The Denver Late Scratch and Joel Embiid's Ability To Drive Everyone Insane
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA. Mike’s writing is brought to you by Body Bio, supplements based on science, focusing on your gut and brain health. Get 20% off E-Lyte, Gut+, and all Body Bio products with promo code MIKESTUMMY at Body Bio’s website.
One of the more fascinating quirks about sports debates is that the ones that generate the most fervor are the ones that have no definitive conclusions. The biggest lightning rod debate topics are the ones in which a reasonable person could earnestly make the case for either side. The best debates are the ones that can never be settled.
And in a lot of ways, this is what makes Joel Embiid so special as a topic of debate. He somehow always manages to do things and exist in a space where any given person can see whatever they want to see in him. He has this magical ability to exist in gray areas where people can endlessly push whatever priors and principles they already hold in regards to him.
And, so, when Embiid was a late scratch just before Saturday’s much anticipated matchup with Denver, the debate cycle once again kicked into high gear. Critics took advantage of the strange circumstances surrounding his absence to push their view of him as a coward and fraud, while Embiid defenders took up a stance that no player should be expected to play when the medical staff deems it unsafe, and that this was merely a case of bad optics. All the while, no objective truth is available – we don’t truly know how Embiid was feeling, or even the exact nature of the ailment that led to his absence.
It’s the perfect debate topic; there could be no ultimate conclusion, and there are hints of truth in both sides. Of course Embiid shouldn’t play if there is a major risk of injury. But also… him not being on the injury report at all was bound to invite questions about whether or not his injury was bad enough to warrant sitting out in a big game.
It is undeniably extremely odd for a player to not be listed on the injury report and then be scratched 15 minutes before tip-off. It’s weird enough that the league is reportedly going to be investigating (good! We were overdue for another investigation!). The league, the broadcast partners, and their gambling partners have enormous financial incentives to be accurately informed about players’ availability. The injury report system may seem fickle and stupid, but it’s a huge deal, and the logistical integrity of the league depends on it. The Brooklyn Nets were fined $25K last year for violating the injury report guidelines, and were fined another $100k this year for similar violations that technically fell under the player participation policy. You may not give a shit about the injury report, but the league gives an enormous shit about it – to the point that when someone previously not on the injury report doesn’t play, it warrants an investigation.
The point being: when something like this happens, it’s a big deal, and it looks horrible from an optics perspective even if it’s completely legitimate. To be clear, the people claiming Embiid is simply ducking the matchup are insane. Clearly, there is something going on with Embiid’s knee. If there is an honest critique to be made, it’s simply that Embiid should have played through injury for a big game – that we simply can’t give you the respect that you seek without playing and performing well in that game.
Personally, I simply do not know what to make of Embiid’s decision to sit. I can acknowledge that yes, a big game like this one warrants being more willing to push through an injury to play in that game than one would in any other regular season game, but I could also easily accept the reality that Embiid’s knee injury was bad enough to exceed even that standard. I simply do not know.
For those defending Embiid, it’s not all that hard to make the case he was justified in sitting, especially with him likely looking at more than just a one-game absence. And yet… it really truly sucks having yet another thing to have to defend Embiid on.
This game essentially becomes a microcosm of every Embiid argument. Advocating for him is a chore, but doable, and warranted to a meaningful degree. It’s just that it’s always something with Embiid. There’s always an issue that’s just big enough that he can’t rise above it, and Saturday stoked those familiar feelings of the frustration of always having to make excuses on his behalf when the hope was that it would become a feather in his cap of sorts.
But that’s what allows the Embiid debates to churn on endlessly; one side could accurately argue that he is always undergoing misfortunes that are completely out of his control. The other side could argue that Embiid still hasn’t done nearly enough to overcome his misfortunes, and that it’s not enough to only play at your best unless the circumstances are absolutely perfect. Only one thing is for sure: nothing will change for the arc of Embiid’s career unless one of those things changes. Either the bad luck needs to stop, or he needs to learn to perform when the circumstances are disadvantageous. In sports, your reputation is decided in brutal and binary fashion. You either fucking win big or you don’t. And if you don’t, there aren’t enough excuses in the world to earn you the respect of those that won.
A couple weeks ago, Embiid gave a quote that captured the discourse around him quite nicely, which I must admit was sort of a badass thing to say: “One of the main things I say is as soon as you use the name Joel Embiid, that’s going to get you a lot of likes. And that’s going to get you a lot of money. As long as my name has a chance to help somebody make some money, then I’m for it. Keep trolling, I like it.”
Joel Embiid’s talent and production as a basketball player are undeniable. I think the world of him as a regular season player. I have a great deal of admiration for his story, and a great deal of empathy for all of the misfortune (injury and otherwise) he has undergone during his career. And yet, I find myself wanting to sit on the sidelines at the current moment when it comes to sticking up for his reputation as a player. I just keep waiting for the day that advocating for him doesn’t feel like such a chore – an exercise in hypotheticals and excuse making. I’d consider myself to mostly be an Embiid centrist by this point, having relocated from once being extremely pro-Embiid. My ironclad certainty from pre-2023 that Embiid would make his run in the playoffs has turned into, “yeah, I dunno, we’ll see.” In the meantime, I’ll remain on the sidelines as truly some of the most insane debates on an athlete take place on a daily basis.