heat in the first round, which has its own concerns given the recent history between those two teams. 

The bigger point is that it's not very often you see an MVP level player return at this stage of the season with so much on the line in terms of how it could potentially impact playoff seeding for everyone involved. Maybe we see the Heat (who are 6-4 over their last 10) try like hell to get into 6th so they can avoid Embiid all together.

To me, this is what makes the stretch run so exciting. I'm someone who prefers every team to have all their best players healthy for the playoffs, because I want to see the best of the best on the highest stage. This isn't the Sixers just adding a bench piece or a rotation player, this is a team that was 3rd in the conference at the time of injury adding a player who was well on his way to winning another MVP. While he certainly has his playoff questions, it's not like an infusion of that level of talent should just be ignored. Especially if he looks like his old self a few games after getting into game shape. 

Both conferences are coming down to the wire in terms of seeding, but only one conference is welcoming back an MVP talent. You basically have to throw out everything we've seen over the last 62 days from the Sixers because it's pretty clear they are two completely different teams with and without Embiid (shocker!), so it's not as if they are your typical 7/8 seed. Whether or not that matters is what we're about to find out, but there's no denying things are now a whole lot more interesting now that Embiid is back in the fold.