Markelle Fultz has befuddled 76ers and NBA fans for two years with questions about his availability, and Philadelphia fans who want to see him play have to prepare to be disappointed. The Athletics’ David Aldridge tweeted Tuesday morning that Fultz “is scheduled to see a shoulder specialist early next week.” The new came from Fultz’s agent Raymond Brothers, who stated that Fultz will not participate in 76ers practices or games until he sees the specialist.
The 76ers likely will not need Fultz, as they will be staying at home against New Orleans and Cleveland before heading out to face Brooklyn over the next week. But 76ers fans should be seriously concerned about what this means for the relationship between Fultz and the team. Is this a temporary surprise which we will forget in a few weeks, and could we have seen Fultz wear a 76ers jersey for the last time?
Not Reaching Expectations
The timing for this Fultz’s announcement is rather suspicious. On Monday’s victory over the Phoenix Suns, Fultz played just 7 minutes and went 0-2 from the field before being benched in the second half in favor of T.J. McConnell. For the season, Fultz is averaging a poor 8.2 points on 8.2 shots, and he has been clearly hesitant to shoot from long range. And just over a week ago, he shot a free throw which could have been mistaken for Chuck Hayes’s infamous hitch.
Is Fultz struggling because the shoulder injury which plagued him his rookie season is back, or does he have the yips? I do not know, and anyone outside the 76ers organization who says he does know is an idiot or a liar. The 76ers medical staff has certainly had its issues, but it is possible that Fultz expects his shoulder to hurt so he plays like it is regardless of its actual status.
But what we do know is that Fultz’s role on this team is far shakier compared to a few months ago, when he was seen as the missing piece to slot alongside Simmons and Embiid. Now Butler is that piece. And while Fultz can dish the ball and get to the rim, he cannot provide the spacing to play alongside three other stars who all want the ball.
A New Team
Philadelphia’s trade for Jimmy Butler as well as its decision to bench Fultz in favor of T.J. McConnell likely shows that they are done waiting for Fultz to reach the next and are preparing to win now. And while the Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee are all major challenges, none of those three teams pose as much of a roadblock to the Finals that the Cavaliers did last year. If this saga keeps up, we should expect to see Philadelphia seriously consider trading Fultz to a team for win-now talent. While Fultz has not lived up to his #1 pick hype, struggling teams like New York, Phoenix, or Cleveland would be more than willing to take a flyer on him.
However, a major limitation on trading Fultz is that Philadelphia will likely be uninterested in taking back salary past this season. Sixers Wire points out that Philadelphia could offer another max slot if they can dump Fultz’s salary and renounce other players like McConnell, creating a big four of Simmons, Embiid, Butler, and another star. Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard would be the grand prizes, but Khris Middleton, Al Horford, and Tobias Harris are some other options better than Fultz.
The 76ers should look at the San Antonio Spurs over the past year, and how the Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard over disputes about his health with a lingering injury. Fultz is certainly not Leonard, but that just means that he is not important enough to be a distraction for a 76ers team looking to catch up after a slow start. The Butler trade already signified that Philadelphia did not see Fultz as essential, but Aldridge’s report may mean that they no longer see Fultz as worth the drama given his ongoing lack of production.