This was published minutes prior to The Athletic's report that Markelle Fultz will see a shoulder specialist "at the direction of his attorney, Raymond Brothers." Fultz will sit out until he sees the specialist, scheduled for some time next week.
PHILADELPHIA (94 WIP) — Let’s do something that seems like it’s been pretty impossible for the last year or so — have an honest conversation about Markelle Fultz.
At the end of it you can go back onto social media proclaiming your undying belief and devotion to him, and how it’s never wavered, even for a second. I’ll go back to blaming Bryan Colangelo for a disastrous trade (acquiring the No. 1 overall pick in 2017 used to take Fultz for the No. 3 overall pick and the Kings' 2019 pick) that I thought was awesome when it happened.
But for now, let’s have a realistic conversation about where we are, and where we’re going.
When the Sixers traded for Jimmy Butler last week, it effectively ended the Markelle Fultz experiment in Philadelphia. It was probably close to ending anyway, but the trade for Butler was a remarkably clear sign to everyone that the Sixers aren’t building for tomorrow, or next week, they’re ready to go right now. Sam Hinkie once said, “we’ll know, we’ll all know,” when it was time to make the move to become a contender; the message from the Sixers front office is, “We know.”
Joel Embiid is playing like an MVP. Ben Simmons, who still has a lot to figure out, has himself in the orbit of the NBA’s top 30 players. And Jimmy Butler, by just about everyone’s count, is in the top 15. The Sixers were on the precipice of the Eastern Conference’s elite before the trade and now they’re firmly in the middle of it.
And while we’d all guess that Golden State turns it back around after their recent turmoil, maybe they don’t, and then who knows what the ceiling is for the Sixers?
Fultz, 20, in the midst of “figuring it out,” has no place here. So when Brett Brown decides that TJ McConnell is a more appropriate backup than Fultz — as he did Monday night (when Fultz scored zero points and recorded three fouls in just seven minutes) — it should not be confusing to anyone why he’s doing it. McConnell is more dependable and prepared to play in NBA games than Fultz is. We should save our holier-than-thou insistence that Brown is taking the short view with Fultz by playing McConnell. The team made a very clear nod to their view when they traded for Butler. McConnell is obviously more capable than Fultz is, at the moment.
It’s probably time we stopped trying to blame anyone for why he has had such trouble. That includes Colangelo for drafting him at all, Keith Williams for “changing his shot,” Drew Hanlen for not fixing it (we can still blame him for being kind of annoying), Sixers doctors for missing some sort of mystery nerve injury, Brown for playing him with another point guard or benching him, or Fultz himself — who I’m sure wants this all solved more than anyone.
We can all point to creative stats showing that Fultz is doing pretty well, and we can look at the form on his occasional 13-foot jumper and see promise. We can spend time reading injury conspiracy theories from medical students we’ve never heard of. We can posit that his new hot-potato free-throw technique is actually good. None of it matters. Anyone with two eyes can see how Fultz’s apprehension in just about everything he does would not inspire confidence in a coach or teammates.
This doesn’t mean his coach and his teammates do not support or like Fultz. This doesn’t mean Fultz will never figure it out. It just means that on the court, for the Sixers, is not where it’s going to happen. We can all guess what will finally make it all click for Fultz, but none of us really know anything. We don’t know if it’s playing time, the G League, time away from the game, a new coach, different teammates, if it’s anything at all. We have no idea. What we do know is what Embiid, Butler, and Simmons are and the potential cost of wasting that opportunity.
What this all means for the future is anyone’s guess. Whether the Sixers decide to try to just take whatever they can get for Fultz in a trade, or just let him sit on the bench and hope something clicks is to be determined. His salary next season, over $10,000,000, is not insignificant when you’re trying to build a contender; whether that sort of money is used on a significant rotation player (there are several players who contribute at a high level on that sort of deal) or is the difference in obtaining a (gulp!) fourth star player.
But what it means for now is that we’ve likely seen the end of an extended run for Fultz, barring some sort of minor miracle or significant injury. This isn’t where anyone wanted to be, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re here.