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Embiid vs. Jokic is the matchup we all deserve to see — just don’t tell Adam Silver

Joel Embiid vs. Nikola Jokic, the Sixers vs. the Nuggets, an MVP rivalry that has now spanned the last four seasons... but the schedule makers apparently don’t want to see stars at full strength for nationally televised games. Weird.

Denver Nuggets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Since the early portion of the 2020-2021 season, Joel Embiid vs. Nikola Jokic has been a raging NBA MVP debate. You got Embiid, the two-way stud and league’s leading scorer vs. perhaps the world’s best player in Nikola Jokic.

Joel had a leg up on the Serbian-born superstar, who was once drafted 41st overall in the second round by the Denver Nuggets, back in early 2021; that is until Embiid tried to posterize several Washington Wizards and sprained his knee. The number of games Joel missed that season likely cost him his first-ever MVP award. Embiid was the favorite, just ahead of Lakers’ star/GOAT LeBron James, per DraftKings, at the time. Jokic, healthier than his counterparts, wound up winning it.

In 2021-2022, Embiid led the Sixers to a third seed in the East. And Jokic led a depleted Nuggets bunch to a sixth seed in the West. Many of us thought the respective team records would help Embiid win enough votes from media members who have traditionally placed a ton of emphasis on wins, but well... Jokic’s #VORP was too strong of an argument for many that year. Jokic won again and reports trickled out that Embiid was really disappointed about it as the team would be eliminated by Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat in the second round.

And then in 2022-2023, Embiid finally won enough votes to hoist the league MVP award. But Jokic got the last laugh, hoisting the NBA Finals MVP just a couple of months later.

In terms of team success, Jokic has reached the Conference Finals a couple of times now, leading his team to Denver’s first title in NBA franchise history. Embiid’s Sixers haven’t made a Conference Finals since the Allen Iverson days.

Jokic’s ability to read double or triple teams, make the right pass, and his reluctance to take as many death-defying leaps as Embiid, has allowed him to dominate games, while avoiding the type of injuries Embiid picks up. Those various ailments limited the Cameroonian superstar in each of the last few regular seasons and playoffs.

A head-to-head win shouldn’t matter as much as it probably does to MVP and All-NBA voters, but there are always narratives that folks (who likely don’t watch every team’s games) cleave to when making their decisions.

And so this is the matchup we all deserve to see.

Embiid is averaging a hilarious, league-leading 34.9 points per game. If the center wins another scoring title, he’ll be the first player since James Harden to win three straight. Doing so would put the big man in some extremely rarefied air. He’s averaging 11.7 rebounds, 6 dimes, 2 blocks, and a steal per contest while connecting on 53.6 percent from the field and 88.5 percent on his absurd 11.8 FTA per contest.

As for Jokic, he’s averaging the 15th-most points per game with 25.5, 9.3 dimes and 11.8 boards, shooting 58 percent from the floor. Jokic still has an opportunity to get his assists up and average a triple-double, if he were so inclined.

But listen, I can’t keep this up any longer. I have to go on a little rant here. The Sixers are playing on the second half of a back-to-back and the Nugz are well rested, having not played since Sunday! C’mon!

Earlier in the season, the Sixers hosted the Boston Celtics. It was Philadelphia’s second game of a back-to-back and they lost at home to a depleted Celtics’ squad missing Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis! The Sixers may not make any excuses (nor should they) losing a winnable game like that, which could have major seeding implications down the road. But I can make excuses for them.

The truth of the matter is that Philadelphia had just been in a shootout vs. the league’s most potent offense at the time (who plays at a historic pace) in the Indiana Pacers.

The second game of back-to-backs, those are really difficult to win, especially when facing one of the best teams in the NBA.

And now the league has scheduled this marquee matchup once again on the second night of a back-to-back for Embiid and co.

Joel is by no means totally healthy.

He missed four games in a row recently after having played 29.5 minutes on an (already) sprained ankle in a win vs. the Raptors. The reigning MVP has missed seven out of the team’s last 10 games, while experiencing some left knee swelling. He seems to keep playing hurt in the games he appears in, apparently content to stat-pad deep into garbage time on a bum wheel.

So my question is basically this: if the NBA wants the stars to play, play hard and be relatively fresh for these ratings special games featuring top stars, why are they sticking said games on back-to-backs?!

C’mon Mr. Adam Silver, why do you hate the Process so much?

(Just kidding, this isn’t Sixers-directed hate since many teams have to deal with this. It’s just stupid TV ratings and TV scheduling bungling up the otherwise best matchups of the year.)

Denver meanwhile, beat the Pacers a couple of nights ago, so they’ll have the rest advantage over the Sixers who hosted the matinee slot on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday.

By Monday evening, it looked like a few key Nuggets might not be at full strength either:

By Tuesday afternoon, most of those big championship-winning names were upgraded to “probable.”

And while folks on the Sixers like De’Anthony Melton, Robert Covington and Kenneth Lofton, Jr. have been ruled “out,” by the team, we’re still waiting for word on other banged up reserves like Danuel House Jr. and Mo Bamba.

So the Sixers should be able to suit up a starting lineup of Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, Kelly Oubre Jr., Nico Batum and Embiid.

But they probably won’t be at full strength, nor adequately rested.

And this is an ongoing problem for the NBA, whether they’d agree or not.

Sure, the top names are going to give this a shot. But you have to ask yourself if this weren’t a nationally televised game, if this weren’t Embiid’s (mostly media driven) rival in Jokic, would the big fella even suit up today?

Or would they give him the Melton treatment:

Many Sixers’ fans have been actively rooting for Embiid to abandon his apparent quest for another MVP, and the double-double streak which might help him win, but also might hurt his chances by playing in garbage time on bad wheels and stat-padding, then missing time.

But our issues with the team’s load management strategy aside, this league has a problem: the season is too long, with too many back-to-backs squeezed in. And each one diminishes what would otherwise be an amazing matchup.

This is stupid. And no, an exhibition In-Season Tournament with one extra game for the finalists, is not the answer, lol.

The answer is lopping off a few games from that 82 number, or at the very least spacing things out better so that we don’t have to watch players who may need a night off push to play a game because TV ratings and media analysis that can impact not only awards, but those awards can trigger incentives and bonuses players have in their contracts.

If we know that voters will likely look at head-to-head matchups, and we know the awards they dish out can trigger things like massive salary payouts and even super-max contracts, then shouldn’t all players get the same chance to rest before these landmark games?

It’s just dumb.

Anyway, if the Sixers win this ballgame on the second-half of a b2b, we can forget how dumb this all was for a day or two.

But I’d still love the NBA to take a look into this.

Mr. Silver, why don’t you want your stars, the ones appearing on ESPN or TNT to be healthy and rested enough to give these big games their all?

Why even tempt a smart team (like Miami) to hold out superstars, fearing injury aggravation?

It occasionally vibes similar to our old tanking debates.

The league incentivizes smart, rebuilding teams to lose on purpose. That’s certainly part of the calculus teams like the Spurs and Jazz recently factored in when trading away names like Dejounte Murray, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Let’s be awful and increase our odds of landing Victor Wembanyama or some other difference-maker as a fallback while adding picks.

It was part of the calculus for Sixers’ Prez and legend Sam Hinkie, who once traded away Jrue Holiday to improve his team’s odds of eventually landing an eventual two-way dominant future Hall of Famer like Joel Embiid.

And yet, the league hates it when teams tank!

Similarly, the league hates when stars sit out b2b’s and load manage, yet they literally incentivize them to do just that by squeezing in these wacky scheduling blips.

Mr. Silver, I say either accept that you’re cramped schedule coaxes some teams reason to rest studs, and coaxes some studs to play at less than full strength when they probably shouldn’t; especially with these arbitrary new minimum games played cutoffs for key awards! A guy who has appeared in 65 games can win MVP but a guy who has appeared in 64 cannot even tally a single vote?! Wasn’t Joel punished enough in the past for missing games without the 65-min criteria!?

That’s it for my rant. Enjoy the MVP rivalry matchup. I’ll be rooting for the Sixers to win for the playoff seeding implications. And I’ll be rooting for them to yank any key stars if they appear to be limping around on nagging knee or ankle issues.

Operation: get Joel to the second round healthy for the first time in his career and see what happens. Little else matters to me now in terms of regular season awards, scoring titles, streaks, or head-to-heads.

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