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February 01, 2019

What should the Sixers do with Markelle Fultz at the NBA trade deadline?

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The public has not seen Markelle Fultz in a Sixers uniform (or even Sixers gear) since November 19, when the second-year guard was benched in the second half of a game against the Phoenix Suns. Brett Brown faced questions about who would be the backup point guard after that game, and he would not commit one way or another.

"I don't know," Brown said that evening when asked who the backup point guard would be. "[I'll make the decision] when I think it through deeper and look at tape, and see who we're playing, the next opponent, all those things that I should do."

The next day, Fultz was pulled from team activities and whisked away by his agent to undergo a series of evaluations by doctors. The diagnosis offered was thoracic outlet syndrome, which triggered a subsequent rehab period, Fultz relocating to Los Angeles temporarily. He has since returned to the team, but he has spent his public time in a suit, cheering on his team from the sideline.

With six days to go until the trade deadline, we have no more information on the state of Fultz's game than we did when he left in November. So what should the Sixers do between now and next Thursday? There are two realistic options.

Trade him for immediate help

When the Sixers took the step of trading for Jimmy Butler, it was a different level of commitment to winning in the immediate term. With a team built around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, you could talk yourself into a slow ascent. Once you acquire a star in his prime on top of those guys, your intentions are clear.

Odds are that Fultz, barring a dramatic turnaround from what we saw early this year, is not going to offer you a big boost with this group. He and Simmons struggled to produce on the floor together, hence the abandoned project of Fultz as a starter, and shifting him to a backup role only cramped spacing for Embiid in bench lineups, dragging down Embiid's offensive ceiling.

Other recent developments make it even tougher to foresee a path for him in Philly this year. We're in the early stages of the Butler at point guard experiment, but it's a logical use of one of your stars that has worked well so far. The Sixers need to give that Embiid/Butler partnership room to breathe, and Fultz's need for the ball in his hands would complicate that.

The context here is not really suitable for either party. Because of the trade that brought him here, Fultz will be under more pressure in Philly than he would be anywhere else, and that's not the healthiest environment for a kid who has already been through a lot during his young career. Bundle all this together with his contract and how the team could get better use of that salary now and in the summer, and there's an easy case to move him.

Every realistic package you hear floated for him, barring a few exceptions, will probably sound underwhelming when you consider his initial billing. A swap involving Dwayne Dedmon and Taurean Prince with the Atlanta Hawks? Very unsexy on paper. But it would give the Sixers a rim-protecting big who can step out and hit threes, as well as a wing with some upside who could be a solid, well-fitting rotation player down the line.

Part of the value in making a trade to fill out the rotation would be to preserve (and perhaps boost) harmony among the stars the Sixers need to keep happy. There have already been some highly-publicized grievances in the locker room this season. Do you know what the best way to solve that is? Make the team better. The more you win and the closer you get to your ultimate goal, the easier it becomes to keep everyone on the same page heading into a pivotal summer.

Holding onto Fultz (and thus, your most logical trade chip) through the deadline banks on your current roster plus buyout targets to give you the boost down the stretch. The Sixers are unlikely to get a boost as big as the one they got from Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova on the buyout market this season, and betting that they'll get it from Fultz, given the history here, seems even more unlikely.

So the case to make a deal involving Fultz is obvious on many levels. He gets a fresh start, the team gears up for a stretch run, and everyone benefits on some level.

Hold onto Fultz through the deadline

So here's the flipside — a lot of us, including the Sixers themselves, are dealing with an unprecedented situation here. It's rather unlike the other issues they've dealt with involving their high draft picks, like the broken feet of Simmons and Embiid.

This could convince the Sixers that whatever physical therapy Fultz has done since leaving the team is the magic bullet to solve anything. They haven't held onto him this long out of the kindness of their hearts. Most of the front office that drafted him is still in place, Bryan Colangelo aside, and they've scoffed at lesser offers for him because they don't believe fair value has been presented.

The Sixers' front office hasn't exactly been transparent about what they think "fair value" is, or even what their deadline plans are beyond Brown's public preference for a wing and a rim protector. That's probably the right move anyway, because they'll know what a good offer sounds like if/when they hear it.

Philadelphia's path to acquiring another high-upside player moving forward is treacherous, dependent on nailing draft picks in the back of the first round or players in-house hitting the 99th percentile of their upside chart. Trading for Zhaire Smith was a recognition of that reality, and so to is holding onto Fultz despite his struggles. Maybe he never comes good, but there is enough talent there to justify betting on him, if you choose.

If the Sixers were moving Fultz as part of a package for a very good player — let's throw out Mike Conley and Jrue Holiday as two examples — then you're not going to have any regrets or second thoughts about moving Fultz, regardless of how his career plays out. But if you ship him out now for a middling return, provided you believe this latest suggested solution will fix him, there will always be that feeling of what could have been.

Personally, I think it's very hard to take this view on Fultz based on everything we know today. The symptoms/basketball irregularity has been far too inconsistent, the behind-the-scenes information too revealing, and the on-court product far too erratic to feel safe betting on him in the immediate future. While this is a team that needs upside on the bench, it also needs reliability, like that offered by rookie shooter Landry Shamet, as their stars attempt to power them to contention now.

We haven't seen Fultz even attempt an outside shot since before Halloween. If you think his trade value is low now, what happens if he comes back and has the same deer in the headlights look he had in November, sans any credible excuse regarding his shoulder? Then the Sixers are on the hook for almost $10 million next season, with that number complicating their free-agency plans a great deal this summer. Rather than a middling return, you could be staring down the prospect of surrendering an asset just to move his contract.

But the point here is this — there is a risk on both sides of this equation. Fultz's money is an asset in trade talks that can potentially become toxic. Fultz's skill set has room for upside that could also have a drastic and negative downside if things don't improve. And while this is no fault of his own, the Sixers could end up being short on rotation players in a pivotal playoff series because they're holding onto the idea of Fultz turning a corner some day.

It is, to put it lightly, a difficult scenario for the team. But this is exactly what Elton Brand signed up for, and how he handles the situation will say plenty about the front office's view of their title chances this season.

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