You can’t take both sides of the Joel Embiid discourse
Joel Embiid raised his arms and motioned for the boos to grow louder.
The Sixers superstar center joined his team on the sideline late in Philadelphia's loss to the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night.
Embiid was a late scratch due to left knee soreness, cancelling what was billed as the first showdown between the reigning MVP and his runner-up in Denver in four seasons.
The discourse surrounding Embiid's play is already nauseating. "He's a free throw merchant," some say. "He stat-pads against bad teams," others add. "Do it in the playoffs," everyone digs.
So, when the big man was ruled out just before tip-off, Embiid's critics may as well have been foaming at the mouth.
"Where's Embiid at?," the Nuggets faithful bellowed at various times throughout the game.
Sure, it's frustrating for those who spent their hard-earned money on tickets to attend the game, although many probably would've gone just to see Nikola Jokic and a good Nuggets team anyway. Sure, it's disappointing for viewers at home, who carved their Saturday plans around sitting in front of the television to watch the heavyweight battle.
But, at the end of the day, isn't this what the NBA world - on television programs, podcasts/radio, written mediums, and the cesspool that is social media - created, too?
Embiid won MVP last season, flamed out in the second round of the playoffs (and, for the first time, deserved the lion's share of the criticism for it), and then sat back while the world told him his regular-season accomplishments don't matter.
To be clear, there is some validity to that.
The player isn't wrong for chasing the return on his personal investment in his craft. But, the public isn't wrong to criticize him for maxing out his season on a personal accolade and then shrinking when his team needed him the most.
But, when enough people say the same thing, the message is delivered.
You spend the entire summer kicking a player for chasing regular-season recognition and collapsing in the playoffs, you make it clear that the regular season doesn't matter.
You tell someone who thinks they've finally proven something that they actually haven't proven anything, they're going to re-assess their priorities.
So, Embiid took the court this season understanding that he needs to deliver in the playoffs. Sure, he needs to do everything in his might to produce regular-season wins so that the Sixers are well-positioned when the playoffs begin. But, he also has to ensure that his body is prioritized so that he can be his best self when the games really start to matter.
The goal, in Embiid's words, is to be ready for April, May, and June.
Cornered at his locker by reporters after Philadelphia's MLK Day victory over the Houston Rockets, Embiid acknowledged that criticizing him is a very easy way to get favorable engagement online and elsewhere.
It wasn't a plea for sympathy. Rather, it was an expression of understanding that he won't get his flowers until he carries his regular-season dominance into the playoffs.
"I've already [won MVP]. Like I've always said, if I have a chance to get a second one, I'd do it. But, not gonna force myself or push for it. My game is always going to speak for itself. We're winning, that's the main thing. Gotta keep winning," Embiid said.
"Obviously, you put in the stats. To be in the conversation is great, too. But, at the end of the day, if there's something going on and I can't meet the requirements for the amount of games played to qualify for that, then so be it. But, one thing we're not going to do is push forward to try to make that requirement."
It's a mature, team-first line of thought. Whether you believe him or not, he's made it clear that his priority is being healthy for the playoffs.
One regular-season game in Denver won't necessarily change the odds of achieving that goal.
But, that's not the point.
The point is that Embiid is not thinking about the same things his detractors are.
If Embiid had made it clear that his priority was a second consecutive MVP trophy, then not battling with Jokic in Denver on Saturday would've been a big deal. You can't go on an ass-kicking tour only on your terms and then be upset when people don't want to give you your flowers.
But, that's not the case. Embiid's consistency has extended beyond the court this season. He hasn't mentioned awards, and he's even gone as far as conceding that Jokic is the best player in the NBA. His priority is delivering his best self in the months that stamp legacies.
So, while the Embiid detractors were as happy as pigs in slop when he was kept out of playing in Denver yet again, what exactly does it prove?
Embiid's biggest critics hold the playoff resume over his head. That's fair, and Embiid seems to understand that. But, you can't say championships are all that matter and then do victory laps when he doesn't suit up for a regular-season game.
You want to devalue the regular season, be my guest. I'm not even sure I oppose that (although, I will say Embiid's historic season has been so incredible that I pity those who refuse to acknowledge what he's doing because of the playoff resume). But, you have to pick a side.
Either regular-season play matters (and Embiid's MVP season in 2022-23 should get its due respect), or it's all about the playoffs.
But, you can't have it both ways.