BOSTON — The building was still nearly empty when Markelle Fultz’s workday ended. On the far sideline, a trio of game-day staffers fiddled with their sound equipment. Just beyond midcourt, a couple of feet inbounds, three vacant stools sat in front of a television camera waiting for their talking heads to arrive. For the previous half-hour, four players and an assistant coach had run through a series of drills in front of a rotating cast of spectators who utilized the front row of seats as a pit stop between tasks to complete. They shot pull-ups and drove to the basket and played two-on-two. And then they departed, replaced by teammates who had a game to prepare for.
A couple of hours later, Fultz would settle into his spot on the bench and watch the kind of performance that fate has a funny way of arranging. Less than a year earlier, the Sixers had sent the city of Philadelphia into hysterics when they’d packaged the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft with a future first-rounder to move up to No. 1 and select a smooth-shooting point guard out of Washington. All agreed it was a hefty price, but it was one they could afford to pay for a player who had been billed as that year’s only sure thing.
Now, it was Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and the player who the Celtics traded down to pick at No. 3 was doing all of the things the Sixers thought they would be getting from the player they’d traded up to get. Jayson Tatum scored 28 points in scintillating fashion. The one-time sure thing didn’t even play.
It is easy to gloss over the significance of the Fultz situation, given the wild success his team has enjoyed this season. Winning 52 games and a playoff series has made it easy for all of us to play along with the notion that this has always been a simple matter of a young player taking time to develop. But ask yourself this question: If it is true that the Sixers’ timetable accelerated this season, and they are much closer to contention than any of us thought they’d be, then isn’t it also true that their decision-making timetable has accelerated as well? And if Fultz isn’t a sure-enough thing to pencil into a playoff lineup in May of 2018, then how can he possibly become such a thing in time for July, when Bryan Colangelo and his front office must start making the moves that they feel are necessary to make next year’s roster better than the current version?
It is true that, at 19 years old, Fultz has plenty of time to make a memory out of his lost rookie year. And it is true that he showed some promising signs in his 14-game cameo at the end of the regular season. But the Sixers are no longer at a point where they can put their faith in projection. Whenever this season ends, their only focus should be how to make next season last longer. And in order to do that, they must first assign some sort of probability to Fultz being a playoff-caliber two-guard by this time next year. Because if he isn’t, and they’ve conducted their offseason as if he will be, the dream of a championship season might be sunk before it has started.
The reality of the Sixers’ situation is that they have two windows. The first of them closes after next season, when Ben Simmons and Dario Saric will be eligible for contract extensions. At this point, a max deal for Simmons looks like a no-brainer. But Saric is a different story, and while the Sixers can let him play out his rookie deal and reach free agency, they still need to have some idea of how all the pieces are going to fit. In the perfect world they envisioned, Fultz would establish himself as a legitimate third option and lessen the need to make a big move for an established star. But that is not the current reality, and they would be committing malpractice if they did not adapt their plan to include the possibility that he never finds himself.
At the same time, the free-agent and trade markets are sparse enough and the luxury-tax threshold is limiting enough that one wrong move can echo long into the future. Do you re-sign JJ Redick? Marco Belinelli? Look to make a trade for somebody who is an upgrade on them? Do you concentrate your resources on finding a three-point-shooting four-man who brings more athleticism to the table than Saric? The answers to all of them depend on what the Sixers think they already have in Fultz. All we know right now is that they don’t know what they have.
And maybe that, right there, is the answer. If you don’t know what you have, then you have to act as if you don’t have anything. And if that’s how you have to act, then Fultz’s future seems that much more uncertain. There are only so many minutes, with regards to both playing time and patience.
On Tuesday, as the Sixers returned to the court to prepare for Game 2, Brett Brown said it would be a mistake to consider Fultz “dead and buried.” With his signature positivity, the head coach said he’d re-evaulate the rookie’s role on a daily basis.
“It’s not anything that I’m not open to always reviewing,” he said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to help him help us. Us being the key word.”
Soon, though, they’ll have to decide how best to help themselves.