Even if Joel Embiid were available for the 76ers’ entire four-game road trip that starts Saturday, it still would have been a major challenge.
With Embiid missing the first two games because of an NBA suspension stemming from a fight with Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns during the Sixers’ 117-95 win Wednesday night over the Timberwolves, the road trip just got that much more challenging.
The Sixers will begin the trip in Portland and then play in Phoenix on Monday in the two games that Embiid will miss. After that, the Sixers will face Utah on Wednesday and conclude the trip with next Friday’s game in Denver.
All four opponents have winning records and are a combined 13-7.
Even Phoenix, which has not won more than 24 games in each of the previous four years, is 3-2 and owns a win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
“I think we are playing really good teams,” Sixers forward Tobias Harris said after Thursday’s practice, before news of Embiid’s suspension broke. “Denver is always a tough place to play, also Portland. We are going to be challenged by some really good teams on the road. Utah has been playing well."
The Sixers left Philadelphia on Friday morning and are expected to hold an optional workout in Portland later in the day.
Starting shooting guard Josh Richardson, who sat out Thursday’s practice with mild soreness in his left big toe, is on the trip. A team spokesman said Richardson is expected to be available for Saturday’s game.
Richardson is so vital to the Sixers because he is not only the starting shooting guard, but also backs up Ben Simmons at the point. Richardson is averaging 13.3 points in 33.0 minutes.
With Embiid out for two games, two-way player Norvel Pelle will make the trip.
Reserve point guard Trey Burke, who was sent home at halftime of Wednesday’s win over Minnesota because of gastroenteritis and missed Thursday’s practice, also made the trip and is expected to be available Saturday.
Portland (3-2), the opponent Saturday, is coming off Wednesday’s 102-99 home win over Oklahoma City. All-Star point guard Damian Lillard led the way with 23 points, 13 assists and 7 rebounds.
Stopping Portland means dealing with the outstanding backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum, who are averaging 29.2 and 23 points, respectively.
“They have two very good guards that can score the ball really at a high level, either from three, midrange or getting downhill,” Harris said. “So just really being able to stop them, that is the majority of where their offense comes from is through their playmaking. And so they are [among] the top backcourts in the NBA, and we have to be ready to go at them and make their looks hard.”
Another key for the Sixers, especially without Embiid, will be slowing rejuvenated center Hassan Whiteside, who was part of the four-team trade in July in which the Sixers acquired Richardson and traded Jimmy Butler.
Whiteside, who played the previous five seasons in Miami, is averaging 12.8 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots in 25.4 minutes.
The best of the four teams on the trip at this point is Utah, which will take a 4-1 mark into Friday’s game against Sacramento. Portland, Utah and Denver are all considered contenders, to various degrees, in the Western Conference.
One priority for the Sixers is to cut down their turnovers. They are averaging 20 per game, last in the NBA. Despite all the miscues, the Sixers (4-0) will enter the road trip as the NBA’s lone unbeaten team.
Exiting the trip with that status will be extremely difficult.