The simplest argument for bringing back Markelle Fultz this season is that the Sixers need him. Or, more accurately, they need the guy he was supposed to be.
There are moments when the argument for shutting him down makes a lot of sense. Nearly five months after their No. 1 overall pick last dressed for a game, the Sixers can’t find anything to say about the situation except the same vague ambiguities they’ve been repeating throughout. Since October, the company line has not wavered: He’ll be back when he’s ready. And that raises the question: If he isn’t ready yet after five months of trying, what makes anybody think there is enough time left in the season for him to establish himself as a viable member of a playoff rotation? Wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest to just acknowledge the inevitable, take the pressure off the kid, and let Brett Brown focus on figuring out how to win a seven-game series with the roster he’ll have at his disposal?
Brown himself gave a nod to this reality on Friday evening when he acknowledged that, at some point in the near future, the organization would have to make a decision about Fultz’s availability for the rest of this season.
“We speak internally, but we really haven’t set a hard date, X amount of games, X games,” Brown said. “We’re letting this thing sort of play out. I do understand, we understand, that at some point very soon some final decisions will have to be made.”
Yet Brown also acknowledged something that has been evident ever since Fultz stepped away from the court to focus his energy on fixing his broken shot. As good as the Sixers have played since Christmas, they remain a team that lacks a specific sort of offensive dimension that always seems to increase in importance once the playoffs arrive. They are not an isolation team, and they never will be, but there are plenty of stretches during a basketball game when it helps to have a guy who can create his own shot.
We’ve seen examples of it throughout the second half of this season, stretches like the second quarter on Friday night, which featured a six-minute block in which the Sixers failed to score a point. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ben Simmons was on the bench for half of that stretch. He’d spent much of the first quarter attacking the paint with his dribble, scoring six of his 21 points in the game’s opening minutes. But Simmons remains most comfortable when he is looking to pass. And, besides, teams adjust.
That’s especially true come playoff time. A couple of weeks ago, Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli spent some time talking about the Sixers’ postseason hopes from the perspective of a couple of veterans who have participated in plenty of seven-game series. One thing that both of them said was that playoff basketball forces teams outside of their comfort zones. You can’t do all of the same things you did in the regular season and hope to win.
“You have to know one thing,” Ilyasova said. “In the playoffs, when you play a seven-game series, you have to execute and kind of always bring something unique, because everybody’s studied each other.”
“Everything is prepared to stop you,” Belinelli said.
Maybe that’s why it seems like playoff basketball features more isolation play than the regular season (an observation that is supported by the data). In last year’s postseason, Kawhi Leonard was in isolation on more than a fifth of his plays compared with 12.5 percent in the regular season.
Heading into Friday, the Sixers had scored just 251 points on isolation plays this season, the fewest in the NBA. Some of that is a product of the system, but their rate of isolation plays is down even compared to previous seasons. They also rank at the bottom of the league in pick-and-roll efficiency.
They are scoring on 43.4 percent of their drives, the second-lowest mark in the league. They are turning the ball over on 7 percent of them, which ranks in the bottom half. One byproduct of not getting to the rim is not getting to the line: just 4.8 percent of their drives have resulted in personal fouls — again, the lowest rate in the league.
That’s a lot of numbers, but all you really need to know is what they say as a collective: The Sixers could really use the kind of dimension that Fultz can bring.
“He can make us better,” Brown said. “This is the holy grail, the risk-reward of Markelle Fultz. I’m tilting on reward. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, but that would be the answer I would give you. … Just what he does in open court, what he does with a live ball. I think he can be different from any player that we already have. What I see in practice sometimes, you understand completely why he was the first player chosen in the NBA draft.”
You can even see it in the pregame shooting drills that Fultz has been participating in with Sixers assistants. The spin moves, the step-backs, the cross-overs, the ability to finish at the rim. In recent days, videos of those drills have been studied more closely than the Zapruder film. In them, he looks a lot closer to that player who was drafted No. 1 than the struggling prospect who seemed to have forgotten how to shoot.
— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) March 13, 2018
— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) March 13, 2018
Maybe the odds will remain long even if he does return to the court. The NBA is a tough enough place for a rookie, let alone one who gets tossed into a fully formed team that has been playing together for close to a full season. But there is a reason the Sixers traded up to draft Fultz, and a reason why he might still contribute. His skill set is one that would fill a need.