Is Joel Embiid cursed? Here’s the Philadelphia 76er’s history of setbacks

Joel Embiid has been through a lot with the Philadelphia 76ers.
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Honest. Humorous. Haunted?

Philadelphia 76ers star and MVP candidate Joel Embiid is a joy to watch and sometimes even more enjoyable to listen to. He’s as willing to bust out a spectacular array of moves to bury a foe on the court as he is to give refreshingly honest takes on the NBA and his teammates, even self-admittedly trolling opponents both on the mic and social media. (If you want to see just how funny and engaging Embiid is, check out his Hot Ones interview below.)

And yet, season after season, we’re saddened to see Embiid suffer a setback of some sort. Sometimes it comes during the season and there’s time for him to recover and come back for the playoffs. Others, incredibly unfortunately, happen during the postseason and we don’t get to see Embiid at full strength — if at all.

Just as Embiid was surging ahead this year as one of the top-three players in the league and looking fresher and stronger than he has in years heading into the playoffs, doom struck once more. During the first round series against the Toronto Raptors, somehow Embiid tore a ligament in his right thumb, which is his dominant hand. He couldn’t even pinpoint when or how it happened himself, just noticing that it started to bother him at some point. Was it a phantom force that came down and injured him, leaving no evidence of a hard foul or fall to the floor that caused the issue?

Then, later in the series, as he played through a torn ligament in his thumb — which is kind of important for, you know, shooting, dribbling, and basically all things basketball — misfortune befell him once more. In the waning minutes of Philly’s victory to close the Raptors and claim the first round series in game six, Embiid was inadvertently elbowed in the face, causing a fractured right orbital bone as well as a concussion ⏤ and that’s not even the first time he’s had a broken bone in his face!

What gives? Is there a curse hanging over Embiid, or even the 76ers (have you seen James Harden’s once-superstar play diminished greatly on Philly)?

Is Joel Embiid cursed?

Joel Embiid during a Philadelphia 76ers media day.
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Starting with his very first season on the 76ers, Embiid has not played a full 82-game season once in his career. That’s not so uncommon in modern times, as players take games off for rest or maintenance way more often than they did in the past.

A simple search without going any deeper than “Joel Embiid setbacks” returns search results all the way back to his first few seasons with the team and all the way up to now. As noted by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Embiid has missed 84 games (an NBA regular season usually has 82 games) over six seasons due to injury, and it swells to 248 if you include the missed first two seasons. For a player who is talented, skilled, and smart enough to be among the best ever and a Hall of Famer, that’s a lot of games to miss (and stats missed out on). Why would Embiid be cursed, though?

Is it because of his joy of trolling? As he even calls himself Joel “Troel” Embiid in his profile (for the uninitiated, his name is pronounced “Joh-El” and the rhyme here is with “Troh-El”). Is it because he’s embraced “The Process” in which the 76ers flaunted the fact they were not trying to win games, all but flipping the finger to the basketball gods? And that he’s even gone as far in embracing it to nickname himself The Process, with said Twitter handle having the tongue-in-cheek bio line of “PROCESSING…………………..” and his banner photo just a white background with the words “The Process” across it?

Or is it even that the 76ers themselves are cursed, either because they traded Charles Barkley away or because of The Process?

The history

The Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid goes up for a dunk over LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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Before even reaching the NBA, Embiid’s college career was cut short when he suffered a stress fracture in his back in March 2014, causing him to miss the NCAA Tournament in which his Kansas team lost in the second round. With him in the mix, they could have made a run to the title.

He then had surgery for a broken navicular bone in his right foot days before being selected third overall by the 76ers in the NBA draft. It was reported at the time that he would miss four to six months following the surgery. During his first season, Embiid didn’t play a single game because of the foot surgery.

Things didn’t improve in what would have been his second season, as he once again sat out an entire campaign because of a second foot surgery. After missing the entire 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, fans finally got to see Embiid in action during the 2016-17 season, and it was worth the wait.

Embiid played in a mere 31 of 82 games in his inaugural season, as the 76ers wanted to keep him healthy and prevent any re-injury. In that 2016-17 season, Embiid missed 18 games with a bone bruise in his left knee starting in January 2017. Then, when he returned to the court, he suffered a meniscus tear in that same left knee and missed the remaining 23 games of the year. Fast forward to the 2017-18 season when Philly is finally trying to win and they actually succeeded in securing a playoff spot.

The injury bug came zooming in and bit Embiid yet again, this time with his (now first of two) orbital bone fractures. The one occurring in March of 2018 was to his left eye (this year’s is to his right eye), also giving him a concussion and forcing him to miss 10 games leading up to the playoffs. He was able to return in time for the postseason itself, albeit wearing a mask that had him resembling another tragic figure.

Joel Embiid wearing a protective face mask during an NBA game.
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The 76ers tasted some success, winning their first-round series and setting up a lot of excitement for the one to come. Deep in the 2018-19 season, hope was abound in Philly as the team traded for All-Star Jimmy Butler, who forced his way out of Minnesota in a not-so-nice fashion, perhaps bringing a bad aura with him to a team that didn’t need any more. The trade seemed to work out great, though. For a while.

Another ailment struck Embiid’s knees, with him suffering tendinitis of his left knee and missing eight games starting in February. Though he recovered again in time for the playoffs, he was not 100 percent healthy and unable to help lift the 76ers out of the second round for a second consecutive season. The ending this time was quite tragic as well, with a seemingly miracle shot by the Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard needing four bounces before falling in for a game-winning, buzzer-beating basket that helped Toronto advance on to an eventual NBA title while the 76ers were left devastated and sent home.

Also, just look at the scene when Leonard makes the shot, barely evading Embiid’s outstretched arm and ending with the two side-by-side watching the shot bounce and bounce again.

Also during this time, Butler reportedly grew to be none too impressed with guard Ben Simmons and eventually decided to sign with the Miami Heat during the offseason, as it seemed that the 76ers would rather keep Simmons then placate Butler.

In the pandemic-altered season of 2019-20, Embiid first suffered a torn ligament in his left ring finger and missed nine games in January. Then he suffered a left shoulder sprain that knocked him out for a handful of games in February, but he had time to heal as much as possible because of the postponement of the season in mid-March of 2020 due to COVID-19.

When the season resumed, his (now former) teammate Simmons suffered his own knee injury and was not around for the playoffs, leaving the squad without a chance to see if they could build on the previous one in which they were this close to advancing. Philly lost in fast fashion, 4-0, to the Boston Celtics. This same season, the one right after Butler left, his Miami team made it all the way to the NBA Finals. Plus, the Celtics were led by the very player the 76ers could have had but traded away, Jayson Tatum, and the player Tatum was traded for, Markelle Fultz, never realized his potential in Philly because of his own injury issues and mental struggles, eventually being traded away to the Orlando Magic.

Finally, it seemed that maybe 2020-21 would be the season in which Embiid and Simmons could be both healthy and ready to lead Philadelphia deep into the playoffs and maybe even to a championship. Once again, Embiid nearly made it to the finish line of the regular season before suffering a bone bruise in March of 2021, causing him to miss 10 games and never fully recover before entering the playoffs. Though he didn’t miss any games during the postseason, the 76ers seemed a bit cursed and left fans cursing not only the team, but one of their star players who we’ll get to in a moment.

During last year’s playoffs, Philly was good enough to beat a bad Washington Wizards team, even as Embiid suffered a lateral meniscus tear of his right knee and missed one game of the series. He bounced back to play in the next round, though clearly not at 100 percent since suffering ailments to both knees that spring, but then the 76ers lost as favorites to the Atlanta Hawks, with the series bottoming out in the game six decider that led to an entire smorgasbord of problems and drama during the current season.

Joel Embiid reacts during a 76ers game.
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First, Simmons seemed to melt down during the series against Atlanta, and Embiid struggled while not at full strength. Then, Embiid and coach Doc Rivers were honest in their postgame assessments of what went wrong against the Hawks, including Simmons’ play, among other reasons. That lead to this year, where Simmons did not play for Philly and Embiid was tasked with doing it all. He damn near did, too, carrying Philly to a strong start and looking like a title contender even without Simmons.

But Embiid was hit with that cursed virus we all know as COVID-19 and missed nine games during the early part of the season, struggling a bit (which is totally understandable) once he returned. During that time, Philly lost pace with the leaders of the Eastern Conference and the Simmons drama swirled all the way until the trade deadline in February of 2022. That’s when the team traded for Harden, and hope was renewed in the Liberty City.

Of course, things didn’t sustain, as Harden struggled to look like his former MVP self, then the playoff injuries hit Embiid as we mentioned earlier — the torn ligament in his right thumb and the orbital fracture and concussion that caused him to miss the first two games (both losses) of the 76ers second-round series against the Heat, led by Butler, Embiid’s former teammate.

Embiid, who is known to play through the ailments that he can, was cleared from his concussion and returned to the series for game three, helping Philly win while sporting a protective mask for his face. Sure enough, he made it through the game, but did take a whack to his masked face during the game and momentarily laid on the floor holding his face before staying in the game.

There is hope for the 76ers and Embiid once again, but with that hope comes a lot of crossed fingers.

So, is it the 76ers who are cursed?

A trio of hope — Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz.
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Starting a little before the year when they drafted Embiid, the 76ers were what is lovingly referred to as “tanking” ⏤ definitely during his first two seasons, and again in what became his rookie campaign. This means that they weren’t exactly interested in winning games in order to secure better lottery positions and draft picks. To that effect, they succeeded, netting multiple top picks in the draft, including Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz.

That’s why it was easy to draft a player in Embiid that would almost definitely sit out his first season and wound up being, because wins were not wanted by Philly. The basketball gods do not smile on teams who don’t try to win — the entire point and philosophy of the game of basketball, especially on the professional level. Queue the famous Herm Edwards quote from his days coaching the New York Jets (also cursed?): “You play to win the game!”

Is tanking the source of our curse here? Out of every draft pick they’ve had during the so-called “Process” and tanking era, what’s become of those players?

In total, from 2014 to 2018, Philly had six picks in the top 10 spots of the draft, including third three times and first once (they traded up to first once from the third spot, giving them two third picks and two first picks after all). Out of all of those, only Embiid remains on the team currently.

As noted above, Fultz spectacularly flamed out in Philly. They actually traded up to select Fultz in 2017, while the player the 76ers could have taken, Tatum, has become one of the best players in the entire NBA. Unfortunately, Fultz regained his form to a degree in Orlando, only to suffer a torn ACL last season (so maybe the curse followed).

The other well-known name from those lottery picks is the aforementioned Simmons, who also spectacularly flamed out (there’s no other way to put it) in Philly. First, he refused to shoot 3-pointers, then he refused to shoot at all during the final games he played for the 76ers during their first-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks during the 2020-21 playoffs.

Simmons infamously all but stopped shooting at all during the fourth quarter of games during that series, then famously passed up a wide-open dunk attempt in the final game of the series, which wound up the last game he ever played for the team, as he subsequently sat out the entire 2021-22 season for reasons listed as back problems and mental health problems before being traded to the Brooklyn Nets for Harden, though Simmons never suited up for Brooklyn, either, and is reported to be undergoing back surgery this offseason.

The other picks during that era were Elfrid Payton, who was picked in the same year (10th overall) as Embiid (2014), and never played for them as he was traded for Dario Saric. Saric himself was solid with the team before they unceremoniously traded him away for Butler (not good vibes).

Then there was Mikal Bridges in 2018, who has gone on to become one of the best defenders in the league for the Phoenix Suns, of course, because Philly traded him away before he ever even played for them. Would he be as good if he suited up for the (cursed) 76ers instead? Philly disastrously traded Bridges for Zhaire Smith (and a draft pick), who has gone on to ⏤ oh hell, let’s use the phrase again ⏤ flame out.

And there’s Jahlil Okafor (2015), who wasn’t worthy of a top pick and never did enough to stick on the team and considered a wasted lottery selection by Philly (and most) fans. Even going back a year before Embiid, their top pick, Michael Carter-Williams, picked 11th, could have been used better or could have netted a better player if not for the curse….er, bad drafting.

So instead of Tatum and Bridges (and some others, like Devin Booker) surrounding Embiid, he’s been saddled with players who seemed cursed themselves on a team that keeps stepping on rakes. In fact, those four top-three picks — if we exclude Embiid — played a total of 18 NBA games in the 2021-22 season. Simmons played zero, as noted, and Fultz came back late in the year to play 18 games for Orlando, while Okafor is currently playing in the Chinese Basketball Association.

That’s without even digging into the fact that the coach during most of those years, Brett Brown, and the general manager who orchestrated The Process, Sam Hinkie, were both also unceremoniously let go from their positions. Neither currently have a job in the NBA.

We truly hope Embiid and those surrounding him in Philly can climb to the top of the NBA, as he is one of the better guys to root for and watch as a big man with guard-like skills that remind us of modern version of all-time legend Hakeem Olajuwon. But maybe the 76ers need to fire up an episode of Ted Lasso and consider doing some curse-busting of their own, asking the basketball gods to forgive them for The Process, and find some curse-breaking process instead, in turn bestowing some good luck and fortune on Embiid.

About the author

Habeab Kurdi

Habeab Kurdi

You could say Habeab is bit like Roy Kent — here, there, every-f’ing-where. Immersed in journalism for 20 years now, he writes about life — from sports to profiles, beer to food, film, coffee, music, and more. Hailing from Austin, Texas, he now resides in the gorgeous seaside city of Gdynia, Poland. Not one to take things too seriously, other than his craft, BB has worked in brewing and serving beer, roasting and pouring coffee, and in Austin’s finest gin distillery among myriad other things. A graduate of the University of Texas, he once worked for the Chicago Sun-Times and Austin American-Statesman when newspapers were still a thing, then dabbled in social media and marketing. If there is water, he will swim there — from the freezing seas of Copenhagen and Gdynia, to the warm waters in Texas and Thailand.