All-in Sixers couldn't wait on Markelle Fultz any longer

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Friday, February 8, 2019

Before Tuesday's game against the Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown was asked if Markelle Fultz was going to return to the rotation sometime this season.

"Right now I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised with how he arrives back with us, more than assume he's going to be there," Brown said.

What Brown couldn't say was what everyone in the room already knew: Fultz's time in Philadelphia was all but over. The 76ers' timeline no longer allowed for Fultz to work himself back into anything even remotely resembling the form that made him the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2017.

Hours later, Philadelphia made that abundantly clear by trading a bundle of players and picks for Tobias Harris -- the team's second all-in move in less than three months. Adding Harris gave the Sixers one of the best starting lineups in the NBA. It also left them with a second big-money free agent to have to potentially re-sign this summer, and the same problem they had before trading for eitherJimmy Butleror Harris: a weak bench.

Fultz, in his current state, was a factor in both of those problems. The $10 million in salary he is owed for next season would have made it difficult to give both Butler and Harris big contracts as free agents while avoiding the luxury tax. Meanwhile, while working his way back from his thoracic outlet syndrome diagnosis, Fultz was taking up a roster spot, limiting the Sixers' ability to improve their bench either in a trade or on the buyout market.

After going all-in by trading for Butler and Harris, keeping Fultz simply didn't make sense. So less than a half-hour before Thursday's 3 p.m. trade deadline, Sixers general manager Elton Brand made the only decision he could by trading Fultz to the Orlando Magic for forwardJonathon Simmons, Oklahoma City's 2020 first-round pick and Cleveland's 2019 second-round pick.

And, just like that, the Markelle Fultz era in Philadelphia was over -- in far different fashion than anyone could have imagined when it began.

June 19, 2017, was supposed to mark the dawn of a new era in Philadelphia.

It was that day that the 76ers agreed to a massive trade with the Boston Celtics, sending the third pick in that year's draft and a future first-rounder to Boston in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick. Philadelphia did so to take Fultz, the dynamic combo guard out of Washington who was almost universally seen as the top pick in the draft and, more important, looked to be an ideal fit alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the team's two other young anchor talents.

That trio was supposed to carry the Sixers forward for the next decade, be the foundation of a new Eastern Conference powerhouse and serve as the culmination of "The Process" -- the moniker given to former general manager Sam Hinkie's systematic teardown of the franchise in an effort to accumulate as many assets as possible, a quest designed specifically to acquire just those types of players.

But rather than marking the dawning of a new day in Philadelphia, June 19, 2017, came to signify the beginning of an excruciating 20-month process that saw Fultz go from a face of the franchise to a face the public hardly ever saw. That shift led the Sixers in a very different direction, one that quickly left Fultz behind.

In theory, Fultz should have been the perfect person to pair with Simmons and Embiid. After watching Fultz play during his lone season at Washington, one high-ranking NBA executive compared him to Dwyane Wade. Standing 6-foot-4 with long arms and blazing speed, Fultz was capable of slicing through defenses and getting to the rim, could make plays for others and showed enough shooting ability -- hitting 41.2 percent of his 3-point attempts on just over five attempts per game -- to allow him to pair nicely with Simmons in Philadelphia's backcourt.

But that's all Fultz turned out to be in Philadelphia: a thought exercise. Regardless of what it was that caused his shooting form to desert him -- and plenty of theories have been floated -- it only matters now that it did. And, when it did, Fultz did, too. He missed the vast majority of last season, then played only 19 games this season before going on hiatus yet again.

Some glimmers of the player he was expected to be occasionally shined through, like when he became the first teenager in NBA history to record a triple-double last season. Far more often, though, he was shrouded in mystery, forcing the Sixers to answer one question after another about him and his status.

Would he play? Would he start when he did? Had his shot returned? Would it ever?

Meanwhile, Simmons and Embiid took the court together and turned the Sixers into a top-four team in the East without Fultz. Their combined talents were enough to somewhat overcome the fact Philadelphia had essentially gotten nothing from a player it had invested significant draft capital specifically to get.

Philadelphia initially tried to change that this season. In an attempt to show faith in Fultz, Brown moved him into the starting lineup to start the season, breaking up what had been the NBA's best five-man lineup in 2017-18. Almost immediately, that plan fell apart.

What began as Fultz starting turned into Fultz starting only the first half of games by the end of the preseason. It quickly became clear that despite having worked on it all offseason, Fultz's jump shot was nowhere near fixed. All pretenses of Philadelphia being a team that had time to allow Fultz to find himself disappeared in mid-November, when the Sixers pushed their chips into the center of the table by trading for Butler.

Fultz was dropped from the starting lineup for good in Butler's debut on Nov. 14 in Orlando and excised from the rotation completely the following Monday when T.J. McConnell helped engineer a second-half comeback against the Phoenix Suns with Fultz watching from the bench.

That was the last time he ever played for the Sixers.

Soon after, Fultz saw a series of specialists, was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and began a rehabilitation program. But even after returning to the bench, there was never any indication he was going to return to the rotation.

Perhaps the Markelle Fultz era in Orlando will go differently than the one in Philadelphia did. In truth, the Magic are just about the perfect place for him to land. Rather than being under an unforgiving microscope analyzing his every shot and movement as a failed former No. 1 overall pick in Philadelphia, Fultz can just be a backup guard on the Magic, a team sitting outside the East's playoff picture with virtually no media attention.

Orlando's front office, led by team president Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond, can afford to be patient with his progress. The team's coach, Steve Clifford, has precisely the right approach and temperament to help coax Fultz's game back to life. But, more than anything, the Magic have time to let Fultz attempt to work things out, to play, to potentially get himself right.

Time was the one thing, though, that Philadelphia no longer had. By trading for Butler and Harris, Philadelphia went from a team with an eye on the future to one entirely focused on the present.

Markelle Fultz wasn't going to be part of that present -- and, therefore, he couldn't be part of Philadelphia's future.

Thursday, the Sixers ensured he wouldn't be.

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