"Don't be silly": TODAY Show segment on Joel Embiid's 70 epitomizes NBA's DNP problem
Instead of focusing on a basketball star's brilliance, America's morning show expressed confusion about Embiid's possible disqualification from MVP race.
Some rituals are passed down through the generations. Just as our parents did with us, this Haberstroh household puts on the TODAY Show while we get the girls ready for school. On a gloomy Tuesday morning, the NBA happened to puncture the mainstream wall and found a spot on the TODAY Show. I know this because as I was flipping my eggs in the pan, my six-year-old called out to me, “Daddy! Hoda is talking about basketball!”
I looked over and saw it: yes, Joel Embiid scoring 70 points on Monday night had made it onto the TODAY Show. This was big.
The TODAY Show regularly covers the NFL, but my daughter’s excitement underscored the rarity of the NBA getting invited to the TODAY Show dance. After Hoda Kotb got her SportsCenter on and narrated Embiid’s highlights, the show came back to the studio for some banter among the hosts Kotb, Craig Melvin and Savannah Guthrie.
And then, the cold water was thrown on the whole thing, encapsulating the NBA’s DNP problem. Melvin, a big sports fan himself, felt compelled to point out that, despite Embiid’s historic greatness on Monday, he may be disqualified from MVP.
This confused everybody on set. Melvin was pointing to the new rule that prohibits players from being eligible for postseason awards if they don’t play 65 of the 82 games. Al Roker said what I think most people feel about the NBA’s policy: “Don’t be silly.”
Here was the exchange:
Melvin: “So, he’s the reigning MVP, but there’s concern that he may not be able to qualify this year, because the NBA has this new rule. You have to play a certain number of games. And this hurts him because he’s missed 11 games so far. But he should be [MVP].
Guthrie: “He should be because if you score like five games worth of points in one game, shouldn’t there be a little asterisk, an exception or something? I don’t know, sports isn’t really my thing.”
[cuts to Al Roker doing the weather]
Roker: “Don’t be silly. 70 points? That’s amazing!”
This was a golden marketing opportunity for the NBA. About three million people watch the TODAY Show every morning. As the NFL captivates America in its magnificent playoff run, here was a massive platform to get some new viewers to watch pro basketball. It was basically an 80-second ad for the NBA. For most of the segment, it was a compelling ad. But then the DNP thing inevitably reared its ugly head.
Don’t be silly, said America’s funny man.
Want edgy NBA writing in your inbox? Subscribe to The Finder.
The NBA is trying to clean up its image problem — the best players can’t play 82 anymore — but even on its shiniest days, it can’t seem to escape the lingering shadow of star DNPs. The policies intended to solve the problem have backfired in ways that we should have seen coming.
In what should be a pure celebration of Embiid’s terrific feat on one of America’s most-watched television shows, non-NBA-junkies in NBC’s massive audience were left with a confusing aftertaste.
Wait, Embiid is going to be disqualified for MVP? Huh? Why? He’s awesome!
I immediately thought of the classic Debbie Downer skit on SNL, the one where Rachel Dratch plays the role of party pooper. That’s the buzzkill of NBA’s DNP-Rest policies that force us to rain on Embiid’s 70 parade.
Even when a guy scores 70 points on his home floor, his unavailability becomes the main takeaway on a national stage. Debbie Downer would be proud.
But this isn’t just non-NBA folks who are confused. Roker’s “Don’t be silly” sentiment was shared by one of the NBA’s top voices, Rachel Nichols, on Monday night.
Rachel is right: at this rate, Embiid would be ineligible for the MVP award. Embiid has only played 74 percent of his games this season, which is south of the qualifying threshold of 79 percent — what I call “The 79 Line.” Embiid isn’t alone. For the full list of stars on track to being DQ’d, I did the research so you don’t have to.
It’d be one thing if the policy shaped Embiid’s behavior and bullied him into playing hurt. But he’s already spoken out against the policy, saying "It doesn't matter how many games I play; the goal is to be healthy the rest of the year … I'm not going to force myself or push for it. … 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."
He’s averaging 36.1 points this season which seems like an automatic MVP … provided he’s eligible.
Nichols also pointed out something that I think is important: the NBA is legislating something that would have played out naturally. If Embiid hasn’t played enough to win over voters, simple: he won’t be MVP. We don’t need the NBA to play injury cop.
But now, with the 65-game rule, we operate in a world in which any great thing that happens in the NBA, we run the risk of another Debbie Downer spoiling the marketing moment. Think about it. Say the NBA doesn’t implement the 65-game rule this offseason. Does Melvin on the TODAY Show point out Embiid’s games missed after those highlights? Of course not. It would be such a non-sequitur from him to tell the TODAY audience, “Yeah, 70 points is great but did you know he’s missed 10 games?”
But here we are. The DNP scourge has reached the point that even when Embiid plays, we have to talk about how he doesn’t. That’s a problem. The solution isn’t to legislate a rule that would force players to play injured or establish a clause that reminds America that NBA stars miss too many games.