I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.
Joel Embiid has already beaten the odds. As a tall, skinny kid growing up in Cameroon, he loved soccer and was likely destined to become a volleyball star. Then, at the age of 15, he began playing basketball thanks in large part to fellow Cameroonian Luc Mbah a Moute.
Now, he’s the reigning MVP of the NBA and one of the most dominant forces the sport has ever seen. Embiid is fond of saying his life is like a movie. If one day Disney comes calling, that script would be full of plenty of twists and turns. Casting a 7-foot person with Embiid’s charisma could prove challenging though.
Embiid will turn 30 in March. He’s played in 428 regular-season games and 53 postseason contests. He’s suffered so many injuries — often at the worst possible times.
While there was plenty of asinine discourse this past weekend, Tuesday night’s disaster is a poignant reminder that we need to enjoy and appreciate Joel Embiid while he’s still playing basketball at such a ridiculously high level.
When the news broke that Embiid would be a late scratch Saturday and miss yet another matchup vs. Nikola Jokic in Denver, it was almost a numb feeling. We’d been here before. Too many times.
While people got their jokes off, and folks in the media (especially those covering the Nuggets) worked themselves into a lather over Embiid “ducking” Jokic, many around here had that sinking feeling.
OK, what’s really going on with Embiid’s knee?
While there was plenty of shameful behavior by folks in the media, the bigger shame is that it seems like Embiid listened to the ridicule. He saw the ridiculous and unfounded notion that he’s avoided playing against Jokic in Denver and that he only plays bad teams on the road.
And for those reasons, he apparently decided to try to play Tuesday night in San Francisco. It should have never happened. A player who a week ago set a franchise record by dropping 70 points in a game looked like a shell of himself. For years it’s felt like the Sixers fell off a cliff whenever Embiid went to the bench. Against the Warriors, he appeared to be actively hurting the team.
The night ended in horribly predictable fashion, with Embiid playing meaningless fourth quarter minutes and having his leg landed on while diving to recover his eighth turnover of the night. There were signs all night that Embiid was compromised physically. Sure, we all make jokes about how often he falls, but this was different. It looked like he was fighting his own body for nearly 30 minutes.
There’s no other way to say it: it was an organizational failure that Embiid took the floor against Golden State. Nobody should escape blame for what we all witnessed. Embiid and the team can say on repeat that the goal is to get the superstar center to the playoffs healthy, but their actions are coming up way short.
We’re getting to a point where it’s fair to wonder how many playoff runs Embiid has left. When he’s been healthy this season, he’s never played better. His skill and basketball intellect are at their peak — his body is not. Embiid has taken steps to get himself in better shape, including hiring a world-class dietician. But given his frame, his injury history and his age, there’s concern about how many injuries he can sustain before it becomes too much.
He’s already missed 12 of the Sixers’ 34 games this season. He was out with an illness at one point, but he’s suffered a sore hip, sprained ankle and has now dealt with swelling in his left knee for roughly a month. Embiid has talked extensively about how he hasn’t taken any possessions off this season, how he’s going all out on both ends. That style of play has led to stellar two-way performances, but it also could be why he finds himself so banged up before the calendar even flips to February.
Everyone — the team, the media, the fans — needs to have a greater appreciation for what Embiid is doing and how delicate the situation has become.
One day (hopefully not at any time soon), Embiid will have a likely tear-filled press conference announcing his retirement. Whether it’s like Allen Iverson making sure he comes back to the Sixers to do so after stints with other teams or a farewell tour with the Sixers a la Julius Erving, that day will one day come for Embiid. No. 21 will go up into the rafters of whatever arena they’re playing in at that point.
As the saying goes, Father Time is undefeated.
That’s why no one, not even Embiid himself, should get caught up in the nonsense. The goal is to win a championship and cement his legacy. When he eventually does retire, the discourse will go from whatever silliness we’re talking about now, to where Embiid not only ranks in Sixers history, but in Philadelphia sports history.
We’ll have the rest of our lives to lament what could’ve been if the Sixers continue to come up short in the postseason.
We only have this moment to watch Joel Embiid play basketball.