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Sixers finding out how much Markelle Fultz can hurt their spacing as a starter

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In the Philadelphia 76ers’ 113-92 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, we saw the highs and lows of the Markelle Fultz experience.

Before the Sixers found their footing in the second half to win the third quarter 31-13, and Fultz provided some encouraging flashes on his way to 16 points, the Hawks gave us the worst case of “don’t guard Fultz” we’ve seen.

Kent Bazemore, Fultz’s primary defender, started the night with a clear demonstration that he wouldn’t be giving Fultz the slightest amount of respect off the ball. On the first play of the game, Bazemore left Fultz all by himself in the weakside corner to help on a Joel Embiid drive. Even though Embiid got his basket anyway, because he’s Joel Embiid and a handful to stop regardless, it was a sign of things to come.

Within the first few minutes of the game, the Hawks successfully executed a double team to force Embiid into a travelling turnover. Fultz wasn’t even set up at the arc here either. After dropping the ball to Embiid in the post Fultz cut to the basket, but Bazemore flew in immediately to double Embiid, attack the ball, and force an awkward travel:

This possession was another ugly example. Bazemore flashes over twice to double Embiid, forcing him to give up on two post-ups and reset the offense. With the clock winding down, the Sixers only wound up with a rushed 3 from Robert Covington:

While Embiid is going to face double teams at times anyway, this level of disregard for Fultz anywhere off the ball is different. It kills spacing in a flash, reduces Embiid’s chances to score, and puts far more pressure on him to make instinctive, accurate passes.

That’s not the only problem, though. Here, Bazemore ditches Fultz in the corner to create a swarm of help around the basket, breaking up Dario Saric’s pass to Ben Simmons. Without Bazemore hounding the ball from behind, it would have been far easier for Simmons to catch the pass over Taurean Prince, turn, and finish:

Even once the Sixers had started the third quarter with last year’s starting five and gained a firm lead, the Hawks showed some aggression away from Fultz on defense. As Fultz inbounds the ball here, Miles Plumlee leaves Embiid to trap Landry Shamet at the perimeter, with Bazemore left behind to tag Embiid if need be (Bazemore ends the play by drawing a charge). Again, the Hawks shifted their entire defense to pressure the ball, use Bazemore as a roamer to pick up missed assignments if need be, and forget about Fultz:

One positive is that Embiid at least became more comfortable dealing with double teams as the game went on. In the third quarter, he made several nice passes to set up Simmons under the basket for easy finishes:

When looking at the issue of double teams, part of it can be addressed by Embiid’s passing. If he can become a more aware, willing passer from the post, he can beat double teams and elevate Philly’s offense, at least some of the time. He’s off to a better start as a playmaker this season, too — he’s setting new career bests in assist percentage and turnover percentage with ease.

However, Embiid’s post play is such a prominent part of the Sixers’ offense. If he doesn’t have the necessary shooters around him to spread the floor, serve as kick-out options, and prevent such frequent double teams, it’s still a problem. A problem that, until he proves otherwise, Fultz can’t hope to fix as a starter right now.

The Hawks are a bad team and hardly have much fierce defensive personnel at their disposal. Yet they were still able to mess with the Sixers’ rhythm and put a spotlight on the spacing issue with Fultz. It wasn’t until the Sixers dominated the third quarter, when Redick started for the second half and the offense got going, that they controlled the game.

Giving Fultz space on and off the ball isn’t anything new. We’ve seen that every game so far as teams look to bait him into tentative jumpers. But a complete disregard for him off the ball, with a slew of double teams and free safety help around the floor from his defender, took things up a level. The Hawks weren’t afraid to try a bold, albeit simple, game plan to exploit a lack of shooting amplified with Fultz in the starting lineup.

Moving forward, it can only support the argument that a lineup change makes sense if Fultz doesn’t become a confident, capable 3-point shooter anytime soon. If he can’t command the respect of defenses, it’s going to be better for everyone to let him to develop off the bench instead.

By making Fultz the primary backup of Simmons, he can have more control of the ball while he’s on the floor alongside more shooting while he’s at it, such as groups featuring Mike Muscala at center if Embiid isn't on the floor (while we’re on the subject, Fultz can’t keep spending time with TJ McConnell either). Meanwhile, Redick can end his strong start to a Sixth Man of the Year campaign to help Simmons and maximize his two-man game with Embiid in the starting five.

Fultz can take some minutes from McConnell to keep his playing time up and the Sixers can put more emphasis on winning rotations. Last season's starters (now this season's second-half starters) still have a 12.5 net rating and a healthy level of 3-point attempts (40.5 per 48 minutes). The new starting five's net rating is a woeful -31.6 with 14.9 3-point attempts in the same time frame, forcing Simmons and Fultz to fit when they aren't ready to.

They've simply been better apart. Some of that can be attributed to the early stage of the season, but their skill sets won't mesh until Fultz can be a factor off the ball. Fultz taking to the bench allows them to play to their strengths more often, and the early numbers from the small sample we have back it up. Together, they have a -16.7 net rating. Apart, Fultz's net rating soars to 2.1, while Simmons (obviously) jumps even higher to 6.5.

Even against Atlanta a lot of Fultz’s confident, promising plays that led to his career-high 16 points came during the second half when he wasn’t on the floor with Simmons.

For now, separating the two more often with Fultz coming off the bench is the best bet to help reduce the Sixers’ glaring spacing issues. Because without change, whether its Fultz magically becoming a threatening shooter overnight or a new starting five, what’s to stop other opponents from game planning like the Hawks to amplify the problem?

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