Why a trade isn't Sixers' answer for the Markelle Fultz problem

Why a trade isn't Sixers' answer for the Markelle Fultz problem

The Sixers have a Markelle Fultz problem, and the Jimmy Butler trade raises valid questions about how the 2017 No. 1 overall pick fits into the team’s short-and-long-term plans. This is the current state of affairs with Fultz. One season and 16 games into his NBA career, we’re wondering if the 20-year-old is a “colossal bust,” and if the Sixers should trade him.

No, really, and this didn’t start with Monday’s bizarre free-throw attempt in Miami. That was the decayed cherry on top of this strange fiasco. A lot has happened in Fultz’s short time here, and not much of it has been positive.

The grim reality of the Butler trade is this: The Process is over. The Sixers have entered Post-Process, and Post-Process is essentially win-now mode. A consequence is that the Sixers can no longer afford to bank on hitting the lottery, and Fultz is still very much a lottery ticket.

Butler is a Sixer, and if all goes according to plan, he’ll be donning the PHILA uniform for a long time. That doesn’t exactly bode well for Fultz. What we’ve learned in the first 16 games is that Fultz and Ben Simmons cannot coexist on the court, as highlighted by NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

All of this brings us to, what should the Sixers do with Fultz?

When we factor in all the concerns — the hesitation to shoot outside the restricted area, that shot, public struggles, etc. — the return on a Fultz trade would be minimal unless he's packaged as part of a bigger deal.

If there is a trade involving Fultz that will help elevate the Sixers even higher in the NBA hierarchy, then, sure, it makes sense to move him. But with a damaged on-court reputation, it's hard to see Fultz being the centerpiece of a bigger move.

At this point, there’s more value in the Sixers trusting the culture they’ve built and entrusting the coaching staff to resurrect Fultz. If anything, Butler should take away some of the spotlight, and that’s not the worst thing either.

Most of Fultz’s obstacles have been mental, and with Butler here, he doesn't have to be a star. Instead, he can focus on doing what he does well and work on his game with a little less pressure. On the court, he’s attacked the rim effectively and his defense has improved, but with a jump shot that ineffective, it’s hard to harp on the positives.

We saw the first piece of fallout Wednesday when Brett Brown removed Fultz from the starting lineup. Fultz captained the second unit and managed eight points in 21 minutes. It’s the right move because the numbers support that Fultz plays considerably better without Simmons.

That’s the immediate repercussion, but the big picture presents a more complicated conundrum. If the Sixers no longer view Fultz as a future star, should they move quickly to denounce Bryan Colangelo’s miscalculation and prevent another potential Jahlil Okafor situation? There's an argument that’s the best course of action.

We're one year removed and it looks like Fultz will not be the top player in his draft. He may not even be a top-10 player, but he’ll forever have the No. 1 pick designation. Accordingly, Fultz will be in the spotlight and there’s been plenty of drama to beat that bust drum.

Brand refused Tuesday to say the Butler trade was a reflection of Fultz. Instead, “it’s more of a team view of trying to get a superstar right now.” It’s a bleak perspective, but it’s hard to envision Fultz developing into the star we once thought he could be.

That doesn’t mean Fultz can’t evolve into a piece to the puzzle. If Fultz can still help, then there's more value in holding onto that hand than folding. This isn't Okafor all over again — there is still a role here for Fultz.

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

On so many levels, the Sixers’ season hasn’t gone as planned. Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced the NBA to suspend play, the team was in an unenviable spot.

If the regular season is over, which seems like a distinct possibility, the Sixers would finish as the East’s sixth seed. A combination of fit, underperformance — especially away from the Wells Fargo Center — and injury put them there.

But if the NBA does resume at some point, where does that leave the 2019-20 Sixers?

There’s a train of thought that this break could benefit the Sixers. It’s a fair line of thinking. In fact, there may not be a team that would benefit more. 

Ben Simmons, who has been sidelined since Feb. 22 with nerve impingement in his lower back, will have more time to recover. Back on March 11, before we learned later that night that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus, Simmons spoke before the Sixers’ game against the Pistons. 

The All-Star point guard said he had “no pain” and was “confident” — though he did not give a timeline for his return. Earlier that day, the team released a statement which said Simmons would be re-evaluated in three weeks. That would put the re-evaluation at around April 1, with no indication the NBA season will resume any time soon.

Other than Simmons, the other four members of the regular starting lineup have dealt with injuries this season. 

Joel Embiid tore a ligament in his left ring finger and had a left shoulder sprain. Josh Richardson has dealt with injuries to both hamstrings, among other things. While Tobias Harris (right knee contusion) and Al Horford (left knee soreness, left hamstring tightness) haven’t missed much time, they’ve also been banged up this season.

All of this to say, maybe this break — as unfortunate as it is for the sport and for the world, really — winds up benefiting the Sixers. Everyone will be back to Point A when/if play resumes. If you’ll recall, the Sixers started this season 5-0. It seems like a distant memory, but it happened. Perhaps returning to full health will ignite a similar run.

Now, for the glass half-empty version.

Though being healthy will help, it won’t solve the myriad issues the Sixers had with their roster construction this season. If both Embiid and Horford are healthy, Brett Brown seems hellbent on trying to make the combo work. So far this season, the evidence has been against that being fruitful.

Richardson and Harris have had their moments this season, but neither has been exactly what the Sixers expected. Richardson’s skillset is one the Sixers need, but he’s on pace to have the worst three-point shooting season of his career. While Harris has been solid, he hasn’t been the near-max player the team thought they were getting.

As for Simmons, he was playing easily the best basketball of his career before his injury and seemed to be a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Will he be able to round into form and get ready for the playoffs in a hurry after such a long layoff?

Then the seven-foot, 280-plus pound elephant in the room — will Embiid be in good enough shape to play in an NBA game when the time comes?

The Sixers may be the most mystifying team in the NBA. It’s entirely possible they come out guns blazing, get their act together and go on a run. It seems just as feasible that their fit issues fester, and they’ll get bounced in the first round.

So while the basketball hiatus may benefit the Sixers, they’d still have to take advantage.

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

The Sixers had so many options heading into free agency last July.

We don’t know yet exactly when free agency will begin this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the suspended NBA season. Whenever it does happen, though, the Sixers won’t have as many possibilities. 

The decisions to give Tobias Harris a five-year, $180 million contract and guarantee Al Horford $97 million over four years are the two clear, primary reasons the Sixers won’t be in an especially flexible position. In Year 1, those moves haven’t panned out as GM Elton Brand and the front office would have hoped.

In one major way, Horford has actually provided what the Sixers expected. As a backup center, he’s been quite good — the Sixers have a plus-5.2 net rating when Horford is on the floor and Joel Embiid is off it. He’s been much better than a hodgepodge of Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden. 

However, many of the reasonable concerns that came with signing Horford have come to fruition. The Horford-Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of any two-man Sixers lineup that’s played at least 500 minutes together. If you want an idea of just how poor the offense has been when the two have shared the floor, consider this: Their 100.6 offensive rating together is almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). 

Though Brett Brown was talking about aiming to further develop Horford and Embiid together as recently as the day before the season was suspended, that combination is a problem. It’s not what the Sixers would have planned when they signed Horford, but the decision to move him out of the starting lineup in February was very sensible.

Horford has shot more three-pointers than ever in his career, but not at an efficient rate (33.7 percent, his worst mark since the 2014-15 season). We thought he’d likely decline in the later years of his contract and be costing the Sixers money at 35 or 36 years old. To put it bluntly, he’s cost the Sixers money in his first season, and has not fit well. 

Harris, in his ninth NBA season, has improved defensively, is second on the Sixers in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, after an 0-for-23 nightmare of a stretch, has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range. He’s the only Sixer to have played in every game, and younger players like Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok have praised his mentorship. All of that matters and is positive, but Harris has not been worth $32.7 million this season.

The main question now — outside of when basketball will return, of course — is whether the Sixers can repair their mistakes.

Is there a team out there that would be willing to take on Horford’s contract and give up any value in return? The Kings, who reportedly were expected to make a “massive offer” to Horford in free agency, are one team it would make sense to engage. Sharpshooter Buddy Hield would presumably be the name of interest.

Trading away Harris looks much less likely, although we’ve learned not to rule anything out during Brand’s brief tenure. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers receiving a worthwhile return, and Brown and Brand have often portrayed Harris as being an emerging player. They believe he’s going to get more and more comfortable and effective as a primary scoring option.

Josh Richardson, who’s suffered a variety of injuries in his first year a Sixer, is on a team-friendly deal. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but his perimeter defense and shot creation are important for this team, and they come at a good value.

Ben Simmons and Embiid are not what’s wrong with the Sixers and should not be traded at this stage. The pieces around them are the issues. Of course, judgement of whether those are issues the Sixers can overcome is incomplete. We don’t know yet how this roster would fare in the playoffs, and Brand has insisted his team was built with the postseason in mind. 

The Sixers would currently have a first-round pick in the draft — the top-20 protected Oklahoma City Thunder pick they acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade would convey — and that’s one of the ways they should be able to improve their roster. They’ve hit on Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Thybulle in the draft over the last couple of years. With how Brand has constructed the team, targeting a perimeter player who can shoot, capably create his own shot or do both would appear an obvious priority.

Fundamentally, nobody envisioned this NBA season unfolding the way it has. Whatever is next and whenever the offseason eventually begins, the Sixers will have to discern the best methods to address the unpleasant surprises of this season. 

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