Nylon Calculus: Embiid’s minutes restrictions more logical than Strasburg’s was

Jan 20, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts to a non call during the third quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers won the game 93-92. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 20, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts to a non call during the third quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers won the game 93-92. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports /

On Monday, I did a home-and-home interview exchange with Josh Wilson of The Sixer Sense blog, where we discussed Joel Embiid from the differing points of views of an “impartial analyst” vs a “team supporter. At one point, Josh asked me what I thought about Embiid’s minutes restrictions. Here is how I responded:

Josh: “How do you feel about players resting when healthy (example being the team deciding to not play him on back-to-backs)?”

Andre’: “For this player, on this 76ers team, I think the minutes restriction is brilliant. The team isn’t trying to compete this season, so no need to risk him (unlike, if you watch baseball, how ridiculous I thought it was for the Washington Nationals to shut down their prize rookie pitcher when they had a chance to compete for a title a few years back).”

The bold section of my response is what I want to talk about here, because it has come up several times recently. The baseball incident that I’m referring to is when the Nationals shut down their young pitching ace Stephen Strasburg in 2012. On the surface there are a lot of similarities between the Strasburg situation and Embiid’ situation this season:

  • Both Embiid and Strasburg were thought of as generational talents when they were drafted.
  • Embiid was injured when he was drafted, and did not play a game until the third season afterwards. Strasburg played eight games in his rookie season before he tore up his elbow, then returned for a single game in his sophomore year and was unable to play significant stretches until…his third season.
  • And of course, both had electric first seasons back after the injury, justifying all of their pre-draft hype and earning accolades and plaudits for their performances while operating on strict minutes/innings limits.

So, why do believe that Embiid’s minutes restriction is “brilliant” for the 76ers, while Strasburg’s was “ridiculous”? Team situation.

Embiid has helped the 76ers become scrappy. They are no longer a pushover, and in fact have challenged and even defeated some much better teams. Overall, this is how they shape up on the season:

embiid-vs-strassburg-scoring-margin /

When Embiid is off the court, the current 76ers have a scoring margin (per 100 possessions) worse than the worst team in the NBA. When he’s been on the court, the 76ers have a positive scoring margin that would actually be higher than several of the playoffs teams in the East. But even if Embiid played every minute of every game and could maintain his current impact, the 76ers would still not be even close to as good as the best teams in the league. They might be pushing for a playoff spot with this hot streak, but that playoff appearance isn’t going anywhere.

Also, they expect to have No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons coming back to the team in some capacity within the month, and if they maintain their poor record they are on pace to get another lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft…all of which suggests that the future is brighter than the present for the 76ers. Thus, they have absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by risking their franchise big man.

The Nationals, on the other hand, were in an entirely different situation. Their record on the season was 98 – 64, the best in all of baseball including both the National and American Leagues. Their team was, therefore, primed to make a championship run potentially that season. And Strassburg was their best pitcher, in a league in which a hot starting pitcher can almost carry a team through the playoffs by himself. There just aren’t that many chances for a franchise to win a title (the Nationals still have yet to win one in the four seasons since), so if there’s a chance to get one…THAT’S when you take a risk.

The team believed that beyond a certain innings limit, the chances of Strasburg reinjuring himself grew too risky. As that article pointed out, that logic is questionable. But even if you go with that, by midseason it was clear that the Nationals were contenders. So if Strasburg needed an innings limit…I contend that letting him rest more in the season so that he could be available for the postseason would have been more intelligent. Even if such a train of action increased his injury risk slightly, as pointed out in the article, there was no guarantee that it would be any more risky than pitching him that season at all.

Next: The midseason offensive surge in historical context

I’m all for intelligent prudence, especially when the decisions are driven by data and analytics. But sometimes, even in the analytics age, teams should think at least a bit out of the box when there’s a very legitimate chance at a ring on the line. The Nationals in 2012 had that chance…the 76ers in 2017 don’t. Thus, while I sideline-manage that Strasburg should have been handled more creatively so that he could pitch in the postseason, I have absolutely no issue with Embiid’s minutes and back-to-back restrictions continuing on through the rest of the season.