Brett Brown sticks a depth chart on a sizable TV before every game that’s patterned more like a traffic light than a simple in/out list scrawled on most NBA team chalkboards.
Red. Can’t go.
Yellow. Can play, with minute restrictions.
Green. Healthy, let ’em rip.
Joel Embiid has been stuck at the red light for two years in Tankadelphia at the corner of The Process and Progress just waiting … waiting … waiting for the light to flip to yellow and for his career to shift into drive.
Embiid remains the light at the end of Daisy’s dock for a Philadelphia 76ers franchise that has bottomed out like few others in North American professional sports history. He’s ready to go green.
All 7-foot-2, 275 pounds and — of most importance — two sturdy feet of Embiid have taken giant steps forward in the preseason toward proving he’s more real deal than man of mystery. Embiid, out of Kansas, has played all six preseason games and has surpassed modest expectations, so Brown has hinted he’s willing to consider lifting some restrictions he had placed on the big man. Embiid could play more than 20 minutes a game. He could play both games in back-to-back nights. He could actually post-up more than he posts on social media.
“It’s been three years and the fact that I’m healthy now and ready to get back on the court, I just can’t wait,” Embiid said.
Embiid hasn’t played since the 76ers made him the No. 3 overall pick of the 2014 draft because of recurring injuries to his right foot. He hasn’t missed much — the 76ers went 10-72 last season and Brown is 47-199 entering his fourth season.
Embiid’s return should have set the benchmark in optimism for an organization that had shed salary and NBA talent at a rapid rate in exchange for lottery picks and cap room.
But, they are the 76ers for a reason, and no season is easy.
The Sixers might have been better off adding Doug Ross and Gregory House to Brown’s staff more than John Bryant. The Sixers have been struck by tough injuries year after year since Joshua Harris bought the team in 2011.
The Sixers finally won big — in the draft lottery — and took no-brainer Ben Simmons as the No. 1 overall pick. Simmons lived up to a doomed Sixers tradition when he suffered a broken bone in his right foot and could miss at least three months.
Under Harris’ ownership, projected cornerstones Andrew Bynum, Nerlens Noel and Embiid have all missed full seasons with injuries.
Noel griped in training camp about the Sixers frontcourt logjam and is out indefinitely with a strained groin. Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft, has yet to play in the preseason and the Sixers are hopeful he can play in the Oct. 26 opener against Oklahoma City. Okafor led the Sixers with 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in his rookie year before he was shut down in March for surgery on a torn right meniscus in his right knee. The Sixers said he was expected to resume basketball activities in about six weeks. He hasn’t returned yet.
Jerryd Bayless was signed as a free agent with the hope he’d be the starting point guard but is out with a sore left wrist and no timetable on his return.
“This has not been even close to being a normal preseason,” Brown said.
Let Brown explain why:
“Your starting point guard isn’t here.”
“The first player chosen in the draft isn’t here.”
“You had three five men, now you’ve got one who plays 20 minutes a game.”
“I could keep going on and on. It’s not excuses. It’s just reality,” Brown added. “You try different things.”
Here are some things to watch as the 76ers ready for another lousy season:
FEELING SOCIAL: Game highlights got you down? Embiid has become a fan favorite for a plethora of reasons but his social media accounts have been a huge hit. Embiid keeps the mood light on his Instagram account, JoelEmbiid, where he bills himself as, “The Process.” He called himself Tiger Hoods on a clip of his golf shot and captioned one game photo with “Preparing to AirBall this shot…”
On Twitter at @JoelEmbiid, he teased the Australian-born Simmons about GOP candidate Donald Trump’s policy during Wednesday’s debate with a tweet that said, “If he wins , he’s gonna deport you.”
3 AT 5: OK, so say Embiid, Okafor and Noel are all healthy at the same time. Now what? Brown and team president Bryan Colangelo have said the glut of big men can be a good problem to have. Sure, because at least one of them is always injured. But should all three recover, there’s no room at the frontcourt inn to give all three suitable playing time. Embiid isn’t going anywhere at center. That leaves Embiid and Okafor fighting for minutes at power forward or backing up Embiid. That’s not good enough for either one of the former lottery picks.
“I don’t see a way of it working,” Noel said. “You’ve got three talented centers that can play 30-plus minutes a night and three centers can’t play 30 minutes a night. That’s that. Things need to be situated. Obviously, somebody’s got to be moved around. It’s a tough situation, but I can only say so much because I have no say and no power.”
Who stays and who goes — this season or next summer — could shape the direction of the franchise.
SIMMONS DOCUMENTARY: The Simmons documentary “One and Done” premieres on Showtime Nov. 4. The crux of the film is about Simmons’ lone season at LSU.