Those were some of the words that Denver-based media members—not fans, but credentialed media members—used to describe Joel Embiid when he was ruled out shortly before Saturday’s highly anticipated rematch against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.
Never mind that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Sixers training staff “had concerns while watching Embiid during his warm-up routine” and made the decision for him to sit out. Never mind that Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey—who is not exactly an Embiid fanboy—was at the arena Saturday and noted that Embiid didn’t look physically right during his warm-up.
That didn’t stop the “ducking” allegations from coming out in full force yet again.
Thing is, it's not even about the MVP. It's about which games I know he'll play in (Spurs) and which games you can tell he won't. https://t.co/epx2nKjd3m— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) January 27, 2024
Imagine if the second-best boxer on the planet constantly dipped the heavyweight champ.— Jake Shapiro, but resoluting (@Shapalicious) January 27, 2024
How am I not supposed to think less of Embiid a the end of his career? This is a stain on his resume.
Absolute clowns that should be ashamed of themselves pic.twitter.com/hX6Dw8ZhRs— Jake (@JakeMarc23) January 31, 2024
Liberty Ballers’ own David Early poked holes in the ducking narrative Tuesday by doing the slightest modicum of research, which was apparently too much to ask of the folks who ran with it. The “he always skips road games against good teams” narrative falls apart just as quickly, but again, jokes > facts.
It’s easy to pile on Nuggets fans and media members here—Lord knows we all have the receipts over the past few days—but they weren’t the only ones to join the party. ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins got in on it as well.
Now, fast-forward to Tuesday night. A clearly hobbled Embiid decided to suit up against the Golden State Warriors, although he limped around the floor for most of the night before reinjuring the same left knee that sidelined him earlier this month. He’s now set to undergo an MRI and is in grave danger of falling below the new 65-game minimum for MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and the All-NBA teams. (He can only miss five more games this season before becoming ineligible for those awards.)
Sam Amick of The Athletic reported Wednesday that “there are people within the Sixers who are convinced” that Embiid played against the Warriors on Tuesday “only because of all the scrutiny” after he missed Saturday’s game against the Nuggets and Monday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Amick said Embiid “looked like a player who pushed himself to play against Golden State because the whole basketball world was screaming in his ear.” Fun!
Regardless of whether Embiid felt pressure to play Tuesday night because of the “ducking” narrative, the 65-game minimum or because the team has recently been in free fall amidst a rash of injuries, he clearly wasn’t his usual, game-wrecking self. It’s unclear when (or if) he’ll get back to that point this season, as ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported Monday that Embiid will be dealing with this knee injury for the rest of the year. Not great, Bob!
To be clear, the Sixers deserve their fair share of criticism for how the past few days unfolded. After Embiid appeared to tweak his right knee last Thursday against the Indiana Pacers, the Sixers absolutely should have included him on the injury report as questionable for the Nuggets game. Shelburne said Embiid “fully intended to try to play in Denver” and “he was the one who said to the team, ‘I’m playing, don’t even put me on the injury report.’”
Teams often acquiesce to their stars’ wishes—the New Orleans Pelicans have gone through a similar push-and-pull with Zion Williamson in recent years—so this problem is not unique to the Sixers. They’ve yet to disclose the specifics regarding Embiid’s ongoing knee injury, but that could be his call as well.
The league’s collective bargaining agreement says teams “may make public medical information” only if it relates “solely to the reasons why any such player has not been or is not rendering services.” If the player is not expected to play for two or more weeks, the team’s first public statement “may only describe such injury, illness, or other medical condition and the anticipated date when such player will be reevaluated by the team.”
Embiid is likely conscious of the injury-prone label that’s been applied to him throughout his NBA career, and considering how terminally online he used to be, he’s probably aware of the “ducking” narrative as well. If he felt the need to prematurely rush back Tuesday to satiate a bunch of Twitter trolls, the Sixers never should have let that happen.
Then again, when you have credentialed reporters questioning your character, it’s easy to understand why he might be tempted to do so.
“Is there a pattern with him not playing here in five years?” Jake Shapiro, an analyst for DenverSports.com, asked Sixers head coach Nick Nurse after Embiid missed Saturday’s game against the Nuggets. “It’s not a reflection at all on his character or him as a player that he seems to miss this game every year?” (Unsurprisingly, Nurse did not respond.)
Some of the loudest voices who were criticizing Embiid over the past few days have already begun to soften their tone. LB’s own Steve Lipman even prompted an apology from one.
Looks terrible, no doubt. I'll learn and try and be better. No more commentary from me on when he misses games. https://t.co/jdXjvAj59i— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) January 31, 2024
Amick might have put it best Wednesday, though.
“The macro, and the thing that should inspire fans and reporters alike to think twice about how we discuss this massive man who is such a basketball treasure when his body allows him to be, is that Embiid is very clearly fighting through the same sort of physical ailments that have dogged him for so much of his 10-year career,” he wrote.
Considering how contentious the MVP race has been over the past few years, it’s no surprise that the discourse surrounding Embiid and Jokic often devolves into a nuclear wasteland. As a longstanding member of Team “We Can Like Both Guys, I Promise!,” I can only hope that the conversation begins to skew more positively as we watch two potential all-time greats in their primes.
Based on how the past few days unfolded, though, I won’t hold my breath.