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November 14, 2017

Joel Embiid threw the Sixers on his back in win vs. Los Angeles Clippers

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The Sixers got very little from six of the nine guys they played on Monday night, but when the other three are Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, and Ben Simmons, it almost doesn't matter. Philadelphia's triumvirate combined for 85 of the team's 109 points against the Los Angeles Clippers, and the 109-105 victory in L.A. can be placed almost squarely on their shoulders.

Without taking away from the performances of the other two guys, it all started with the man in the middle.

Joel Embiid has finally arrived

You've seen the outline of what Embiid can be during dominant stretches this season, but there haven't been many games this year where you felt like he owned the game. Mark this one down as the first real "Embiid game" of the 2017-18 season.

LA's biggest strength is their frontcourt, and Embiid just did not care about anything the Clippers threw at him. He stuck his ass on the low block and went to work for all four quarters, and for most of the evening, he dictated how the Clippers played on defense. For the Clippers' big men, that mostly meant fouling the living crap out of Embiid, or just desperately flailing in an attempt to stop him. It didn't work out so well.

Although he did a poor job of capitalizing at the free-throw line when he got there (he was 9/16 on the evening), Embiid earning trips there helped him stay in the game longer. The second-year man played a whopping 36 minutes on the evening, scoring 32 points and grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds to lead his team to a win.

Brett Brown has stressed that pace is a big factor in how the Sixers can use their young center, and when Embiid can bring the game to a halt and go to the charity stripe, it allows him to catch his breath and (ideally) pick up points with the clock stopped. With the Clippers threatening to deliver a final blow with a few minutes left in the game, Embiid used a rip through to earn a quick trip to the charity stripe.

The foul was Jordan's fifth, and Embiid smelled blood. The very next possession for Philadelphia, Embiid went right back at Jordan, and when his opponent got caught sticking his hand in the cookie jar again, Embiid used the same move and fouled Jordan out of the game.

The offensive benefit is clear, but Embiid also has a better chance to get back into position and set up shop on defense after free throws. While he hasn't quite looked like the world-destroying force on defense that he was in his rookie season, Embiid's impact on that end has been flat-out ridiculous, especially considering the new personnel around him. 

With Embiid on the court this season, the Sixers currently have a defensive rating of 96.7, which would be the second-best team mark in the league behind only the Boston Celtics. It falls off a cliff whenever he hits the bench, rising to 110.1. The Sixers effectively change from a top-two defensive team to a bottom-two defensive team strictly based on whether Embiid is in the game or not.

Individual matchups aren't everything, but DeAndre Jordan's complete inability to impact the game on offense was the best sign of Embiid's impact vs. the Clippers. Jordan is a terror as a roll man who routinely leads the league in field-goal percentage, and Los Angeles straight up could not throw him the ball all night. His only basket of the game came on a rare post-up, and any team would be happy to let Jordan earn his points with his back to the basket.

Embiid still has to cut down the turnovers, but it's a blessing for Brown to be able to point to an area Embiid can improve at even as he dominates. When this guy has it all working, he is a nightmare to play against.

Self-inflicted wounds are the Sixers' biggest current problem

Speaking of turnovers, they are not just a Joel Embiid problem. The Sixers are hurting themselves early and often by coughing up the ball, and it's probably the main thing holding them back from being a legitimately good basketball team.

The Sixers currently lead the NBA in turnovers with 18.6 per game, and what kills you watching them in real time is that so many of them are avoidable. This botched pass in transition from JJ Redick is a killer, turning what should have been an easy dunk or layup into a bucket the other way for the Clippers.

They are even finding ways to create turnovers after narrowly avoiding committing one in the moments prior. Simmons telegraphs a pass to Embiid at the top of the key here, but when Embiid ends up with the ball and Simmons flanking him on the sideline, he opts for the home-run pass and tosses the ball out of reach as a result.

There are stories behind each of these that that don't tend to hint at any one systemic problem. Sometimes it's a genuine miscue, sometimes Embiid gets tunnel vision, other times they're just risky passes from guys not equipped to make them. Whatever the case is, the Sixers need to clean up the problem, because if they can get even marginally better at taking care of the basketball, they won't have to watch every game come down to the final minute.

Ben Simmons doesn't have to shoot well if he just dunks everything

One day, Simmons is going to have to make jumpers to take his game to the next level. For now, the beauty of his game is his ability to continually make plays without any ability to make shots from beyond 10-15 feet.

Prior to making a layup with 8:21 left in the game, all seven of Simmons' made field goals were on dunks. If you're looking for the big takeaway from, "What does it mean that a big, athletic dude is dunking a lot?" there isn't one on the surface. But long-term, Simmons ability to get free as a cutter might be the key that unlocks the team's potential.

He has been pushed to the background for now, but Markelle Fultz is still a very real (and very large) part of this team's future. The Sixers will eventually have to figure out how he and Simmons will coexist, and it's easy to say Fultz should be the guy doing more adjusting since Simmons has looked as good as he has. But since Simmons has size on his side, he can be a much more effective roll man than Fultz will ever be, and his background in a more traditional power forward role shines through at times.

His utility matters far beyond any fit with Fultz, of course, and was a huge part of the Sixers pulling out the win in L.A. After Embiid missed two free throws with 4:42 left, his partner in crime refused to let the opportunity go to waste, and pulled down an offensive board to create another possession. Thanks to his pursuit, Robert Covington hit a three to bring the Sixers within a single point.

There are lots of little things like this in every game. Simmons makes his fair share of rookie mistakes, but more often than not he is making winning basketball plays. The variety in his game bodes well for when the Sixers begin incorporating Fultz sometime in the near-ish future.

Robert Covington is on a completely different level right now

It is getting difficult to use hyperbole to describe Robert Covington's play this season. This pull-up off a missed free throw is downright comical.

Covington is making basketball look really simple through the first 13 games of the season. He is constantly on the same wavelength as Simmons, who continues to reward Covington for filling the right lanes at just the right time. Covington deserves credit for sparking these opportunities through his movement on offense, but also because he's creating extra possessions for his team with defense.

Helping on Willie Reed on this third quarter possession, Covington's hands give the Clippers' center no chance. But instead of assuming his teammate Redick is going to knock down a good look at the other end, Covington continues pursuing the play, and comes up with a great follow-up dunk for his trouble.

Covington making life miserable as a help defender is a constant at this point. After Blake Griffin snatched himself an offensive board in the first quarter, Covington snuck on behind him to poke the ball free, and what could have been a bucket or free throws ended up going the other way.

Frankly, he is one of the best stories in basketball right now. The former undrafted free agent has been the NBA's best three-point shooter to start the season, and his defense has picked off right where it left off last year. In fact, entering Tuesday's game, he was the owner of the sixth-best Real Plus-Minus in the league, trailing some illustrious company at the front of the pack.

 Player Real Plus-Minus
 James Harden8.21 
 DeMarcus Cousins7.56 
 Stephen Curry6.56 
 Nikola Jokic5.64 
 Al Horford5.40 
 Robert Covington4.46 
 Kevin Durant3.95 
 Joel Embiid3.88 
 Draymond Green3.81 
 Eric Gordon3.75 

Not bad company to keep. He can't shoot this well forever, but given how well he's playing on both ends of the court, even some shooting regression won't change how much he means to this team.

Where art thou, Sixers bench?

The Sixers got a total of 12 points from their bench against the Clippers. Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench against the Sixers. That's a serious problem!

While I don't think the bench played particularly bad on Monday night, this pattern is getting a little troubling. You're really starting to feel the absence of Jerryd Bayless and Fultz on this road trip, and the Sixers badly need some scoring punch from their second unit. The Sixers could really use a guard or wing player who could give them instant offense even at the expense of defense, and the guys that are playing right now simply aren't suited for that.

You probably don't want to rock the boat too much, but I would think long and hard about giving Furkan Korkmaz a shot if I was Brett Brown. If he's only serving as a temporary replacement for the injured Bayless, he's not stepping in for a defensive stopper anyway, and Korkmaz's ability to shoot would ease the lives of everyone around him. Give him a shot and see if it jolts things a little bit, because it can't get much worse than it has been lately.