Updated: Thursday, November 9, 2017, 3:10 PM
At the moment, things look so natural for the Sixers on the court that it is easy to forget that Markelle Fultz was ever part of the plan. That’s a good thing, both for the rookie, and for the team, whether your perspective is the long-term future or the here-and-now. With Fultz a week-and-a-half into a layoff that is expected to last at least three weeks, the Sixers are in a position where they can and should prioritize Fultz’s ceiling over whatever immediate utility they envisioned him providing to this year’s team when they traded up to select him at No. 1 overall. This, for a variety of reasons.
1. As long as they stay relatively healthy, the Sixers are a playoff team.
Their 104-97 win over the Utah Jazz on Tuesday might have been the best sign yet. That might seem counterintuitive, given that it was one of their worst offensive showings of the season. They shot just 42 percent from the field, down from the 48.5 they shot over the six previous games. They turned the ball over a season-high 22 times, and were whistled for a season-high 34 fouls. But as out of synch as they looked throughout long stretches of the game, the fact that they were able to come away with a win says a little something about this team. Granted, the fact that the Jazz shot the ball with the efficiency of a rec-league team helped their cause. It’s hard to lose a game in which an opponent shoots 30 percent from the field and misses 30 of 39 three-point attempts. But this was the first game of a long West Coast trip against a tough defensive team, one the Sixers were playing without Joel Embiid against one of the game’s best rim protectors in Rudy Gobert. Gobert’s presence clearly affected Ben Simmons, who played his worst game as a pro, turning the ball over six times and connecting on just 7-of-22 attempts from the field. Yet they won.
The victory in Utah was just the latest reason to think that the Sixers are a much better team than even the most optimistic among us could have envisioned at the start of the season. Their four losses have come against four teams who were widely projected to be among the top four playoff seeds in their respective conferences. In addition to taking care of business against the second-division teams they’ve faced, they have a couple of road wins against teams who entered Thursday a combined 16-6 (Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons).
2. Adding Fultz to the mix without a consistent jumper won’t move the needle.
At least, there’s a strong argument to be made to that effect. If Fultz can’t or won’t knock down open looks, what does he bring to the court that improves upon what the Sixers are already getting out of T.J. McConnell? Fultz has better size and a better ability to finish at the rim once he gets there, but McConnell’s defense, rhythm, and court intuition are all far ahead of anything the Sixers could have reasonably expected to get out of Fultz this season, even before his travails. The two things that would significantly improve the Sixers are: A) a player with McConnell’s attributes who is also a more consistent finisher/shooter, and B) a player with Jerryd Bayless’ attributes who is also a more consistent defender/ball handler/passer.
Heading into the season, the hope was that Fultz could be one of those two things, or some combination of the two. But each of those scenarios requires that he has the confidence to knock down shots like he did in college. When I envision the version of Fultz that can push this team to the next level, what I see is something in the mold of Bradley Beal.
3. The Sixers are getting enough offense out of their perimeter players
That doesn’t contradict the previous point as much as it might sound. In Bayless, J.J. Redick, and Robert Covington, the Sixers have three players who are averaging at least five three-point attempts per game while knocking down at least 42 percent. Their 39.9 percentage as a team from behind the arc ranks third in the NBA, and their 30.8 attempts per game ranks 10th. While you can never have too many shooters on the court, the Sixers are hardly desperate for one. For Fultz’s minutes to have a significant impact, he needs to be a significantly better shooter than whomever he is taking those minutes from. When you watch this offense, you definitely recognize moments where there’s a shot to be had for a guy with the confidence and ability to take it. But there aren’t as many of those moments as you might have thought, thanks in large part to Covington’s tremendous improvement behind the arc. Heading into the season it wasn’t hard to deduce that Covington would be getting more open looks, but it would have been difficult to predict that he’d be averaging seven attempts per game and connecting on half.
Last year, Covington shot 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. If he were shooting 33 percent this season, he’d have nearly 12 fewer three-pointers as he does in his 70 attempts.
If Robert Covington were hitting three-pointers at last year’s rate …
Covington 3P% 3PA 3PM PTS off 3s ’17-’18 (.500) 70 35 105 ’16-’17 (.333) 70 23.3 69.9 ’17-18 Net +11.7 +35.1 ’17-’18 Net per game +1.2 +3.5
In the Sixers’ six wins, they’ve outscored opponents by an average of 8.2 points per game, so Covington’s improvement is substantial within that context. One concrete example to illustrate the point: against the Dallas Mavericks on Oct. 28, Covington attempted six three-pointers, and connected on three of them, matching his current season’s three-point percentage. Hitting 33.3 percent of them would have meant connecting on two three-pointers, which is one fewer than three three-pointers, which is a total of three fewer points on the scoreboard. The Sixers beat the Mavericks by two points.
Granted, that’s not exactly a mathematically rigorous proof, but it should give you some idea of the night-to-night impact that Covington can have on the bottom line. Since their 0-3 start, when Covington is on the court, the Sixers are outscoring their opponents by an average of 11.7 points per game. That’s more than twice as much as Ben Simmons’ +5.1 and second only to Redick’s +13.8 among the regulars.
Player +/- , last 7 gms Redick +13.8 Covington +11.7 Embiid +7.8 Simmons +5.1 McConnell +4.1 Johnson +3.0 Bayless +0.8 Luwawu-Cabarrot +2.2 Saric -1.7
In all likelihood, Fultz’s minutes won’t be coming at Covington’s expense. But the veteran’s production from beyond the arc means the Sixers aren’t looking for that production elsewhere.
What it all boils down to is this: through 10 games, the Sixers look like a team that is more than capable of getting by without an additional role player. They also look like a team that could reach a new level with Fultz playing the type of game they envisioned when drafting him. The obvious move is to focus not on getting him back on the court, but on getting his game back to where it was in college.