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October 24, 2017

Who should you trust in Markelle Fultz shoulder saga? Probably no one

It would be nice to get through even a single game without a health issue weighing down on the Sixers. Unfortunately, that day has yet to arrive, and a report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski has guaranteed we will be talking about Markelle Fultz's shoulder for the foreseeable future.

Here's the short version for those of you who don't feel like reading it: Fultz's agent claimed the 19-year-old guard had to have his shoulder drained prior to the start of the regular season, and the injury has left him unable to get shots up. Here's the word from his agent, Raymond Brothers:

Markelle had a shoulder injury and fluid drained out of the back of his shoulder. He literally cannot raise up his arms to shoot the basketball. He decided to try and fight through the pain to help the team. He has a great attitude. We are committed to finding a solution to get Markelle back to 100 percent...From a basketball perspective, it's been encouraging to see that Markelle can get any shot he wants during the games, but he has been unable to shoot the ball.

After letting him play through this pain for the last few weeks, the Sixers made the decision Wednesday to hold Fultz out of the team's next three games, with the plan being to reevaluate him next Tuesday, Oct. 31.

Upon first glance, this looks like another indictment of the medical staff that has haunted the dreams of Sixers fans for the last few years. While an outsider might point to their track record of being extra cautious with injured players, particularly rookies, there is a precedent for them being reckless with the health of their players. It took a reporter scooping them to reveal Joel Embiid had a meniscus injury last season, and despite the front office's supposed desire for transparency, there's been no change to the hushed tone with which they use to address injuries.

It seems easy to chalk this one up as another mistake or a bit of arrogance of the medical team. It's the easy explanation, and it very well could be as simple as us talking about the same old Sixers mistakes. Most fans would probably take that as a relief, to be honest, because the alternative is a No. 1 overall draft pick inexplicably losing his mojo and potentially changing his career trajectory dramatically.

There's one major problem here: that explanation only took a few hours to get changed, and an updated version of Woj's story shared a new quote from Brothers.

He had a cortisone shot on Oct. 5, which means fluid was put into his shoulder -- not taken out. My intention earlier was to let people know that he's been experiencing discomfort. We will continue to work with (Sixers general manager) Bryan Colangelo and the medical staff.

Just hours after making claims as sensational as saying Fultz couldn't raise his shoulder up enough to shoot, now the story is that it was an entirely different procedure than what took place to begin with. The second version, as it turns out, is closer to the truth.

GM Bryan Colangelo confirmed the cortisone shot during an interview on Wednesday afternoon, adding that Fultz has seen several specialists who all concluded there was no major structural damage in Fultz's shoulder. Colangelo, like Brett Brown before him, mentioned the shoulder is a trouble spot but not one to the degree that it would sideline Fultz, who Colangeo says personally advocated to play through the pain. 

This makes the Woj report even more eyebrow-raising and calls into question the motivation for it being out there to begin with.

If Fultz was consistently using the same mechanics at the line and looking like a guy trying to prevent more pain, it'd be one thing. Instead, he mostly looks like a player who can't settle on a set of mechanics.

Nobody breaks more news than Woj does on the NBA side, but this is far from a typical "report" on his end. Rather than claiming his information is coming from the always elusive "league sources," this one is pinned squarely on the shoulders of Brothers. That decision alone should raise a red flag. Brothers' No. 1 job is to protect the reputation of his player above all else, the perception of the franchise Fultz plays for be damned.

It stands to reason that the motivation for Brothers to float this out there was to control the narrative during a trying time for his client. Because the Sixers already have a poor reputation when it comes to managing and properly communicating about the extent of injuries, they get no slack from the public on this story. By taking the story to the biggest NBA reporter on the planet, Team Fultz is able to turn the focus on the Sixers' handling of the situation, avoiding the pivotal question of, "Is that all that's wrong with Markelle Fultz?"

To that end, Bryan Colangelo had a curious answer when asked about why the team was resting Fultz now after letting the situation get to this point. With Fultz's shot mechanics in the crosshairs, Colangelo put the change in Fultz's shot squarely on his shoulders, wiping the team's hands clean of any involvement, even going so far as to suggest the mechanics change could have caused the soreness.

When you take him out of the spotlight, I think it's going to [put] a little less focus on every particular play, every shot mechanic. He's obviously been effected by whatever discomfort he's had in his shoulder, but the notion that there's anything structurally wrong or long-term in concern, it's clearly not the case. There's been a lot of talk, why did they change his shot in the first place? There was never a concerted effort on the part of the organization to change his shot. You probably saw at Summer League everything was moving along great, he was scoring and then he sprained his ankle. I don't think that effects your shot mechanics.

We spent some time with him throughout the summer, but sometime during the month of August I think, he might have worked on his shot a little bit, could even be the cause of the irritation and inflamation in the shoulder. New shooting mechanics sometimes put your shoulder in a different position. Whatever the case, whichever happened first, he's dealing with soreness and nothing more. We just want to get him right and get him back to where he can be.

From the outside looking in, this makes it seem like the mechanics and the confidence attached to them are as big, if not a bigger problem than the shoulder. This is not to suggest anyone is lying about Fultz carrying a shoulder issue of some sort. But there is certainly incentive here, for all parties, to play up the impact of that issue and take attention away from the messy mechanics Fultz has employed at the free-throw line, or the disinterest in shooting he has shown from beyond 12 feet.

If Fultz was consistently using the same mechanics at the line and looking like a guy trying to prevent more pain, it'd be one thing. Instead, he looks like a player who can't settle on a set of mechanics, and is otherwise mostly the same guy, diving around for loose balls and barreling toward the rim regardless of any pain he's dealing with. When he's had less time to think about shooting, he looks a lot closer to the player we saw at Washington.

Even if Fultz's agent is playing up the shoulder angle to help dampen scrutiny over his shooting/non-shooting, it doesn't excuse the Sixers for where we are today. The ousting of Sam Hinkie and subsequent hiring of Bryan Colangelo were framed as a path toward better relationships and communication as an organization. After the Embiid meniscus debacle last season, the Sixers doubled down on this stance, claiming they'd be more transparent than ever about the health of their players.

So why, then, is the news of a cortisone shot to Fultz's shoulder only leaking out weeks later, after an agent got restless about his client's performance? The instinct to downplay things publicly is understandable, but if transparency and winning back trust is the goal, the omission of facts as they're relevant does anything but help their cause. Had the Sixers been open about the early steps of Fultz's treatment, there would have been no room for a report like the one that came out Tuesday.

This saga is far from over. The Sixers have to prove they're actually interested in transparency instead of lip service, Markelle Fultz has to prove his shoulder is the only thing holding him back, and the fans... well the fans have to prove they can stomach one more injury saga for a top pick.

My advice to everybody following from home: remain skeptical of what anyone is telling you here, and be prepared for more twists and turns in the weeks to come.