PORTLAND, Ore. – The 76ers are a good team, just not an elite one.
That’s not a knock against a squad that features three stars in Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons. It’s just a fact.
How else can you explain the Sixers’ combined 2-6 record against Eastern Conference powers Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, and Boston Celtics?
Even that’s a bit misleading.
One of those victories, a 126-101 outcome over the Raptors, was an early Christmas gift on Dec. 22. Toronto (26-11) played in Philadelphia minus MVP candidate and two-time defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard, and without their two best post players, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas.
In all, the Sixers have won only four of their 12 games against teams that had winning records.
Yet, they take a 23-13 record into Sunday’s much-anticipated contest against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center. To put things in perspective, the Sixers didn’t win their 23rd game last season until Jan. 24. That victory gave them a 23-21 record. This marks their best start through 36 games since going 27-9 during the 2000-01 season.
And Sunday’s contest with the Blazers is the perfect opportunity to get a confidence-boosting road win against a Western Conference contender.
Portland took a 20-15 record and the conference’s fifth-best record into Saturday night’s home game against the Golden State Warriors. Sunday’s matchup will be the Blazers’ third game in four nights and fourth in six days.
Meanwhile, the Sixers will be well-rested, playing for the first time since Thursday night’s win in Utah. They also have some motivation, having lost four straight in Portland. The last three outcomes were decided by an average of 4.3 points.
But getting a victory won’t be easy for the Sixers.
On paper, the Blazers are a matchup nightmare for a team with a woeful perimeter defense. The Sixers routinely get torched by guards who can create their own shot. Portland has two of them in point guard Damian Lillard and his backcourt mate, CJ McCollum.
Lillard headed into Saturday’s game ranked fifth in the league in scoring at 26.7 points per game. The three-time All-Star has scored at least 30 points in 12 of his first 25 games. Four of those occasions were 41-, 42-, 40- and 41-point outbursts.
McCollum is the team’s second-leading scorer with 21 points. The former Lehigh standout had two 40-point outings and three games in which he scored 30, 31 and 33 points.
The Sixers could also be without Embiid, their best player.
The All-Star center is listed as questionable with left-knee soreness. The soreness sidelined him in Saturday’s practice at the University of Portland.
Mike Muscala is expected to start against the Blazers if Embiid is unavailable. Muscala could have his hands full against Portland center Jusuf Nurkic.
Nurkic had 27 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in Thursday’s 110-109 overtime road win against the Golden State Warriors. The 7-foot, 275-pounder averaged 14.3 points and 10.2 rebounds through his first 35 games.
But some will anoint the Sixers as NBA title contenders if they escape the Moda Center with a victory.
If they lose and Simmons fails to attempt a jumper from mid-range or beyond, or disappears in the fourth quarter, his shortcomings might dominate the social media discussion. Folks may also talk negatively about Brett Brown’s in-game coaching and question why JJ Redick took a shot instead of Embiid or Butler in certain scenarios in a loss.
However, the reality is that, win or lose, the Sixers will still have a ways to go in regards to being an elite team.
The roster, as it’s currently constructed, isn’t good enough to make a deep run in the postseason. That becomes evident whenever they face an elite team.
Furkan Korkmaz and Landry Shamet are solid young sharpshooters off the bench. But they have their defensive limitations. The Sixers desperately need to add a solid perimeter defender. They also need someone to back up Embiid at center.
Right now, the team’s three reserve centers are Muscala, Amir Johnson and Justin Patton.
Muscala is more of a situational big who can step out and make three-pointers. He’s not the type of player the team wants banging down low. Johnson, in his 14th season, is averaging a career-low 9.3 minutes per game. Patton is out rehabilitating a broken bone in his right foot. Patton was acquired along with Butler in the November trade with Minnesota, but he’s been plagued by injuries since being selected 16th overall in the 2017 draft by the Chicago Bulls. The 21-year-old big man made one appearance (four minutes) with the Timberwolves as a rookie.
Right now, the Sixers are basically a four-man team in Embiid, Butler, Simmons, and Redick. The team has a tough time winning if at least three of the four aren’t playing well.
The Sixers are also impacted by Markelle Fultz (shooting issues) and Zhaire Smith (foot surgery, food allergy) being unavailable. And you can add the team getting spurned by Nemanja Bjelica this summer in free agency as a setback.
The power forward had reached a one-year, $4.5 million mid-level exception deal with the Sixers on July 5. He backed out of the commitment 12 days later before eventually signing a three-year, $20.5 million contract with the Sacramento Kings. Bjelica is averaging career highs of 11.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists and shooting a career-best 44.8 percent on three-pointers while starting for the Kings.
The 30-year-old would have fit in well in a well-publicized position of need for the Sixers.
“We’re not a finished product right now," general manager Elton Brand said last week. "We’re going to get better.”
The Sixers, who have an open roster spot, are also interested in adding a perimeter defender. The squad is looking to upgrade the roster via a trade or in the buyout market.
“None of that should feel like we’re that far off it,” Brown said. “This team does have the flexibility and ability to reconfigure. I’m leaving all that with Elton Brand.”
For now, they’re good enough to beat the subpar to average teams based on having superior talent with Embiid, Simmons and Butler. And that’s not hard to do, especially when the Sixers, Bucks, Raptors, Pacers, and Celtics were the lone conference teams with winning records.
But that doesn’t make them elite.