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Does Joel Embiid purposely avoid playing Nikola Jokic in Denver?

We keep hearing that Joel Embiid ducks Nikola Jokic when the teams play in Denver. But is that really the case? Year-by-year history and context.

Denver Nuggets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Does Joel Embiid purposely avoid playing against Nikola Jokic in Denver?

If you pop on ESPN or open X, you’re destined to encounter some pundit or troll reminding you that the reigning MVP hasn’t suited up to play in The House that Joker Built since the year 2019 (the 2019-2020 season).

So does Embiid fear Joker? Does he get altitude sickness? Does he fear losing a head-to-head vs. a perennial MVP rival? What’s going on?

You know we had to check the record books to figure this question out.

Early years

In these early years of Embiid and Jokic’s careers, we really didn’t have any MVP rivalries to discuss.

At this time, before Jokic had ascended to All-World levels, and before Embiid had strung together a few mostly healthy seasons, it wouldn’t have made sense to dodge a particular matchup based on the competition.

The Sixers were essentially still #processing before Embiid’s first (mostly) healthy season come 2017-2018.

But we’ll look at the full picture anyway. Remember, the Sixers only play in Denver once per year so we’re focusing on those.

2016-2017

Joel, this season a “third-year rookie” (having missed his first two with a foot injury) did play both of the Denver games, including the Dec. 30 road tilt. The Sixers won at altitude, 124-122.

2017-2018

Embiid did miss this game, as Bryan Colangelo’s team was essentially playing things very carefully with their newfound “Crown jewel of the Process.” He’d miss nine of the team’s first 35 games, on perhaps a bit of a formulaic load-management schedule.

He would also miss five contests during this same 11-game stretch that included the game up in Colorado.

For good reason, the franchise wanted to take great precautions with their newfound star.

The AP would report:

He has been dealing with a bad back..... “The ability to give him more rest,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said Friday of the decision. “It’s related to his health.”

Embiid has played three straight games since missing five of the previous seven.”

So I don’t think he was ducking anything here... unless you think he was also “ducking” the Pelicans, Bulls, Kings and Raptors, lol.

2018-2019

Do you remember when Jimmy Butler was around, and there was talk about him blowing up film sessions? We’ll time hop to the good ole days when the Sixers were on the verge of building a super team.

Per The Trentonian, the reason each of Butler and Embiid would miss this Sixers-Nugz tilt in the mountains:

“Jimmy Butler is scheduled to see a specialist in Los Angeles to have his ailing right wrist evaluated, while All-Star center Joel Embiid will be rested following a four-game stretch in which he played through low back soreness.”

Two years in a row missing this game while managing a sore back, and reporters around this time would still refer worrisomely to the lumbar stress fracture known as spondylolysis that cost Joel time back at Kansas.

Fans and reporters were begging the team to buy Joel’s ailing back some rest before the All-Star break:

Derek Bodner and Rich Hofmann, on their ole SixersBeat pod even wondered if it might not be prudent to rest him not only in Denver but straight through the All-Star break, given his scary history of back and foot issues.

2019-2020

This season, Joel did play in Denver, his last to date, dropping 19 points and 15 boards in a 100-97 road loss. Joker had a marvelous 26 points, 20 boards, 6 dimes, two blocks and two steals.

For what it’s worth, Embiid was limited to just 28 minutes because he was still ramping up his conditioning after dealing with left knee tendinitis for the better part of the previous 10 months.

And well... we may be headed back to a familiar and creepy place today:

The rivalry years

Now I think is when we might pay particular attention to any potential “ducking,” as we developed a fan/media-driven MVP rivalry by this point.

2020-2021

In March of 2021, Embiid hyperextended his knee and suffered a bone bruise and would miss the team’s next 10 games. He believed at the time of injury that his season was over. No apparent ducking here, as the big fella’s unfortunate landing likely cost him the 2021 MVP.

Embiid would miss 10 games before returning to the lineup, and miss one more game after the team played Denver, before his eventual return.

Fans were clamoring for him to return and stack enough games to still win MVP, so it makes sense to think he came back as soon as he was ready and able to play.

2021-2022

Joel missed nine consecutive games due to league Health and Safety Protocols, as he dealt with COVID-19, including the team’s game at Denver. He was deemed ineligible to play.

(Somehow, the Sixers won handily with a starting lineup of Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, Georges Niang, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris).

But for fans lumping in the 2021 and 2022 seasons as evidence of ducking Denver, go do your homework first.

2022-2023

This one kind of drove me insane.

In 2023, Joel was ruled out for a game in Denver with a sore right calf. James Harden was still out as well, being forced to miss time after logging an astounding 46 minutes on an ailing Achilles issue.

So yeah, the Sixers knew that Harden was out of the lineup and that Embiid was nursing a sore calf. Still, Joel played in both ends of a road back-to-back vs. the Warriors and Suns.

By that game in Phoenix, Joel looked so limpy and limited that even Bismack Biyombo was eating his lunch! If he would have played the next game in Denver, I would have literally gone mad.

He should never have suited up for both the Warriors and Suns games and it (thankfully, mercifully) cost him the game in Denver.

My X timeline reflected my insanity over this clear load MGMT bungling:

I would write at the time:

“If Joel sat vs. the Warriors (winners of 12 of their last 13 at home) they could have increased their chances at the more winnable game in Phoenix (losers in five of their prior six games, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, having already ruled out Deandre Ayton and Kevin Durant)....

But since Joel opted to go in Golden State, then it made sense to rest him during the game vs. Phoenix. Embiid looked fatigued/achey right from the jump in that one.

The Inky had the postgame quotes from Joel himself:

“I’m going to need [a night off] pretty soon. It’s two things. Like I said, it’s all about [being healthy] for the playoffs. You know, like tonight, I was very sloppy. Usually when I’m sluggish and sloppy that means I’m tired. I’ve been playing a lot of minutes, I’ve been playing every single game.”

To make matters worse, Embiid logged 38 and then 32 minutes in each of the b2b.

The Crown Jewel of The Process was still in down by 18 with just over four minutes to play vs. the Suns!!! Holy orbital PTSD, Batman.

Per Woj, and Shelburne Monday:“Embiid did try to give it a go at the shootaround Monday morning, but the Sixers decided to give him some rest. Monday’s game in Denver is the Sixers’ third in four nights.”

Had the team rested Joel in Golden State or Phoenix like they should have, he probably could have been fresh enough to go vs. Denver.

(If you don’t think the team has the leverage to make those calls, and it’s mostly Joel’s say, well then maybe you have a point, I’m simply not certain).

2023-2024

That brings us up to date.

As a Sixers fan, I genuinely wish Embiid was “ducking” Joker last weekend. Because the reality of this situation seems far more grim at the moment.

Per ESPN’s Senior Writer, Ramona Shelburne:

“[Joel Embiid’s] just managing this knee injury, and I think he full intended to try to play in Denver, he was the one who said to the team: ‘I’m playing, don’t even put me on the injury report,’ but that knee is an issue that he’s going to have to manage for the rest of the season. And there’s swelling in there, he couldn’t even jump before the Denver game.”

Ummm... if Shelburne says that this is an issue that he’s going to have to manage for the REST OF THE YEAR (!!!) then that diminishes the 76ers title odds, and should even be factored into Daryl Morey’s calculus for how aggressive he wants to be this NBA Trade Deadline.

Verdict?

So, do I think Joel has ever ducked Joker in Denver? I honestly don’t. Not even close. He couldn’t suit up the next night against Porland either and his absence led to a real butt-kicking by a lowly Blazers team.

So I believe those “ducking” arguments kind of fall apart because there wasn’t really and truly this intense of a media and fan-driven rivalry until the 2020-2021 season. And of the last four road battles he had no shot to play in two of them, and many of us were endlessly relieved he missed the third to buy some crucial regular season rest and avoid aggravating potentially serious issues.

Shelburne’s report that Embiid insisted he not even be included on the injury report last weekend also speaks volumes. He wants to play in every single game even though he shouldn’t.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Embiid is quite likely to deal with a significant injury. And it’s limited his availability, not just in Denver, but all around the league.

The truth is that Joel should tempt the media to claim he’s “ducking” a whole pile of more (regular season) teams to ensure that magical healthy playoff run we all deserve to see.

Dear Joel — play less now, play more later.

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