With additional reporting from Kevin F. Love.
It’s been a wild week. Last Friday, we got an update that 16th overall pick Zhaire Smith’s return to basketball would be delayed due to “complications derived from the allergic reaction that initially required a thoracoscopy.” The next day, there was the blockbuster trade sending Robert Covington, Dario Šarić, and a 2022 second round pick for disgruntled All-Star Jimmy Butler. As if all this weren’t enough of a splash, then there was the realization that with Butler came some very good reasons to at least explore trading 2017 first overall pick Markelle Fultz. Through the frenzy, Joel Embiid has steadied the ship and continued his quiet MVP march, even through some tough short-handed games.
Oh, and there was this sequence that left some fans feeling confused:
been watching this fultz video for hours and still can’t explain it pic.twitter.com/oPNhy2oR2r— Drew Corrigan (@Dcorrigan50) November 12, 2018
There was processing having to say goodbye to Process Kings Robert Covington and Dario Šarić.
Farewell Robert Covington, we love you (have tissues handy) pic.twitter.com/AWsM9ngPXc— Vote The Process (@VoteTheProcess) November 11, 2018
And on Monday night, there was this:
This is worse than we have ever seen Fultz's free throw form look. pic.twitter.com/FhCYpNpd5b— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) November 13, 2018
And then shortly thereafter, this:
Markelle Fultz and Drew Hanlen are no longer working together or on speaking terms, according to league sources. No word on why the two parted ways, but their relationship deteriorated about three weeks ago. Prior to this falling out, Fultz spent the summer training with Hanlen.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) November 13, 2018
Which of course prompted a resurfacing of stuff like this:
An Old Motorcycle Accident May Be The Cause For Markelle Fultz’s Monumental Struggleshttps://t.co/yXTmK2nTXo pic.twitter.com/J0nymjZNt6— Fadeaway World (@FadeawayWorld) November 14, 2018
Much of this stuff is sad or weird or ridiculous, and none of this has anything to do with tanking or Burnergate either. Being a Sixers fan can sort of inoculate one to madness sometimes, can’t it?
Imagine if Elton Brand somehow got the first overall pick and drafted Zion Williamson, but then Zion broke his foot, and while rehabbing it in Qatar, he turned into a small three-eyed raven boy and demanded someone carry him to the North Pole to fight White Walkers. Some fan bases would explode and rebel. “Why us?” But we’d know it was our fate and we would accept it unflinchingly. We would simply move on and discuss his potential upside upon return from battle.
Fultz and Hanlen
According to PhillyVoice’s Kyle Neubeck, the Sixers were paying Drew Hanlen to work with Markelle Fultz, starting in the beginning of the summer. The report by Alex Kennedy, referenced earlier, is one Liberty Ballers was able to confirm for the most part. We reported this below and the one element from that tweet that has since been refuted is the reason for the confrontation, regarding the “expected results.”
Sources have indicated that there was, in fact, a recent confrontation between a member of Fultz’s inner circle and trainer Drew Hanlen (or at least that someone was angry with Hanlen), which led to a mutual parting of ways a couple weeks ago; for his part, Hanlen has declined to comment for this piece. It marks a surprising and rather unceremonious end for a pairing that was widely lauded at the onset. One gets the sense that a characterization of “someone was mad there were not better results” would be a complete oversimplification.
While Hanlen may have underestimated the severity of this issue with some of his public goal-setting, he’ll now likely absorb some of the same criticism former trainer Keith Williams once faced from a segment of the fan base. Eventually people may realize the truth, however, that this was never something simply caused or fixed by any shooting coach, but a more complicated sporadic loss of muscle memory requiring more than form-shooting reps.
Is Fultz OK?
The free throw in Miami sparked new rumors like his having been injured in a motorcycle accident several years ago, or claims that his “symptoms” match certain types of nerve injuries. Liberty Ballers has heard from numerous sources that the motorcycle claim is not true. While there are players in the NBA who have floated this type of theory (or versions of it with a bicycle instead), they have made it clear that it was simply a “conspiracy theory.”
Those closest to the situation continue to maintain to Liberty Ballers that Fultz mentioned a discomfort (that arose gradually, but not suddenly) in the summer of 2017, which corresponded with the loss of some coordination in the shooting form just after Summer League. Even though there was some apparent changes in the form prior to that, after Summer League is when it steadily began to deteriorate.
He would pass a physical if he were traded, and that is beginning to feel more and more likely at some point in the future.
With Jimmy Butler’s arrival comes change. Finally, the playmaker the Sixers wanted is here. Butler is the player who may unlock modern offensive doors, while giving Coach Brett Brown both some tremendous new challenges in terms of fit, personality, and team chemistry, and also enough raw talent to compete with, as he might say, Eastern Conference “royalty”.
The Sixers likely considered deep levels of analysis with the acquisition of Butler. It changes things a) on the court, b) in the locker room, c) in regard to the salary cap, d) concerning the timeline of their window to win an NBA championship, and e) regarding the landscape of the Eastern Conference now and possibly for a long time.
We got our first taste of it Wednesday night. The Sixers lost a close game in Orlando and there were signs of good things to come, signs of some non-complementary possessions, and Fultz was moved back to the second unit.
The high upside scenario might involve holding Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Jimmy Butler, then looking to move or renounce every other long-term salaried player they can in an attempt to target yet another star this summer; preferably one with a K in his name. Assuming Kevin Durant is likely leaving Golden State, but out of their budget, the summer still holds potentially affordable stars like Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson (likely staying if Durant leaves), Kyrie Irving, Kris Middleton, and a player with a “T,” Tobias Harris. Imagine a lineup of Walker, Butler, Simmons, Embiid and Fultz.
That strategy could allow the Sixers to retain the (diminishing) chances of Fultz reaching his full potential before he’s eligible for an extension. After all, he is only 20, and just 16 months removed from hitting $100 million dollar shots like this one:
But fully gutting the roster, and parting with talented players like Landry Shamet, Zhaire Smith, and Jonah Bolden with the mere hope of making a summer splash could not only cost them this season, it could make signing long-term in Philly unappealing for Butler or any other star next July, on top of the chances Fultz doesn’t make a leap.
This collaborative front office recognizes that possibility, and is not overly sentimental. We learned that on draft night in the Mikal Bridges trade. There is a human side, but this is about star-hunting and championships. Well aware of the risks of sunk costs or endowment effects, this team isn’t behaving emotionally.
If the Sixers got word that a high-caliber free agent was available, perhaps someone like Kemba Walker or Tobias Harris, they’d be smart to take that via trade before the deadline, even if they needed to part with their valuable Miami 2021 draft pick as well. The next possibility would be to explore unloading Fultz’s ~$9.7M salary for helpful players on expiring contracts, with some indication the team could replace Fultz with a very high-caliber free agent by summer, at the latest.
Here is the situation now cap-wise, as broken down by The Athletic’s Danny Leroux:
So if the Sixers do nothing and keep Butler this summer, you’re looking at being able to spend near ~$20M, and if you somehow moved Fultz, you could potentially have around ~$33M. Both of those scenarios may appeal to fans with different rooting interests. But the difference in $20M and $30M in free agency is vast, assuming the owners are open to spending luxury tax money for multiple years. It makes the idea of waiting for Fultz to find his way, while force-fitting him into lineups, risking team success, and pushing Butler away, even less appealing when one considers the opportunity cost of that on the open market.
But trading Fultz is not at all something the team should be rushing into, and it certainly doesn’t sound like they would.
Also worth consideration are a couple of key dates: December 15th (the date that last summer’s free agents become available), and January 15th (the date for a subset of free agents, players whose teams gave them significant raises which meet certain CBA criteria requiring them to remain with their team for an additional month). Those links include some players on the teams who might be the most hungry for a point guard, or on teams who might play third-team facilitator.
Not to compare the two players or unique situations, but fresh in the minds of the Sixers brass are the mistakes of the past when lottery picks like Jahlil Okafor, who simply didn’t fit and whose value was diminishing, were held way too long.
So Just in Case, Who Might Want Fultz?
Liberty Ballers has been told that there may not have been much of a trade market for Fultz during recent conversations with the Spurs and Timberwolves. Both of those teams had the desire to win right now, so challenges associated with his shooting the ball, combined with his significant annual salary for a rookie, made that unappealing.
But there are teams who aren’t feeling pressured to win who might leap at the chance to take on the former Washington Husky if the price was right.
The Phoenix Suns recently called the Sixers looking to acquire T.J. McConnell and were refused. They haven’t really addressed that need yet. Not only have the two teams recently worked together on a trade this summer, but there are several types of deals that might make sense for everyone involved, as detailed by Ben Rubin of The Stepien in that last link. A useful veteran like Trevor Ariza, on an expiring deal, will soon be eligible for trade, and, of course, the Sixers have openly admitted Mikal Bridges was their 1A on draft day. Perhaps a package centered around both or either of those players, or later round picks, like French marksmen Élie Okobo, could benefit everyone.
Would Fultz be open to a change of scenery or a better fit for his own game and development? It’s not beyond the imagination that a fresh start in a smaller market in an on-ball role, surrounded by shooters as talented as Devin Booker, might be something he could get used to, or even look forward to given all he has been through in a Sixers uniform. If this is the case, it would behoove him to make this clear to the Sixers sooner rather than later, and increase the chances he makes his way to one of several preferred fits.
Magic or Hornets
Other teams that would likely be open to negotiations would be the Orlando Magic or the Charlotte Hornets, the latter in the event they don’t expect to retain Walker. The Hornets have both Walker and Jeremy Lamb, who are both within a few million dollars of Fultz’s salary, yet would each be valued very differently by the Sixers. On Orlando’s side, a package involving an expiring salary like Terrence Ross (fresh off his game-winning 3 vs. Philly) combined with Jonathan Simmons or other assets, might be appealing if the Sixers were willing to be players in free agency and liked their chances there.
We’ve learned that the Miami Heat may have recently discussed the possibility of acquiring Fultz. It’s hard to know their level of interest, although a package involving Wayne Ellington, Rodney McGruder, and assets, or even a larger scale deal featuring Goran Dragić (possessing a player option he very may well decline) might have appeal for two teams both seeking major change. Josh Richardson would be valued very highly by Miami and could cost much more than Fultz. Pat Riley does value his culture and long history of rejuvenating players. The ease in which a short-handed and likely distracted Sixers team dispatched the Heat in South Beach Monday, could have made something like this more tempting. On the other hand, it was in Miami that Fultz’s startling free throw occurred. Who knows if any of that changed the calculus?
Any handicapper would point out it’s always wise to consider the combined odds of a few long-shots who don’t seem quite as likely as the above teams. Should teams like the Wizards, Hawks, Grizzlies, or Cavs decide they want to overhaul their core, or are simply in talent acquisition mode, it’s always worth a call. The presence of these types of teams makes the idea of acquiring a younger player on a reasonable longer-term deal possible too.
Finally, three-way deals might work the best where a) a rebuilding team in need of scoring talent receives Fultz, b) a team intent on signing Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard (like say the Clippers) received assets and expiring contracts, while c) the Sixers were able to land a veteran talent like Tobias Harris, Kemba Walker, or a combo of Ariza and Bridges.
But hold up. Smart people like The Stepien’s Ben Rubin are actually suggesting trades of Markelle Fultz for Trevor Ariza? Did someone say Terrence Ross?! It’s almost nauseating to think about, isn’t it? Yes, it is.
It would seem overwhelmingly difficult for the Sixers brass to have to face their passionate fan base with a return for Fultz focused around a helpful veteran on an expiring deal and sweeteners. People might well revolt. So if that were to happen, logic would suggest they did so because of a pretty strong indication of interest from a splash free agent, and the willingness to spend major sums of tax penalties for years to come. That’s the scenario when your Markelle Fultz “Powerball ticket” goes from costing two bucks to twenty bucks a pop and it simply doesn’t make sense to play anymore.
It would be like the owners are the fans’ parents and essentially saying:
“One of your favorite toys isn’t working right now and mommy and daddy are too busy to fix it, so we’re going to take it away for now and replace it with an older boring toy, but don’t worry, hopefully we’ll get you some even better ones this summer, ok sweetie? I have something in mind, just do your homework in the meantime and be good.”
So Now What?
As grim as some of these packages might feel for a player recently taken first overall with an additional future first to get there, it’s likely that at no other point since acquiring Fultz would the team feel more amenable to shopping him. The person who drafted him, former GM Bryan Colangelo, is gone. Jimmy Butler is here and they can find ways to come up with over ~$30m to spend this summer on top of Butler if they so choose; it’s a juicy prospect, assuming the owners believe in the roster composition enough to spend big.
Sixers fans now are a bit at the mercy of what appears to truly be a collaborative front office. There are questions like:
Does this ownership still feel committed to spending luxury tax dollars and repeater tax sums in order to bring the city a championship? While they were apparently willing to do so for Fultz and LeBron James, would they feel the same if the names instead were Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris? Or Butler, Kelly Oubre Jr. and J.J. Redick? Do they believe the chances that Fultz finds his way are comparable to their chances of landing an All-Star with a max-contract? If so, would that entice Jimmy Butler to stay? Is Jimmy Butler even their first choice come July or will they text Uncle Dennis? How aggressively will they pursue players who would cost them luxury tax dollars? Will they continue to avoid spending and opt for one year deals with the ~$19.9m? How long of a window do they project to have for title contention, and how willing are they to expedite that even further by trading a 20-year-old for the chance at a 29-year-old? Between buyout markets, and upcoming trade eligibility dates, it doesn’t feel like this team is done making adjustments to the entire roster and its championship timeline.
All of this now since last Friday. And we never even got the chance to properly feel for Zhaire Smith, or to accept saying goodbye to two Process lifers like Robert Covington and Dario Šarić, who looked weird in Timberwolves jerseys Wednesday night. Elton Brand has talent and options, but some of the hardest decisions in the entire NBA to navigate all of a sudden. Is he prepared for the task when it might prove extremely difficult even for a GM with ten years of experience?
Elton has said stuff like this recently:
But it’s clear that they’re probably going to be connecting with Fultz very soon. They’ll make no promises to surround him with shooters and foster his development in an on-ball role that would benefit him most. And they’ll be listening to how he handles that update and what he wants. And in the weeks to come they’ll be listening very carefully to whatever offers come their way.
One thing we know, the Sixers will continue to be the most interesting team in the NBA. Man, do you ever just sit around and yearn for the good ole’ days when we all used to just argue about Robert Covington, like we did last Thursday?