I Hope Joel Embiid Didn't See Jokic Win The NBA Title
Extra wanting isn't always the answer.
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The good thing about these NBA finals is that regardless of who emerged victorious, it'd be an L for Sixers fans that we'd already accepted. Both debates were simply over by the conference finals, at least for now: Letting Jimmy Butler go was very likely the most catastrophic decision of the entire Process era (even if it made sense at the time), and Nikola Jokic is better than Joel Embiid (even if Embiid's MVP was fairly won for this regular season). This wouldn't be like Ben Simmons suddenly turning out to be a top-two player on a championship team; there'd be no new scars here. Just more salt in an old wound, and we're always the crushed-up crumbs at the bottom of an old Lays bag by this time of year when it comes to this stuff anyway.
That said, I don't think there's much of a bright side to be found to the Nuggets’ win besides You Can't Kill Us If We're Already Dead -- especially not for the guy whose name never seems to not come up alongside Jokic's. If you're one of the people on social media this week hoping this can be further gas for Joel Embiid's engine, something to extend his life bar as he takes on the final boss of the second round next season, God bless, but... I dunno, I don't think his tank is getting any fuller there. I kinda hope he still doesn't even know who was playing in the finals this year.
Let's be honest: How much more motivation could one man possibly need? It's been six straight disappointing postseasons, each forcing Joel to suffer a unique type of indignity, each calling some combination of his excellence, his mental fortitude, his physical toughness and his overall character into question. He's lost to old foes and old friends. He's lost in seven in the second round and he's gotten swept in the first. He's lost to Al Horford and the Celtics three separate times, once with Horf actually on the Sixers. And every time, it ends with him being roundly disrespected around the league: for failing to translate his regular-season production to the playoffs, for coming up short in the biggest games, for never being able to get through a postseason full healthy, for crying in the tunnels afterwards. If he's not at maximum caring by now, what could the additional humiliation of his biggest positional rival being crowned the NBA's anti-labor king really do for him?
In fact, as I've written about before, what I think we saw from Joel Embiid in Game Seven was what happens when The Wanting becomes more of an albatross than an accelerant. He'd spent seven seasons Wanting, for us, for the city, for his legacy, for Sam Hinkie even. But for the first time in a playoff elimination game, Joel looked practically checked out from the beginning, and after the blowout loss seemed like he'd already come to terms with the L days earlier. I still can't believe that was him just not caring enough, not realizing the importance of the moment, not understanding what we'd be saying about him right now -- say what you will about Jo, but he's never been the type to be ignorant of his own narrative as it's being crafted in real time. I just think that after five postseasons of wanting and not getting, and once again not being at full physical capacity, he couldn't let himself want that much and ultimately be denied a sixth time. It sucked, but I kinda get it.
It's been particularly stark watching Nikola Jokic shruggingly dominate his way through these playoffs, with all the passion of an office drone longingly staring at the "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" sign above his desk. I don't doubt Jokic's competitiveness or drive -- you don't make it from the 41st overall pick to the Finals MVP without a pretty serious will to win -- but it's pretty clear that whatever was pushing him had nothing to do with media narratives, petty beefs or the ghosts of playoffs past. Jokic didn't win because he craved revenge against the Lakers, or because he needed to prove that he should've won MVP over Embiid; he won because he was the best player on the best team that finally got healthy at the right time and didn't get in their own way. His primary motivation for winning seemed to be just getting to go home and not have to answer any more questions about losing.
That's not Joel Embiid, and it's likely never going to be Joel Embiid. We wouldn't want it to be; if Joel finally broke through and won the championship in Philly and then rolled his eyes at being told he was gonna have to wait around an extra couple days for the parade, it would be heartbreaking. (Though I guess there actually being a parade would help make up for that.) But I think it does sorta illustrate that the answer for great athletes is not always more motivation, more fire in the belly, more And I Took That Personally. Maybe it works for players like MJ who have a truly inexhaustible internal supply of natural pettiness for fuel, but other guys run out eventually, and then all they're burning is themselves. Embiid hit that point at the worst possible time this year, and that blows. But I don't think the solution is just to tell him to keep finding more chum to churn. He might have to find another energy source altogether.
And so I hope that wherever Embiid was on Tuesday night, it was far away from a TV screen or IG scroll. I hope he was either by himself or with people who love him and couldn't even name a player on the Denver Nuggets. I hope he's recentering himself in ways that go well beyond basketball. I hope that when he returns to the Sixers, he does so with a calm of an MVP winner who truly has nothing left to prove in the regular season, and with the focus of a seasoned professional with a specific task at hand. And if Jo does ultimately take something away from Jokic's win, I hope that's what it is: That him playing for the Process-era Sixers, while representing the culmination of a decade of hopes and dreams for both a city and an ideology, is also just a job. And you don't need an all-consuming fire inside, stoked by years of shame, embarrassment and failure, just to do your job. You kinda gotta just do it.