76ers

What could have been? Markelle Fultz leaves behind one of the strangest legacies in Philly sports history

What could have been? Markelle Fultz leaves behind one of the strangest legacies in Philly sports history

The Sixers have become unfortunate experts when it came to injuries to draft picks.

Joel Embiid, who sat out two seasons with a wonky navicular bone, and Ben Simmons, who missed a season with a Jones fracture, became All-Stars. 

After being selected No. 1 overall in 2017, it appeared Markelle Fultz was just the next in line.

Unfortunately, there won’t be a happy ending for Fultz — at least not with the Sixers. The Markelle Fultz era is over, and what a not so long, strange trip it’s been.

Fultz’s trade to Orlando Thursday ends one of the strangest sagas in professional sports.

What could have been

Fultz played in just 33 games for the Sixers, and after a year and a half of shoulder issues and shooting woes, the Sixers parted ways with the 20-year-old guard.

While the Sixers were right to move on after making an all-in move for forward Tobias Harris early Wednesday morning, there’s a certain sadness to all of this.

Rip Bryan Colangelo all you want — many have, and deservedly so — but Fultz looked like the real deal coming out of Washington. He was silky smooth with the ability to take people off the dribble, make plays for others and the jumper was there. Not only was it there, it came any way you wanted it — off the bounce, off screens, catch and shoot, you name it.

When Colangelo made the move to acquire the No. 1 overall pick, trading the No. 3 overall pick and the Kings’ unprotected pick in 2019, it made sense. Fultz’s skill set as a shooter and scorer seemed to fit perfectly next to Embiid and Simmons.

But none of that ever came to fruition.

What came first: The changed shot or the injury?

We’re always going to have this chicken or the egg discussion about Fultz altering his shot and his shoulder injury. In any case, Fultz grabbed national headlines for the awkwardness of his new form — especially from the free throw line.

Thus began the true weirdness and drama. Why did Fultz change his shot? Who told him to change his shot? Even when he came back to the Sixers after missing 68 games during his rookie season, he had no interest in shooting the ball outside of 10 feet. When he did, it wasn’t pretty.

At times, it was hard to watch. This was a 19-year-old kid with all the promise in the world, touted as such a can’t-miss prospect … and he was missing. There were flashes. He became the first teenager in NBA history to record a triple-double and you could see the talent he possessed. 

While he struggled to get off the bench in the playoffs, there was renewed hope for the next season. Fultz worked with trainer Drew Hanlen in an effort to fix his shot. Fultz was clearly putting the work in and Hanlen hyped up his progress.

Fresh start as a starter

To start the season, Fultz did look different. He had a different energy, a new hairstyle, a new starting role and, most importantly, he looked confident shooting a basketball. He shot five threes in the preseason. He only made one, but the confidence was there.

Then during the Sixers’ home opener vs. Chicago, Fultz rose up and nailed his first NBA three. The crowd erupted — and not that’s hyperbole. It was like a playoff-game level eruption when the shot splashed. Fultz wound up shooting 30 percent from three before he simply stopped taking them after an 0-for-2 performance against Toronto.

If the three against the Bulls was the high point, then the pump-fake free throw against the Heat was possibly the lowest. It was one of the oddest things you’ll ever see on a basketball court. Fultz would later claim that the ball slipped, but that didn’t appear to be the case. As a basketball fan — and really a human being — your heart sank for the kid. Everything about that game felt secondary as the focus shifted to Fultz the day before Jimmy Butler was set to make his Sixers debut.

Fultz denied being hurt, giving a cliché line about nobody being 100 percent when pressed. Then after a game against the Suns where Fultz was relegated to third on the depth chart behind T.J. McConnell, Fultz’s agent put out a statement that his client would be seeking out the opinions of shoulder specialists.

Everything before that and everything following it was bizarre. Fultz was eventually diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and that game against Phoenix wound up being his last as a Sixer.

What's best for everyone

We’re left with so many questions. The one many people will come back to is whether the shoulder injury was legitimate or if Fultz’s struggles were all mental. Honestly, it’s not worth going there. If there is something going on with Fultz beyond TOS, that’s Fultz’s business and is way bigger than basketball.

Fultz will leave behind the strangest of legacies in Philadelphia, leaving us all wondering what could have been. He’ll always wear the bust label for the Sixers and it’s going to take a lot of work to shed it with the Magic.

The hope is a fresh start will do the Sixers and Fultz good. The Sixers can focus on their championship aspirations.

Fultz can focus on getting healthy first and then worry about resurrecting his career.

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If they face Celtics again in playoffs, how can Sixers beat Boston?

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USA Today Images

If they face Celtics again in playoffs, how can Sixers beat Boston?

The Sixers have 24 games left, and each one of them matters with playoff seeding at stake. But their March 20 matchup vs. the Celtics might matter a little more than the others as the Sixers will aim to avoid a season sweep against Boston.

Today, NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick discuss how the Sixers can beat the Celtics if the two teams meet again in the playoffs.

Monday, they looked at who should be part of the Sixers' playoff rotation (see story).

Wednesday, they'll review their expectations for the rest of the season.

Hudrick 

While the new-look Sixers will likely be a better team the next time they see the Celtics, there’s plenty to take from the previous matchups.

Some teams are a tough matchup for Joel Embiid and others for Ben Simmons. Boston is the rare team that gives both All-Stars problems. Al Horford is the rarest of players that can guard both. 

Most NBA fives are susceptible to Embiid’s pump fakes or they can’t keep up with his footwork, often leading to fouls. That’s not the case with Horford, who has the discipline, strength and quickness to hang with Embiid. It’s a matter of Embiid making better and quicker decisions — especially against double teams.

With Simmons, it’s just about valuing the basketball and picking his spots to be aggressive. Boston is excellent at getting back in transition, where Simmons normally excels. Simmons is often better when he’s attacking, but against the Celtics he may be better off letting the game come to him, like he did last Tuesday.

The other thought, knowing how much Embiid and Simmons have struggled vs. Boston, is to run the offense more around Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. 

Butler was the best player on the floor against the Celtics last week. We’ve briefly seen the Butler experiment at point guard. I’d be interested in seeing it more against Boston. It could allow Butler to be in control of the offense and allow Simmons to play a traditional four spot.

Harris struggled in the loss last week, but had good looks. He’s been with the team for less than two weeks, so Brown and his teammates are still figuring Harris out and how he fits in the offense. They have 24 games to find the best way to get Harris more involved. Doing so could come in handy if they face the Celtics again in the playoffs.

Levick 

I think there are three keys to the Sixers beating the Celtics: 

1. Make Joel Embiid’s life easier
We know Al Horford defends Embiid very well. Embiid just can’t draw fouls or score inside with ease against Horford the same way he does against other big men. That’s fine.

The Sixers can help Embiid by spacing the floor properly when he gets the ball, making the occasional, smart split cut off him, and recognizing that he’s not always going to be their best offensive option. Sometimes Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler are going to be the right player to turn to down the stretch.

2. Play to Ben Simmons’ strengths
The current reality is Simmons, without a reliable jump shot, likely won’t be as effective offensively vs. the Celtics as he is against others teams. Boston does a great job neutralizing the athletic advantage Simmons usually possesses. Again, that doesn’t have to kill the Sixers.

I’ve mentioned it a bunch in the past, but it bears repeating — Simmons has gone from a poor post player (21 for 70, or 30 percent last season) to one of the better post-up players in the NBA this season (50 for 99, or 50.5 percent).

It would make sense for the Sixers to use Simmons more at the power forward spot than normal vs. Boston in lineups with Jimmy Butler or T.J. McConnell at the point. 

3. Prioritize defense
As we saw last season, Boston is masterful at exposing defensive liabilities. Players like Furkan Korkmaz can’t see the floor against the Celtics. JJ Redick’s minutes might need to go down. McConnell, though he’s been very good recently against the Celtics, will probably only be playable if he’s asked to defend smaller guards like Terry Rozier. 

In all likelihood, Brett Brown will need to ride his best defensive players — Butler, Embiid, Simmons and Harris. The Sixers have the talent to beat Boston, but Brown has a challenging task navigating the matchup troubles which the Celtics present. 

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Sixers' new starting five is on Sports Illustrated cover

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@SINow

Sixers' new starting five is on Sports Illustrated cover

If you're a Sixers fan, you better hope the Sports Illustrated cover jinx is not a real thing.

The Sixers' new, formidable starting five is on this week's cover of SI, posing around the words "Process This." You'd imagine Sam Hinkie is reading with pride. 

Interesting to note how all five guys have a hint of a smile besides Joel Embiid. His competitive side sometimes gets overshadowed, but Embiid definitely looks like he means business on the cover with that cold stare into the camera.

Tobias Harris wishes his teammates had gone all-in on the smile.

In the issue, The Crossover staff at SI re-previews the highly competitive Eastern Conference, taking stock of where the Sixers, Celtics, Bucks and Raptors stand after an eventful trade deadline.

So did Philly just build the most talented team in the East — or a very expensive runner-up? Whatever the answer, the experiment seems an appropriate extension of the Process," Andrew Sharp writes. "You don’t have to love every move, but you can’t help but admire the ambition.

Fair enough. 

Eleven years ago, Elton Brand was on the cover.

The question then was, "How far can Elton Brand take the Sixers?" It's still a relevant question, although at this point, the Sixers' fate falls largely on the team Brand has helped assemble. But there's no doubt Brand is again a big part of the Sixers' return to the national spotlight.

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