Everyone agrees that Joel Embiid could live a better basketball life. This is because—despite his MVP trophy, his many other marks for elite performance, his fame and his money—he rarely seems to be having much fun. The sport appears to be more of a burden for him; a pathway to a salvation he’s decided that he needs, that his soul will struggle without. In search of that transformation, which it seems nothing short of a championship could deliver, his body has certainly battled itself too.

Over the course of his ten-year career, Embiid has played about 50 percent of eligible games, on average. Now 30 years old, the dynamic giant isn’t getting any healthier, and as his opportunities at championship glory dwindle, he is trying to seize what’s left by dragging his ailing physical form through the postseason thresher. It’s been a tough sight to bear for years, but never more so than in his Philadelphia 76ers’ most recent exit, against the New York Knicks last week.

In that first-round series, Embiid was a biped hospital, shuffling up down the floor in visible agony. Even his greatest haters must be hoping for his extended peaceful convalescence after a couple of weeks of (barely) running on a badly busted knee and a bout of Bell’s Palsy that had him wearing sunglasses during press conferences, just to survive the stimulation of a well-lit room full of reporters. During post-game scrums, he neglected to speak French, and had to insist to himself—like a determined loser before a mirror—that the Sixers had enough to win the series.

They didn’t, because he didn’t. An MVP with half of his athleticism is not an MVP. Even if he averages 33 points per game in a series, plus 11 rebounds and six assists. Embiid’s incredible competitive instincts and motor skills got him that much, but if you watch the tape, what you see is a lumbering performance of dubious mobility and constant anguish. Had the Knicks been a speedier team—like, for instance, the Indiana Pacers they’ll face in the next round—Embiid’s limitations would have been more obviously problematic. But even in a plodding, half-court sludgefest, every step contained a universe of cinematic pain.

It would be a more normal thing if Embiid processed the stress of his profession normally: a superstar gutting through injury to do their best in the playoffs, which is far from their actual best, is something we’ve seen before. We see it pretty much every year, actually. But Embiid carries the weight of expectations differently than others. As his fanbase and national media have constructed stories that have him as the potential messiah in a decade-long process of experimental team-building, coupled with the unusual rabidity of Philadelphia sports fans, he has accepted this role sincerely.

I wouldn’t wish that kind of thing on anyone, and I wish for him to consider the sunken-cost fallacy and reject it, going forward. He does not need to be a sin-eater for the outsize resentments of the locals who watch his games, or for the spreadsheet battles of the Sixers. These are phenomena that require refutation, not validation. Embiid should pursue continued excellence in Philadelphia, and new levels of it, but in detachment from these things—not as their representative.

And he certainly shouldn’t sacrifice his health for them. He is here by happenstance, not fate, and has no celestial duty to vanquish the mythological goblins of his franchise. Or to fulfill the desire of angry ringz-centric morning show pundits. His unique talent is already indelible to those who truly care about the sport; it would be great to see it pop off in the Spring for once, fully formed on the game’s biggest stage, but whether this happens or not won’t “make or break” his excellent career. 

Many great NBA men have suffered less existential anguish than Embiid, while also experiencing less pain—physical, cultural. He is already in shining company; has grabbed a nice piece of posterity, whatever his critics think of him. The “what-ifs” should not ruin a man who has, as a matter of recorded fact, made so many eyeballs bulge open with amazement and wonder.

A dazzling NBA Finals appearance would elevate his legend, no doubt. But it’s not on him, but the Sixers, to provide him with the structure for such an outcome. He has done his part, much more often than not. After another underwhelming outcome, the pressure to push his career to the next level will drive the efforts of his front office during a pivotal offseason, during which the team must make changes to better suit him. But that’s not Embiid’s calling, or his story. His tale, rightly divorced from that of this long and fraught chapter of the Sixers, is impressive enough.