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April 22, 2018

Sixers mailbag: Will Markelle Fultz factor into team's playoff plans moving forward?

Philadelphia fans have quickly gone from one of the most tortured groups in sports to living their best lives in the span of a calendar year. The Eagles' Super Bowl victory provided a cosmic lift for the city, and the city's basketball team has done their best to take the opportunity and run with it.

It's fairly easy to do that when you have two players as good as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Philadelphia's dynamic duo has dominated opposing teams when they've shared the court, and the former's return to action in Game 3 is a big reason why Philadelphia has taken a commanding 3-1 lead over Miami, with a worst-case scenario being a home game in Philadelphia for a Game 7. 

The Sixers are well ahead of schedule, and their play is allowing people to dream about NBA Finals trips that seem more realistic by the day.

There's a lot of action left before that pie-in-the-sky scenario comes into focus, so for now, we set our sights on your questions about a few minor hurdles facing Philadelphia at the moment.

Given what we’ve seen over the last few games, it seems safe to say it’s unlikely for Markelle Fultz to return to the rotation for the rest of the series, short or long as it is. Things can obviously pivot at any given moment, but in the time he has played he has shown little indication that he belongs on the floor in a playoff setting.

Maybe this is just a problem against a team like the Heat, who are playing a physical brand of basketball in an effort to overcompensate for the talent gap between the teams. It’s a step beyond what you normally see even in the meat grinder that is the NBA playoffs, and it’s particularly impactful for a player who hasn’t had time to build a complete understanding of how to adjust and respond to tactics at the NBA level.

But Fultz has not been good during his very brief time on the court in the playoffs, regardless of the qualifiers you use to explain that predicament.

Miami has punished his inability/unwillingness to take an outside jump shot, giving him the same sag-off treatment teams provided Ben Simmons early in the NBA calendar. The difference, of course, is that Simmons is large and athletic enough to punish teams for doing so, and is a superlative passer in traffic even when he’s not finishing at the rim. Fultz has good size and athleticism for his position, but it is not enough to overcompensate for a jumper that fell into a black hole somewhere between suburban Maryland and Philadelphia.

Frankly, defense has been just as big a problem for Fultz against Miami. He was passable as a defender during his cameo in the regular season, but bad habits are punished a lot more against the stiffer competition and more extensive prep work of a playoff battle. Fultz’s cheating away from his man to swipe at ball handlers has allowed shooters to get relatively clean looks, and he has been eaten alive by screens on several different occasions.

Add on to this that Fultz is committing fouls at a high rate for any player, let alone a guard — he's averaging 6.3 fouls per 36 minutes in the playoffs, with obvious sample size notes — which have been indictive of the bad positions he's letting himself get put into. He's a step behind in moments where you simply can't afford that, and the Heat have wildly outplayed the Sixers during his minutes as a result.

The Sixers already have to make defensive concessions in order to get some of their rotation players on the floor. Marco Belinelli has been put in the torture chamber by Dwyane Wade throughout the series, but his microwave scoring and floor spacing off the bench has frequently been a fair trade off. Brett Brown is willing to make defensive concessions if it means putting shooting around Simmons and Joel Embiid, and for good reason.

At this point, the question becomes less “Will Fultz play?” and more “Why does he deserve to play right now?” 

He isn’t offering value on either end of the court, and the case for developmental time goes away when your young team shows it has the talent (and a realistic path) to make a deep playoff run. It’s a hard call to make given Fullz’s importance to the future, but even an optimist’s case is tough to make — is he really benefitting from getting his ass kicked up and down the court for 5-10 minutes a game?

They may need him at some point during this playoff run. It doesn't appear to be now.

I think Kawhi Leonard trade buzz for Philadelphia is as real as it could be for pretty much any team in the league. They have young trade chips, draft assets, and two readymade stars ready to play alongside Leonard, which makes them an appealing trade suitor from the perspective of his current team and Leonard himself, I would imagine.

Where I would disagree is in the construction of the package — I think Dario Saric almost certainly has to be in the discussions if the Sixers want to be a serious bidder. If we were having this conversation last June, Fultz would have easily had the most trade value of the guys they were likely to send out in a trade. But everything that has happened since has warped and diminished his value.

The primary concerns regarding Leonard's future are health and character related. It's hard to tell how seriously to take the former given that the Spurs cleared him months ago, only for Leonard and his "camp" to reject that notion in favor of his own treatment path. This is inevitably connected to the latter, and we are really short on answers regarding how much influence Leonard's family, friends, and associates are having on his situation.

The good news for Philadelphia is that Brett Brown's ties to Leonard and the Spurs give him a unique opportunity to collect intel from various parties involved. If this is really a long-term problem for Leonard, or if there is uncertainty that Leonard would commit to Philadelphia past the expiration of his current deal, the Sixers are well-positioned to know that and weigh the risks accordingly.

As I've written in the past, Leonard would be an excellent fit in Philadelphia if the previous concerns are unfounded, and this is a case of Leonard just wanting out of San Antonio. If there is reason to pause, however, there are free agents the Sixers can and will target who they can bring in without sacrificing any of the young talent on hand. Leonard would be nice to have in Philly, but he's certainly not an all-or-nothing proposition.

I’m really not trying to be alarmist about Fultz’s future, but I don’t think the complete absence of his jumpshot is lending the most hope toward the reclamation of his shot.

As I reported in February, the public timeline and the private timeline for what Fultz was doing this season are wildly different. This is not a player who was shut down and not working for an extended period of time — Fultz was in the gym working and shooting all throughout the season, including during the tumultuous months of October and November.

Knowing that’s the case, the case for him rediscovering his jumper in the offseason becomes flimsier. It’s one thing to minimize expectations for skill development within a season because it’s hard to ask players to keep piling on new moves and traits when you’re trying to build a base of consistency. But Fultz is not having a normal season, and was allowed to essentially go through a skill development program without any of the day-to-day demands of playing in games.

Is that much different from what he's going to be exposed to this offseason? I'm not sure. You can make a case that coaches and trainers he might work with would have unlimited time together in the offseason, free from the burden of helping with game prep and development of other players. They can get back to basics with Fultz without limitations. He's a hard worker and a good kid, and those facts still bode well.

Theoretically, yes, a full offseason will help him more than anything he was able to do during the season. There's a low likelihood he'll play in Summer League, as I'd imagine the team will be happy to have him working out behind closed doors and just getting thousands of reps in as a jump-shooter.

But as with anything Fultz-related, there's too much guesswork to say for sure. I don't know if or when the "old form" is coming back, and I would be skeptical about anyone who postures as such.

I don't think their futures are all that connected. JJ Redick is a better player than Belinelli by a pretty comfortable margin, even if the latter's hot streak has made the gap look smaller recently.

For one, Redick is a significantly better team defender than Belinelli is, a lot less prone to getting lost away from the ball and firmly in "solid" territory on the wing. His size and athleticism can be exploited on switches, but he's tough enough and engaged enough that it doesn't hurt him too badly.

Redick also brings a lot of value on offense that doesn't come down to just shooting and scoring. There is an argument to be made he's the best screener on the team, and is a unique weapon there because of the combination of that reality with his shooting chops. Teams play so scared of him coming around on curls that they're often caught off guard when he stays in their path and stops a defender in their tracks, opening a lane toward the basket.

He also skirts the line of legality, but that's to be expected from an NBA veteran. The Sixers have had a lot of success out of "horns" sets in part because of Redick's ability to muck things up for defenders trying to recover back toward the rim.

The future of both players depends heavily on what the Sixers do in free agency. There will only be so much money to use if they get a big free agent to join up this summer, and yes, they will need to invest their money wisely regardless of who it's going to.

But Belinelli and Redick are players who should be able to coexist on a team, primarily because you don't want Belinelli playing a starter-level role. His limitations are exposed in major minutes in ways Redick's are not, and an arrangement similar to what the Sixers have now would be ideal.

If I had to guess, he's on a basketball court somewhere, falling asleep on yet another back-cut or lollygagging through a defensive possession.

I'm going to focus on the first of these questions. As I wrote before the playoffs even began, I think there is a completely reasonable path to the NBA Finals this season. I do not expect that to come to fruition, but the path and the talent are there.

From where we sit today, I think this is a Conference Finals team. It would take quite a collapse to lose this series against the Heat, and waiting for them on the other side would be either a depleted Celtics team or a Milwaukee Bucks squad whose asses they just kicked to close out the regular season. Even though the Bucks have by far the best player left between those two potential opponents, I'd still lean toward preferring to play them, because the Celtics are another tough defensive team with a great coach, and those are tough to beat in the playoffs.

Regardless, either matchup would see the Sixers as favorites assuming nothing unforeseen on the health front. What has been great about this matchup with Miami has been the learning process they've gone through — rather than facing a toothless finesse team, they were met by a physical Heat team that has made them work for everything they've earned. This series has matured the young players to a degree that sometimes takes multiple playoff trips. That will serve them will this season and beyond.

There are too many unknowns for me to start speculating about the future and when they can threaten the throne, and there are challenges awaiting them after a year like this. The Sixers are going to be in the tier of teams opponents don't take lightly anymore, more than they were this year. A full season of Embiid and Simmons dominating changes the respect level they receive from players and opponents and they won't just be able to sneak up on people as the fun, young upstarts.

With one more piece or two, however, this squad is going to compete for a long time assuming they stay healthy.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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