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Did Colangelo Save Fultz’ Season?: A Markelle Conspiracy Theory

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Did the Sixers GM know what he was doing all along?

NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

A few months back I put up a Fanpost called “My Markelle Fultz Conspiracy Theory.” Even the Fanpost commenters , who are such hardcore fans they are willing to do a 200-comment thread on a second-round prospect who is 4% likely to end up on the Sixers, couldn’t muster any interest in it; there are now a whopping three comments on the post, two if you don’t count the bumper by me. But as time has gone on I have gone from seeing this as a fun, wacky theory to seeing it as the obvious truth. And yet, while I certainly can’t swear no one else has suggested it, I haven’t read or heard it anywhere, and I read and listen to quite a lot of hoops content.

So, here it is, considerably rewritten and extended relative to the original version but identical in its core claim.

I hold that, while anything is possible, the most likely explanation for what’s happened with Markelle Fultz this year is that two mutually-reinforcing events occurred:

1) He injured his shoulder

A) He tried to improve his shooting by tweaking his form

I call these 1) and A) rather than 1-2 or A-B because I have no idea which occurred first. Perhaps he worked to improve his shot, leading to minor shoulder pain, which caused further alteration of form leading to failure and loss of confidence, and then greater pain, etc. until he was shut down for rehab. Or maybe he hurt his shoulder, say lifting weights, and that caused a form alteration, which he tried to make into a positive but which instead led to a cycle of shot deterioration, loss of confidence and pain increase. If this set of events is basically what happened, I don’t think it’s very important which came first, and indeed if it happened in a series of tiny steps the initiating event could have been something quite negligible.

I recognize that there are other theories, but none of them seem especially coherent to me. Most of them seem to involve logic of the form “BC is an idiot, the Sixers medical staff are idiots, so of course they did something idiotic, and therefore....”

Since I myself think that neither BC nor the medical staff are idiots, it’s no surprise that I lean toward a boring theory. It’s my impression that this boring theory is starting to emerge as the consensus view of the situation.

So, then, if I’m such a naive sucker that I believe the decidedly non-conspiratorial injury-shot change cycle story, why am I saying I have a Fultz conspiracy theory? The answer is, the injury story, as best i can tell, holds together perfectly except for one thing. One night during the preseason, Brett Brown said Markelle had hurt his shoulder and so he wouldn’t play in that game. From that point on, we never saw a version of Fultz who shot competently, never saw a Fultz who looked remotely like an NBA shooter. But they let him play in four games! Why oh why would they let an obviously-injured, obviously-incompetent player out onto the court to embarrass himself and the franchise? Even if they were so dumb on the medical side as to not recognize he was hurt, why wouldn’t BB sit him for the good of the team and of Markelle’s reputation, just based on his lousy play?

And here’s my answer: suppose the Sixers knew Fultz had shot problems, due to some combination of injury and other factors. They knew there was a decent chance it would take between 2 and 6 months for him to be fully NBA ready. Why in such a case would you let him have a few dozen minutes? The answer is, you let him have those minutes because you just went through a season in which you strongly suspect Ben Simmons was healthy for the final 2-3 months of the year but his advisors persuaded him to sit out on the hope of being Rookie of the Year a season later! And, quite understandably, you don’t want the exact same thing to happen with Markelle!

So, if the docs tell you that playing him for the first week doesn’t put the shoulder at risk of further harm, and that the only downside is it delays the start of his rehab a week, wouldn’t it be pretty smart to let him play some minutes? Not only is he not incentivized to sit out the season over ROTY, he is incentivized to play so that those 60 or so terrible minutes don’t constitute his full stat line for the season!

I don’t know Markelle and I won’t try to speak for him, but I will say that I have great confidence that many, many players care enough about their statistics to be motivated by such a consideration. In 20 years when people look up your stats, they’re unlikely to remember anything about a shoulder. If the numbers say you shot 26% from the field in 2017-18, they’re just going to say you sucked that year. If you can play later in the season and raise that to 44%, well, you might want to do it.

Whereas if you haven’t played at all, there won’t even BE a line on your stat sheet, and playing a dozen late-season games risks replacing “nothing” with “something bad.” Upshot is, I think there is a strong case, and indeed I actually believe, that by getting Markelle out there for four games the Sixer brass increased the chance he would play this season from perhaps 25% to perhaps 70%. Of course those numbers are made up, but they are my point estimates. Just think about it a moment; imagine Markelle had been shut down in the preseason. Now it’s January and his shot is still super-clunky. You are Markelle’s agent, and he asks you what to do. You honestly tell him the choices are these:

1) Relax, hang out, get healthy, and in May or June start working on getting the shot ready for a serious ROTY campaign next year, all the while enjoying the kind sympathy of fans and media for your bad injury luck — another victim of the Sixer Rookie Curse! — and of course getting paid $8M.

2) Work like crazy to improve the shot right away, while suffering constant criticism from fans and media who scrutinize every practice shot and rip you for not speaking to reporters, with the potential benefit being a modest-percentage chance of playing late in the season, ruining your rookie-of-the-year eligibility and likely locking in lousy numbers for the year that will harm history’s view of your career.

What would you advise in that situation? Isn’t it pretty obvious that, had Fultz not played early on, he would have been shut down for the season weeks ago, by mutual agreement of player and team?

Now, of course the title of this article is hyperbolic; it’s far too soon to say that Markelle’s presence will “save” us, or even help us, in the postseason, and frankly this season was already a success before he came back. But fundamentally I do think the decision to encourage Markelle to play back in October — a decision that has received oceans of criticism from pundits who, in my opinion, simply have not thought things through — is the primary reason (other than his own hard work and determination) that Markelle is out on the cort for us now.

Is it possible that the truth is even simpler, that all that happened was, the team hoped that whatever was bothering Markelle would vanish in the heat of battle, in a real game? Sure! But that doesn’t really change my point. For six months I’ve heard, over and over, about how badly the Sixers mishandled the situation by allowing Fultz to play in those early games. But I’m here to say that, assuming there was no major risk of aggravating the shoulder at that time, letting him play was absolutely, positively the right thing to do, as, first, there was SOME chance Markelle would play well right away. And, second, if he didn’t play well right away, if whatever issues were keeping him from shooting effectively were going to take months to resolve, then getting him out there early hugely increased the chance we’d get Markelle back later, as we have.

So, that’s my conspiracy theory: the team realized late in preseason that Fultz had an issue, thought about shutting him down right away, learned the risk to playing him a few more days was zero or at least minimal, and decided to play him, with the best case being he shined and the worst case being to get some numbers on Markelle’s Basketball Reference page so as to incentivize MF to play later in the season. If anyone can see any reason to think this isn’t what happened, I look forward to reading and responding to it in comments.