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Stay a while, Markelle Fultz

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NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

After laying dormant for most of December, the Markelle Fultz situation has re-emerged this week, most notably with our very own Dave Early reporting that both the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons have interest in trading for the Sixers guard. The timing of this report is significant, as December 15 is the first day that players signed in the offseason can be dealt, and as mentioned by Dave, both Detroit and Orlando have players in-house eligible to be on the move.

Fultz was also mentioned in two of the “Ten big NBA trades we’d like to see” over at ESPN.com this week, as both Royce Young and Tim MacMahon pitched trades that would land Fultz in Phoenix as a potential fix to their point guard dilemma. It is, however, important to note that these are not deals being discussed by the teams, rather just deals that the ESPN NBA staff would like to see. Phoenix is an oft-discussed landing spot for Fultz, but given the amount of young projects on their current roster and the recent emergence of De’Anthony Melton, Phoenix’s level of interest in Fultz might not be as high as the public feels.

Since it was originally reported by The Athletic that Fultz would prefer a move to a new team, the consensus among Sixers fans has been that moving Fultz is probably in Philadelphia’s best interest. Trading Fultz could go a long way in helping the Sixers clear upwards of $30 million in cap space in addition to Jimmy Butler’s cap hold, giving the Sixers the flexibility to add multiple key role players or another max level star to pair with their Big Three.

Trading Fultz, though, might not be in the best interest of a team that is hoping to contend for a spot in the NBA Finals this season and beyond.

Since Fultz was supplanted in the rotation by fan favorite T.J. McConnell in the second half of the Suns game on November 19, the Sixers have gone 8-4, all while hiding a dirty little secret — they can’t defend guards.

Jimmy Butler’s game winners in Charlotte and Brooklyn covered up a 60-point outburst from Kemba Walker and 69 points combined from D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie. 66 points from the trio of Collin Sexton, Rodney Hood, and Jordan Clarkson were brushed off as a case of bad luck in a loss to the Cavs.

The Sixers guard issues came bubbling to the top yet again on Wednesday when Spencer Dinwiddie once again scorched their backcourt for a career-high 39 points en route to getting paid on Thursday.

Despite his tenacity and defensive reputation, T.J. McConnell can’t be relied on as the backup point guard on a team that will be expected to tangle with the likes of Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo, Kyle Lowry, and Eric Bledsoe in the postseason.

McConnell’s lack of height and length allows opposing bigs to swallow him whole in the pick-and-roll, completely taking him out of the play. The Sixers employ drop coverage when defending a pick-and-roll, a tactic that when run correctly takes away both shots at the rim and corner threes, but to do so, it is imperative that the guard defender is able to navigate his way around a screen. A quick recovery by the guard gives Embiid the ability to use his size to his advantage and take away the rim for both the ball handler and the rolling big. It also takes away any need for the off-ball wing defenders to stunt or tag defensively, ensuring that the Sixers do not give up any open corner threes.

Despite inconsistent results, Fultz has had some very impressive moments this season executing that defense.

Standing at 6’4” with a 6’9” wingspan, Fultz’s measurements alone give him an edge defensively over McConnell, who stands at just 6’2” with pedestrian 6’0” wingspan. The defensive numbers are also in clear favor of Fultz, who ranks in the 76th percentile (-3.4) for opponent points per 100 possessions for point guards, compared to McConnell, who ranks in just the ninth percentile (+6) in the same category. Typically On/Off defensive numbers can be a bit misleading, but considering that McConnell has essentially replaced Fultz in the same rotations and the massive difference in the two numbers, there is likely something to it.

In fairness to McConnell, the baseline On/Off stats are significantly in favor of the former Arizona guard when it comes to offensive production. The team scores 1.5 points more per 100 possessions when McConnell is on the court, compared to Fultz’s putrid 6.9 less points per 100 possessions offensively. However, when you compare the two guards’ overall impact when starting point guard Ben Simmons is off the court, Fultz is able to close the gap enough to have a higher overall points differential than McConnell, +2.6 compared to +1.1. If Fultz does return as a Sixer, he will likely be fighting with McConnell for the minutes when Simmons is not on the court, so those numbers may, in fact, loom large.

For all of his struggles this season, Fultz will likely always have a higher offensive ceiling than McConnell. Although it does sometimes feel as if McConnell always has the ability to come up with a bucket when the Sixers need it most, his highs still can’t match Fultz’s best moments of the season.

In the Sixers’ 122-113 win against the Clippers in early November, Fultz was the catalyst that sparked a flame after the Sixers blew a 22-point lead and found themselves trailing the Clippers in the third quarter — all without a jump shot. Fultz was attacking the rim with no fear, playing stellar defense, and finding his open teammates. It was the most impressive outing in a string of games that had Sixers fans feeling that he was turning a corner — and just like that it was gone.

It was less than two weeks later that Fultz set the basketball internet ablaze with his double clutch free throw in the Sixers’ final game before Jimmy Butler’s debut, a game that also happened to be Fultz’s final start for the 76ers to date.

It was clear that Fultz had regressed and that his shot was once again a major issue, but still one can’t help but wonder if this has been overblown. Despite the speculation, Markelle Fultz says he is hurt and he has received a diagnosis from a professional who also says he is hurt, so no one on the outside has the right to decree Markelle Fultz healthy. During his conversation with SB Nation’s Matt Ellentuck, surgeon Dr. Jacques Hacquebord stated that thoracic outlet syndrome is often untraceable by MRI, while also stating that the ailment can become “psychological torment for them. People don’t take them seriously, people label them, people think that they’re making it up, people think that they’re weaklings, that they’re doing this for secondary gain.” Sound like anybody that you know?

The drama surrounding Fultz has grown so old, that is easy to forget that he has only played a total of 33 games in the NBA. If he played that many games in the 2017 season, no matter how well he played, he would end up losing Rookie of the Year to Malcolm Brogdon — that’s how few games he’s played in his NBA career. The NBA is notoriously difficult for young guards to navigate, mix in a little thoracic outlet syndrome and some ups and downs are likely to occur.

Despite all of that, Fultz has managed to have a positive impact when running the back-up point guard minutes. The Sixers aren’t just looking to make a run deep into the 2019 NBA Playoffs, they’re looking to set themselves up for a dynastic run over the next five to seven years. If they are truly committed to doing so, trading Markelle Fultz for an expiring contract might not be so wise.

All player stats are as of December 14, prior to the game against the Indiana Pacers.