Sometimes the truth smacks you in the face. During the Sixers' playoff sweep at the hands of the Celtics, watching Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum hit step-back jumpers and dribble into three-point shots crystallized what we’ve all known for a while. The Sixers don’t have anyone who can do that consistently.
Markelle Fultz was supposed to be that guy.
The epic failure of the Fultz pick (or the epic impatience that followed, depending on your perspective) was the tipping point in a win-now domino effect that led to the trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, cashing in nearly every remaining asset to recover from a blown No. 1 overall draft pick. And now the Sixers are left with an expensive, oversized roster bereft of perimeter shooting and shot creation.
The idea behind the Fultz pick was correct. If you’re designing the perfect complement to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, you’d want a lethal three-point shooter who can also create his own shot and make plays for others. In his one season at the University of Washington, Fultz was that guy. He shot 41.3 percent from three-point range on five attempts per game, while also displaying the ability to beat defenders off the dribble and get into the paint at will. He averaged 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists. He was the complete offensive package.
We all know what happened next. Fultz showed up to his first NBA training camp with a broken jump shot. We became acquainted with the words Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. And Fultz played just 33 games in two seasons before Elton Brand shipped him off to Orlando for Jonathon Simmons, who was out of the rotation during last season's playoff run, a 2019 second-round pick and a top-20 protected 2020 first-round pick.
Let’s look back at the moves made in response to Fultz not working out. Thirteen games into last season, the Sixers traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric to Minnesota to acquire Butler. I don’t believe you make that move if Fultz is on a trajectory toward becoming an elite player, especially for an impending free agent like Butler. There’s no pressing need to go star hunting if you already have three young stars.
Once the Butler move had been made, the Sixers were pot-committed toward making a deep playoff run. They paid a king’s ransom to acquire Tobias Harris (who has never been an All-Star) from the Clippers in a deal where they shipped away Landry Shamet and two first-round picks. The once-overflowing treasure chest of assets acquired under Sam Hinkie was now nearly empty. Then Brand decided to shell out $277 million guaranteed for five seasons of Harris and four seasons of Al Horford. One year in, both deals look like disasters.
If Fultz had been anything close to the player the Sixers thought they were getting, they could have a starting lineup of Simmons, Fultz, JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Embiid. Or maybe Dario Saric would start and Redick would come off the bench. Maybe you would have let Redick walk and Landry Shamet would be in that spot. Either way, it’s a roster much more suited to succeed in today’s NBA than the “bully ball” squad we saw stumble to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference this season and fail so spectacularly against the Celtics.
Brand has a tough road ahead of him to put the Sixers on a path to championship contention. He says he has no plans to trade Embiid or Simmons. But unless another GM bails him out, he’s left with a roster that doesn’t make sense and no clear path to fixing it.
The tipping point was Markelle Fultz.