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December 05, 2018

The case for (and against) trading Markelle Fultz before he returns to action

Regardless of what you think about the latest development in the Markelle Fultz saga, we can all agree on one thing: he is going to play basketball again at some point. Once the new diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome is dealt with appropriately, it will be time to see what progress can be produced by physical therapy.

However, the world does not get put on hold as Fultz and the Sixers try to figure this thing out. The NBA season keeps rolling along, the Sixers will face tests against stiffer opponents, and the trade deadline looms on February 7, just a couple months down the line from where we sit today.

And so while it may seem as if the Sixers have all the time in the world to let this play out, there is a case to be made that the Sixers should press to move on from Fultz sooner rather than later. Let's lay out what we know, and where things could go from here.

The case for moving Fultz

From a big-picture perspective, there are three primary outcomes that may come from Fultz's new physical therapy and rest initiative in Philadelphia, at least that I can see. They are as follows:

  1. TOS is indeed the explanation for what has gone wrong with Fultz, and the combination of rest and treatment fixes what ails him. Fultz returns to the form that made him the No. 1 pick — or at least a form resembling that player — and the Sixers live happily ever after. This is less about actual results (e.g. three-point or free-throw percentage) and more about the process behind them.
  2. Fultz returns to the lineup following the "completion" of the program he is put on, and the issues that have plagued him remain. We see the same inconsistency at different levels of shooting, with Fultz turning down catch-and-shoot threes and struggling at the free-throw line while still looking comfortable as a pull-up shooter from mid-range.
  3. The Sixers decide they would rather move on ASAP, and Fultz is moved to another team before he ever returns to play for Philadelphia.

There will be some differences of opinion on this, but option No. 1 would appear to be the least likely outcome from where we sit today. Several factors are working against it, starting with the rehab and recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome.

It is indeed true that identifying the actual problem would be helpful to getting Fultz on the right track. But the timeframe and the path that led us here matters, too. Fultz may be in more workable basketball form within the next couple months, but that's no promise of returning to prominence in the way many would hope. Read the stories of people who have dealt with this issue, and you see outcomes all over the board, both in the degree of success and the time it took to get there.

It is important to remember that Fultz spent the entirety of his summer developing a new set of shooting mechanics. This is a potential element of complication. Will Fultz's body associate the mechanics learned under trainer Drew Hanlen with the previous issue even after the alleged problem is resolved? Is it even possible he can revert to a form closer to what we saw at the University of Washington after thousands upon thousands of reps were dedicated to a new one? And most critically, can whatever form he ends up using produce real success at the NBA level?

There's really no way for any of us to know. The human body works in strange ways to compensate for issues present and past alike.

In many potential timelines moving forward, the excuses will be off the table. If Fultz and the Sixers announce TOS has been resolved and any of the same issues remain in his game, primarily in his reluctance to take catch-and-shoot threes, the jig will be up.

There is no doubt that Fultz's trade value has hit a low point now, but there is still at least some benefit of the doubt given here for why things have gone wrong. Under the shroud of a potential physical issue, the Sixers can convince either themselves or another team that he can get this right. Maybe he's not the headliner in a major trade package, but he's at least a subject of interest to teams in need of a point guard, where has shown flashes of brilliance already.

Once you declare the TOS dealt with, the way he plays is all that matters. The first time a three is turned down or a free-throw is botched, you are staring down a situation where his contract value will loom large heading into free agency, and teams know this is Philadelphia's last offseason to make real noise on the market. Other franchises will exploit that accordingly, and demand value back for alleviating your problem, rather than offering value to the Sixers for a talented young player.

Given that they're already low on depth and movable assets, this isn't a position the Sixers want to find themselves in next summer.

The case against moving Fultz

This comes down to how likely you think outcome No. 1 is moving forward. The Sixers have more detailed information than any of us on the outside do, and maybe they think this is the magic bullet that puts him on a path back to stardom.

While we can talk about the percentage chance of each outcome happening, there is also a different value level for each one. Even if you believe Fultz's chances at stardom are low (let's say 5 percent or less), you are considering that alongside the reality that there's not much out there for him right now. And the motivation for moving him now, frankly, is a dice roll in free agency to begin with.

At this juncture, the Sixers had ridden with Fultz all the way down to the basement of his trade value. They have done this because there is still some belief that he will pull out of this tailspin, or else they wouldn't have forced him into the starting lineup to begin the year, and there would have been a more concerted effort to move him last summer.

For as much as Fultz has been a terrible fit with this Sixers team, we have seen flashes of why he was so coveted coming out of college. As the lead guard without Simmons on the floor, Fultz has done well for himself, and his improvement on the defensive end has been considerable from the start of this season until he exited the lineup a couple weeks ago.

With the speed at which he has developed in certain areas, on top of the physical talent that is pretty apparent watching him play, you can see the upside should he figure things out. And regardless of how badly he has struggled, the assertion of his character/work ethic from people inside and outside the organization has been consistent. That's a potent combination with his gifts.

The road to irrelevance in sports is littered with teams that gave up on young talent too soon. And with cap space drying up after this summer, the Sixers will need internal development options on the roster more than ever.

There's really not a perfect answer here

Free agency is no longer an all-or-nothing proposition for Philadelphia this summer. The Sixers have Jimmy Butler now, giving them the third star they needed to take the next step toward contention.

That doesn't make their summer any less critical to the future of the team. Elton Brand can still build a long-term core for this team over the next year without going out and getting another star or sub-star this summer. But you do need money to accomplish that goal, too.

It is going to get harder and harder to justify developing Fultz the closer this team comes to contention unless he magically transforms back into who he once was. He'll remain a tenuous fit with Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Butler in the interim, and that makes it harder to justify giving him developmental minutes, which in turn makes it harder to showcase him for a trade.

Ultimately, I think the guiding philosophy here has to be an openness to all possibilities. The Sixers are not in a position to take options off the table right now, regardless of which end of the spectrum they rest on. Something that has gone under-discussed — outside of the swap of Brand for Bryan Colangelo, the front office is largely unchanged from the group that authorized the trade for (and drafting of) Fultz in the first place.

That cuts both ways. This group knows him and has seen him work first-hand, but their own reputations as basketball executives are tied to their involvement in that deal. Whether that clouds their judgment here in one way or another is hard to say.

In any case, Fultz is just one example of the difficult line the Sixers have to walk over the next year. In charge of navigating those waters is a rookie GM, and one who hasn't shied away from a bold move when he saw one on the table.

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