The Philadelphia 76ers' first two games of the 2018-19 season haven't told us anything we didn't know already. The Boston Celtics are clearly the better team, the Chicago Bulls can't defend, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are super talented, and the Sixers could still use more shooting.
For a team built around two players in Simmons (a non-shooter) and Embiid (a capable yet below average three-point shooter who favors post play), space around them is essential. This is where J.J. Redick, with his endless off-ball movement, gravity, and elite shooting, has made such an impact since coming to Philly. But now that he’s been moved to the bench for Markelle Fultz, the breathing room around Simmons and Embiid has dwindled.
It was on display immediately against Boston. Fultz played 24 minutes (21 coming in the first half), shot 2-of-7, recorded three turnovers, and often felt absent in the team’s offense. For Sixers fans wanting clear commitment from the team one way or another (feature him as a starter, or ease him in as a ball handling spark plug off the bench), his minute distribution alone prompted some frustration. He needs consistency to grow comfortable. But from a pure performance standpoint, Fultz, as you’d expect, was heavily involved in some of Philly’s struggles.
A lot of the time it was because of his lack of involvement in plays. Simmons can only be at his best when he has the ball in his hands, which often leaves Fultz as a spectator who can’t stretch defenses when he isn’t attacking. Outside of some instinctive cuts, he just can’t add value off the ball at the moment.
We saw a damning example of that in the first two minutes against the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night. Despite having a golden opportunity to take a wide-open, catch-and-shoot corner three against a lost defense, Fultz opted to dribble inside and quickly pass off to Dario Saric:
Passing up these shots cannot happen. After that, the Bulls just had further reassurance to sit way back from Fultz when he had the ball at the perimeter. If he isn’t shooting the easiest triple there is — an open shot from the corner in an early-game situation against a useless defense — without hesitation, it speaks volumes about where his confidence level lies.
Pointlessly dribbling out of threes into long twos is something else he'll need to iron out of his game:
Besides the new starting five, there are more problematic lineups when the Sixers go smaller. The lineup of McConnell-Redick-Fultz-Simmons-Embiid spent a couple minutes together against Boston, and the trio of Simmons, Fultz and McConnell spent three minutes together. While there’s no point looking at net ratings for groupings with microscopic samples, lineups with three non-three-point-shooting ball handlers are never going to be pretty.
In an offense that features post-ups so prominently, shooting spread around the outside of the floor is vital. The Sixers had the polar opposite of that here with the five-man group mentioned above. With Fultz and McConnell set up on the weakside, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum paid them no attention and instead opted to clutter the paint, sending Embiid into a host of traffic and a ferocious help block from Rozier:
Defenders are going to help off their assignments on the weakside in these post-up situations. Part of this outcome is on Embiid as well. More than any other skill, becoming a more aware, willing passer may be what takes his game to another level. The Celtics know that isn’t the case right now, and they pressured him accordingly. But having standstill players that require no attention on the perimeter only makes matters worse and encourages more aggressive help inside.
Fultz alone can’t do much to help Simmons and Embiid right now. Throw McConnell into the mix and the team’s breathing room is cut down to a level that one plus three-point shooter (Redick in this instance) can’t possibly overcome.
Fultz’s shaky willingness to shoot continued against Boston on plays like this to end the third quarter. He dribbled around aimlessly, avoiding a mid-range pull-up out of the initial pick-and-roll with Embiid, and even a chance to drop back into an open 3-pointer after dribbling the ball outside again. After all that, the only shot Fultz found was a falling pull-up from halfway down the lane with Gordon Hayward draped all over him:
You can put all emphasis on the future rather than fit for this season and argue that Fultz’s starter status is for the best. Instill him with confidence, let him establish chemistry with the young stars beside him, and give him a large enough opportunity to (hopefully) find comfort from distance. And due to his ability in so many other areas, the improvements he's made to his shot this summer, and how early on it is, there's no reason to give up on Fultz's potential to be the creator the Sixers need.
Replacing Redick isn't the only way Fultz and the team can improve, though, especially right now. There are going to be serious growing pains while Fultz figures things out, trying to find three-point range and anything close to the confidence level he thrived with at Washington. He simply isn’t ready to be a positive starter yet. After all, he was never really going to be this early on.
Swap him with Redick again, and the starters can immediately return to being one of the NBA’s most dominant lineups. For the team’s early performance this year, there’s no doubt that would be best.
Alternatively, Fultz could start and send Saric to the bench instead. It makes sense for several reasons. Spacing would improve for the starters, Simmons and Robert Covington would be set to defend opposing forwards, and Saric can bring a little more punch and complementary playmaking to the bench.
After a nervous start on Thursday, keeping Fultz’s minutes high in the second half (17) against Chicago thanks to a healthy lead — unlike the season opener against Boston — more than paid off with the one shot we hadn’t seen from Fultz since preseason began: a pull-up three:
He grew in confidence as the game went on, with jump shots accounting for six of his nine second-half field goal attempts. Seeking out jumpers both while in rhythm off the bounce, and from pick-and-rolls (which looks like his preference over catch-and-shoot attempts at the moment), is essential for him to start expanding his range:
Even though it was built up by garbage time, Fultz running point for most of the fourth quarter against Chicago was an ideal experience to coax out some aggressiveness. It’s something the Sixers should find more opportunity for in the next few weeks with a fairly easy schedule.
Beyond hoping for confidence-boosting garbage time, though, giving Fultz more run with second units could give him the reps to grow without skewing the starting five’s rhythm. He can still develop as a high-minute backup by handling the ball more without Simmons. Playing in four-out shooting lineups with Mike Muscala at center (when he’s healthy) could help, too.
Only time will tell whether Fultz can become confident enough in his shot to hang onto his starting spot. Maybe in time, whether he’s replaced Redick, starting next to him, or a sixth man, playing through these shaky, experimental stages of the season will pay off for the future.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.