It didn’t take long for the Old School Chevy to get up and running as the Sixers GM. By trading for Jimmy Butler, Elton Brand has acquired the third star Sixers fans were hoping to pair with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons - an attack-minded player who can get his own shot on all three levels.
That should sound familiar.
That’s because it was just 17 months ago that the Sixers traded considerable assets to the rival Boston Celtics to move up and draft Markelle Fultz, at the time an attack-minded player who could get his shot on all three levels.
As we all know though, a lot has changed in those 17 months. So the question that must be asked is, what does Jimmy Butler’s arrival in Philadelphia mean for Markelle Fultz?
By choosing to start Fultz, the Sixers subjected themselves to major spacing issues, but they were able to pull it off not just because of the talent level of Embiid and Simmons, but because of the shooters placed around those players. Dario Saric and Robert Covington, though, will be taking that shooting with them to Minnesota.
Although he’s no slouch from beyond the arc (37.8% on the year), Butler favors pull-up threes, actually faring better on them (38.1%) than the catch-and-shoot (36.4%) variety that Covington and Saric specialized in during their Sixers tenure. The lack of spot-up threats may make it almost impossible for Fultz to remain in the starting lineup.
Additionally, a starting five of Fultz, Redick, Butler, Simmons, and Embiid would effectively move Ben Simmons to a power forward role. While off ball, Simmons is often placed in the post or hovering in the dunker spot, something that has had mixed results so far throughout his career.
Pushing Simmons off ball would clog the lane for Embiid, Butler, and Fultz, all three of whom want to get to the rim when they have the ball. Furthermore, Fultz hasn’t taken a three-pointer since the loss to the Toronto Raptors on October 30. In a lineup that is bereft of spot-up shooting, teams will be even more willing to let Markelle’s man play free safety while he is off ball, a tactic Atlanta used to help limit Joel Embiid to just 10 points back on October 29.
Moving Fultz to the bench in favor of Wilson Chandler or Mike Muscala will most likely stabilize the starting lineup and free up the lane for the likes of Embiid, Simmons, and Butler.
Although a bench role will lead to fewer minutes, the hope will be that those minutes will be more impactful. Rather than wading off-ball while Ben Simmons runs the show, Markelle will be given the keys to the offense when he’s in the game. So far this season, that has led to good results - Fultz lineups while Simmons is on the bench hold a point differential of +5.8 per 100 possessions, which is good for 74th percentile in the league.
Despite not having shot a three this month, Fultz has been more decisive with his non-shooting.
Earlier in the season, Fultz would have been slower to decide his move in the clip above, but over the last few weeks he has made it a point of emphasis to attack the rim. Operating in a bench capacity will give Fultz the ability to play his natural position while rebuilding confidence in his jump shot.
The Butler trade and a move to the bench is in no way the nail in the coffin for Markelle Fultz’ NBA career. While his shooting struggles are a unique situation, it’s not uncommon for young guards to struggle to score efficiently in the NBA. Markelle’s shooting numbers of 30.8% from three and 42.2% from the field are quite comparable to De’Aaron Fox’s rookie shooting numbers last year of 30.7% from three and 41.2 from the field. This season, Fox has jumped to 41% from three and 49.4% overall.
The difference between the two is that Fox was afforded the ability to figure it out on a team with no real expectations. In addition to regaining his confidence, Fultz has been tasked with going through the growing pains of what basically equates to his rookie season on a team that has a legitimate goal of reaching the NBA Finals.
So while the Butler trade doesn’t spell the end of Markelle Fultz’s career, it might be what leads to his eventual departure from Philadelphia. The Sixers have accelerated their timeline by acquiring Butler - it’s a win-now move that will set the Sixers up to compete for the East across the next half decade, as Butler is expected to sign a long-term deal with the Sixers next summer.
When Butler’s theoretical next deal expires, Fultz will just be turning 26 and only beginning to enter what should be the prime of his career. Young guards need to marinate and learn in the NBA, but most young guards don’t do so on a team featuring three top-20 talents in the league.
Even with Butler’s $30 million cap hold, the Sixers are expected to enter this offseason with around $21 million in space. By trading Markelle Fultz and his $8 million salary, they would position themselves to get another star or fill out the roster with role players whose fit and timeline better match the Sixers’ new reality.
At the start of the season, Elton Brand was quoted as saying that he thinks the Sixers may find their “third star” in-house - listing both Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric as potential candidates for the role. Flash forward less than two months and Saric is gone and Fultz appears to have been knocked down the pecking order.
After playing for the future for so long, it appears the Sixers are embracing the moment. As the team prepares to move forward with a core of Embiid, Simmons, and Butler, Markelle Fultz will have to prove that his time is also now if he wants to stick in Philadelphia.
All stats courtesy of CleaningTheGlass.com and NBA.com.