Even though the Philadelphia 76ers are winning a lot of games, it feels like something isn’t right about the team’s performance. Despite their 17-8 record entering play Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, the team has yet to come close to playing up to their enormous potential.

The good news is that the answer is clear to why the Sixers aren’t dominating like most expected. The bad news is that it’s due to the underwhelming start to the season from their best and most important player, Joel Embiid.

It’s not because Embiid’s best days are behind him. He’s only 25 and has played less than 200 games as an NBA player. His league leading 95.3 defensive rating indicates otherwise. It may be as simple as going back to having fun.

Harsh criticism

After their most recent home win over the Denver Nuggets, former NBA big men Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal expressed their displeasure with Embiid’s performance.

“He’s the toughest player in the league to match up with,” Barkley said on TNT’s Inside the NBA following the game on Tuesday. “But we don’t talk about him the same way we talk about Luka [Doncic], Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Anthony Davis, [LeBron] James. We don’t ever say that about him.”

O’Neal wants Embiid to make more of an impact by scoring the ball more often.

“Do you want to be great, or do you want to be good? If you want to be good, keep doing 22 points. You want to be great, give me 28, give me 30.”

When asked by Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer about those comments, Embiid took the high road.

“Maybe they’re right. I do thing they’re right. I think I need to be more aggressive and just look to impose myself and look to dominate. I think the whole season, I haven’t done that.”

Embiid added he needs to make changes including going back to having fun.

Having fun

Embiid appears to be having trouble separating maturity and having fun. Following the Nuggets game, he has asked about a moment at the end of the third quarter when he played to the crowd after making a tough basket and getting a foul call.

Embiid admitted he hasn’t done that enough this season because he’s trying to be more mature on the court.

“It goes back to with me being mature and one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun,” Embiid said. “And by having fun it’s trash talking. But that part has kind of been cut.”

It’s troubling that Embiid is equating trash talking and playing to the crowd as immature. The result of removing those aspects of his game for the sake of maturity is seeping over into his play.

He’s averaging only 22.0 points per game and 12.4 rebounds so far on the season. It’s a drastic drop from the 27.5 points per game and 13.6 rebounds he averaged last season. His free throw attempts have dropped from 8.2 per game last season to 6.8 through the first 25 games this year.

Once Embiid realizes that having fun by trash talking or shimming on the court isn’t a sign of immaturity, he may go back to looking like the player the Sixers will need to win in the months to come.

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