True or false: Joel Embiid ducks tough competition

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Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid argues with an official during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

It’s commonly known that the higher you climb, the more people will try to drag you down. Joel Embiid reached the pinnacle of professional basketball as an individual last year when he took home the 2022-2023 NBA Most Valuable Player award, having been named the best performer in the entire league. Now, he faces the repercussions of that glory.

Embiid’s on-court dominance, off-court antics, and lack of postseason success have all brought plenty of negative attention upon him. But since winning the MVP — and preventing the Denver Nugget’s Nikola Jokic from nabbing his third in a row — it seems that his haters have grown exponentially.

The Philadelphia 76ers are currently seated in third in the Eastern Conference, largely due to Embiid’s early season dominance. His play, along with new Head Coach Nick Nurse’s revamped system and Tyrese Maxey’s ascension into stardom, have the Sixers looking like legitimate title threats as we approach the halfway point of the NBA season. And yet, all of that has been overshadowed by pessimistic rhetoric, mostly surrounding the former MVP himself.

“He’s a foul baiter.”

“He plays unethical basketball.”

“He only plays against the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets.”

“Embiid ducks tough competition.”

It’s high time that these allegations were brought to trial. Does Joel Embiid intentionally miss games against strong opponents and suit up against bottom-dwellers?

The Facts of the Case

This particular regurgitated talking point only really became prominent in the last two seasons. These also happened to be the two healthiest campaigns of his NBA career, with him missing an average of 15 games due to minor injuries and rest. Breaking down his DNPs (Did Not Play) in the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 seasons should give us a good idea of what games he misses and why.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) watches from the bench as the 76ers fall behind the Boston Celtics during the second half of Game 7 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series, Sunday, May 14, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Here are some quick facts about Embiid’s availability over the previous two seasons for context:

  • Embiid missed 14 games in 2021-22
  • Nine of those games were missed consecutively due to COVID-19 and the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols
  • Embiid missed 16 games in 2022-23
  • In the previous two seasons, Embiid was ruled out of seven games for “rest”
  • He sat out of a single game four other times in two years with various injuries listed

He did avoid some pretty heavy competition while he was quarantined with COVID-19, but I’m going to assume that no one is irrational enough to suggest that Embiid gave himself an illness or faked a positive test in order to bring on a mandated furlough while his team was struggling in the early season. That’s a reasonable assumption, right? Right??? Probably not, but I’m going to assume anyway.

So, aside from his bout with “the Rona,” let’s break down Embiid’s DNPs from the past two years.

DateOpponentOpponent’s record ahead of missed gameInjuryW/L
11/01/2021Portland Trail Blazers3-2RestW
12/31/2021Memphis Grizzlies 16-11Right Rib SorenessL
01/31/2022Memphis Grizzlies35-17RestW
03/21/2022Miami Heat47-24Back SorenessW
04/10/2022Detroit Pistons23-58RestW
10/28/2022Toronto Raptors3-2Sore Right KneeW
10/31/2022Washington Wizards3-3Non-COVID IllnessW
11/02/2022Washington Wizards3-4Non-COVID IllnessL
11/04/2022New York Knicks3-4Non-COVID IllnessL
11/22/2022Brooklyn Nets8-9Sprained Left FootW
11/23/2022Charlotte Hornets4-14Sprained Left FootL
11/25/2022Orlando Magic5-13Sprained Left FootW
11/27/2022Orlando Magic5-14Sprained Left FootW
01/04/2023Indiana Pacers21-17Sore Left FootW
01/06/2023Chicago Bulls17-21Sore Left FootL
01/08/2023Detroit Pistons11-31Sore Left FootW
01/21/2023Sacramento Kings26-18RestW
03/01/2023Miami Heat33-29RestW
03/27/2023Denver Nuggets50-24Sore Right CalfL
04/07/2023Atlanta Hawks41-39RestW
04/09/2023Brooklyn Nets45-36RestW

The very premise that a player who’s missed a total of 21 games, not counting his COVID-related absences, in the previous two league years could be purposefully ducking tough opponents was laughable to begin with. But looking into the games he actually sat out for makes the implication even more ludicrous.

What to make the games Embiid has missed?

In reality, Embiid missed more games against lottery teams (11) than he did against playoff teams (10) in the past two seasons. Why would a player duck the Memphis Grizzlies only to sit out three straight games against the Charlotte Hornets and the Orlando Magic? According to The Athletic’s Seth Partnow, he wouldn’t.

Looking at the list of games he’s missed, it becomes obvious where this rhetoric all started. On March 27, 2023, the Sixers were slated to take on the Denver Nuggets on the road, with the two MVP front-runners clashing head to head. The matchup was hyped up all season, but Embiid unfortunately had to sit out with a sore right calf.

That injury didn’t stop Nuggets fans and Embiid’s haters from surmising that he was purposefully taking the night off to avoid getting exposed by Nikola Jokic. Nor did the fact that the Denver game would have been Embiid’s fourth game in six nights and the last leg of a four-game road trip.

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, right, dribbles the ball as Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

Conveniently, that particular group of dissenters also left out the detail that Embiid had already played the Joker earlier in the year and absolutely dominated him to the tune of 47 points and 18 rebounds on 58 percent shooting while holding Jokic to just 24. Embiid also came out on top in their matchup before that on March 14, 2022, dropping 34 points to Jokic’s 22.

In fact, over the course of their careers, Embiid has had the upper hand on Jokic both statistically and in the head-to-head record, 5-2. The whole “Joel Embiid ducks tough competition” talking point was always baseless rhetoric, and the entire reason it started was also a complete farce.