76ers' Embiid won't force himself to play to meet MVP requirement. If he misses out, 'so be it'

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Ime Udoka in his one year as a 76ers assistant got close enough to Joel Embiid to earn an invitation to the MVP's wedding to Anne de Paula last July.

Udoka also saw up close in that one year that Embiid — already an All-Star and one of the best big men in the game — wasn't reaching his potential. Udoka saw a player that “stayed up playing video games, eating cereal” rather than being in tune with what was needed to play — to dominate, really, and carry a franchise — every night in peak physical condition.

Udoka was an assistant for the Spurs for years before he joined former 76ers coach Brett Brown's staff in 2019-2020. Udoka coached LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan and was blunt in his scouting report with Embiid: He was good. But not that good.

“I told him straight up, he has as much or more talent as those guys,” Udoka said. “But it's a level of consistency. I was pretty honest with him. I saw him messing around at shootarounds and not always focusing. So I tried to get on him as far as that.”

Embiid picked up some pointers from all those extra workouts and drills Udoka put him through when they trained at former co-owner Michael Rubin's house while they were on hiatus during the 2020 pandemic. Udoka recalled “day-after-day in the gym for hours and hours prepping for Orlando,” home of the NBA bubble, teaching, drilling Embiid on how to reach that elite MVP level.

Staying healthy? That's still a sore spot for Embiid.

Finding that consistency?

Well, how about two straight scoring titles, last season's MVP award, and now this marker for the steady level of greatness Udoka wanted out of his pupil — his 17th straight game with 30 points and 10 rebounds, the seventh-longest in NBA history. Embiid scored 41 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the 76ers' 124-115 win over Udoka and the Rockets on Monday.

Embiid's 17 straight games with 30 points are a franchise record. He earned his seventh 40-point double-double this season, the most in the NBA. Embiid now has 42 games of at least 40 points and 10 rebounds, the seventh most in NBA history.

Impressive, yes. But Embiid is often measured by perhaps a more meaningful number: Games missed.

The 29-year-old Embiid sat out the last three games with left knee inflammation (the 76ers went 1-2). He had played just two games this month after he missed all four games on the 76ers’ holiday road trip.

The Sixers are 3-7 this season without Embiid — 22-6 with him. Embiid has also never had a fully healthy postseason run, the key reason the franchise hasn't advanced out of the second round in his tenure.

“It doesn’t matter how many games I play, the goal is to be healthy the rest of the year,” Embiid said Monday.

His absences have rocked his candidacy for another MVP trophy.

The new collective bargaining agreement requires players, in most instances, to play in 65 regular-season games to be eligible for awards such as MVP or the All-NBA teams. Embiid has met that threshold only twice, when he played a career-best 68 games in 2021-22, and 66 games last season.

He can miss only eight more games out of the final 44 before he is no longer eligible for MVP.

“I've already done it,” Embiid said. “If I have a chance to get a second one, I'll do it. I'm not going to force myself or push for it. My game is always going to speak for itself. We're winning. That's the main thing. We've got to keep winning and you put in the stats to be in the (MVP) conversation that's great, too. But at the end of the day, if there's something going on, and I can't meet the requirement for the amount of games played to qualify for that, then so be it.”

Embiid says his knee is fine and he'll be ready for his 29th game of the year Tuesday in an anticipated home matchup against two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and the defending champion Denver Nuggets. Embiid — who missed his entire first two seasons with injuries — was roasted by some media last March when he sat out against the Nuggets with a sore right calf. Jokic had 25 and 17 in a Denver win.

“Joel Embiid is ducking that smoke today and you all know how I feel about Joel Embiid,” ESPN analyst and former NBA center Kendrick Perkins said.

Embiid dismissed that criticism last year — and more that has surfaced this season as his absences pile up — and says he'll play when he's healthy enough to play.

He also downplayed Tuesday was a Jokic-Embiid showdown. The focus needed to stay on the 76ers vs. the Nuggets.

“They're best team in the league, best player in the league, and we've got to try and do our best to get a win,” he said. "It's fun. I like the competition. Who doesn't want to play against the best?