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December 14, 2017

Sixers Mailbag: What is Markelle Fultz's role when he returns to the lineup?

They still have a long way to go before they actually earn a playoff berth, but the Sixers are on the right track through 27 games. Joel Embiid has been used effectively, Ben Simmons got off to a monster start, and the shooters around them have been taking care of business. They've settled on a pretty firm rotation, at least when they've had their full complement of options available.

There's a curveball coming soon in the form of their No. 1 overall draft pick. Markelle Fultz is getting closer and closer to returning to NBA action, and his presence will alter the Sixers' fortunes significantly. Over the long term, that will likely be a good thing, but it will inject some chaos into a Sixers team only just settling into a concrete identity.

And so we reach the question at the forefront of Sixers fans' minds: when is Fultz coming back, and just what will he be when he makes it back?

As I mentioned when the Sixers issued their last medical update on Fultz, I would be surprised (and concerned) if he is not back by mid-January. Holding him out until after 2017 ends is one thing because they have an extended road trip to close the year and some high-profile games in the meantime. Reintroducing him on Christmas would be great, but I imagine if all things were equal they'd love to have him in a low-stress environment at home.

The more pertinent question is how big of an impact he can make when he returns, and whether he'll force the Sixers to switch up what's working with their starting lineup. It will not be an easy call to make, especially because the starting unit is still crushing other teams. Their five-man unit of Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Embiid holds the sixth-best NETRTG in the league, and they continue to play elite defense (allowing 96 points per 100 possessions) with those guys on the floor. Interrupting that while you push for the playoffs won't be an easy call.

Saric is the obvious odd-man out from this group because Brett Brown has not been shy about wanting to have Covington bouncing between the three and four spots. One of the biggest issues with the current setup is the difficulty they have figuring out assignments on some night, particularly at point guard. Simmons is capable of taking care of the guys below feature level — think guys like Darren Collison in Indiana — but is stretched pretty thin if he has to chase elite guards around all night.

Inserting Fultz into the starting lineup alleviates that problem, and lowers the strain on Simmons to create all of Philadelphia's perimeter offense. Assuming we see the Fultz who was a threat to pull up from anywhere on the court at Washington, defenses won't just be able to sit in the paint, and his off-the-dribble game as a scorer and playmaker adds a different element Philadelphia has lacked.

I think there's a near certainty you'll see Fultz in the starting lineup before the end of the year. For one thing, he and Simmons absolutely need to figure out how to play together. I think Fultz will have the bigger adjustment period there, because at 6'10", Simmons has a lot more practice being put into different scenarios as a basketball player. There's no way for him to figure out how to play alongside Simmons and Embiid if he doesn't get those minutes with them.

Beyond that, the Sixers also need to collect that evaluation data in order to better prepare themselves for the future. Think of how we discussed Simmons prior to him making his debut. There was a serious debate and dialogue over what position and role Simmons would have. That same discussion was being had frequently in Philadelphia's facility, and while they had more access to data and film than we do, seeing it on an NBA court is much different than believing in an idea. If the Sixers could have gotten even 15 games worth of data on Simmons at the end of last year, best believe they would have treasured it.

The same principle applies to Fultz this season. Is it the complete end of the world if he's just one of the first guys off the bench until the end of the year? Certainly not. But the more they can get him on the court and the more they can have him play alongside Embiid and Simmons, the better the Sixers will be prepared for free agency, future drafts, and the process of roster construction in general. So unless things go very poorly—and for the record, we can't rule that out—I'd expect to see him start at some point this year.

This comes down to a very simple explanation: Richaun Holmes is by-and-large not a very good defender, and the team's defense has consistently been worse with him on the court at center than with their other options. It's really not more complicated than that.

The Sixers are six points worse on defense with Holmes on the floor as compared to Amir Johnson, and over nine points worse with Holmes on the floor compared to Embiid. Brown is a defense-first coach and always has been, so when he's deciding who's going to get minutes at the most important defensive position in basketball, it will often come down to who can impact the game by preventing the other team from scoring. That's a big reason why Jahlil Okafor was buried on the bench heading into the year.

Out of fairness to Holmes, the offensive gap is just as large between he and Johnson and it tilts in the younger player's direction. I think Holmes bring a dynamism and energy the vet doesn't, and I do wish Brown would be quicker to turn to him when they need that lift from the bench.

Having said that, the ability to play Holmes at power forward—which has worked reasonably well recently—allows Brown some flexibility in how he uses his big men. He and Embiid have already shown they can play off one another, and the two hooked up for several clutch buckets toward the end of the game against the Lakers.

Is that sustainable in larger minutes? It's hard to say. The Sixers have played a nice run of teams who play multiple bigs at a time between L.A., New Orleans, and Minnesota, and that's not going to be the case every night. Having said that, it does provide the Sixers with another option to throw at teams and provides Holmes with another avenue toward minutes.

While we're on the subject...

While we've seen a lot of "big ball" recently, I don't think that's a trend you'd expect to hold. The absence of Covington has forced Brown's hand to an extent, and the aforementioned matchups prompted Brown to fight fire with fire.

I wouldn't look at Booker as proof of trying to go that direction either. The Booker move was more about getting a productive basketball player for a pittance, a guy who can help them as they try to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. If a similar-level player had been available in the form of a wing, there's no doubt in my mind the Sixers would have tried to make a move for him in the process of dumping Okafor and Nik Stauskas.

Size in the NBA is only important to the extent it is used functionally. There have been large players and teams who have failed miserably because they weren't skilled or athletic enough to take advantage of it. On the flip side, there have been lots of smaller players who have overcome an inherent basketball disadvantage with outlier athleticism and skill. Teams will always strive for the best of both worlds. 

If you could field an entire team of guys roughly equivalent to Simmons' skill level, athleticism, and size, you would take that any day over a team filled with guys with that same athleticism and skill at 6'2". Basketball is played 10 feet in the air, and going bigger will always be at an advantage as long as you can match the functional athleticism of smaller guys. There just aren't many guys who can do that; Embiid is the team's best player and already one of the 15-20 best players in the league, but his combination of body and athleticism is only suited for one role.

My guess is as you watch this team ascend over the next few seasons, the Sixers will look far and wide for more long, athletic wings who can shoot the ball to play around their core pieces. While the Sixers will press to sign guys like LeBron James or Paul George next summer, their search for more Covington-esque players to put around their core four will be essential.

At this juncture, I would assume they're highly likely. There are two reasons for that belief: the Sixers still don't know what they're going to get from Fultz, and I don't know that Bayless has played well enough for any contending team to have interest in him at the deadline.

I'm a lot less bothered by Bayless than most, and I think some of his issues this year come down to being overextended. He's had to step in and run the offense more than they'd like him to, which you'd assume will stop once Fultz is back in the rotation. Bayless as a spot-up shooter is a lot more palatable, and would definitely bring some value to a playoff squad off the bench.

But do any of those teams want to pay Bayless $8.5 million next season? That's the more important question, and it's one that looms large for Philadelphia's path forward. Bayless has a decent enough reputation around the league, but good teams are increasingly reluctant to allocate money on veteran role players unless they have a dynamic skill or two. Every team wants to believe they're only a move or two away from reeling in a big fish in free agency and to do that, you have to avoid stacking up cap hits in the Bayless mold.

On the other side of things, the Sixers will not take back long-term money in a Bayless trade before this summer, unless it is part of a larger package to bring a superstar to Philly. That's an exceedingly unlikely scenario from where we currently sit, and so my belief is he will be here until at least this offseason. 

Another thing to keep in mind: there is a decent chance the Sixers will have to attach compensation to move Bayless this summer if they do seal the deal on a big free agent. Bryan Colangelo will have to hope the third year he dished out in his initial free agency spending spree won't hurt him.

There are a couple things to unpack here. First is the idea that the Sixers don't already have a good defense; they currently sit at No. 13 in defensive efficiency, which may not be elite but is fairly decent for a team dealing with a tough opening schedule, a brand new rotation, and heavy rookie contribution.

By that same token, we should contextualize the contributions of the good defenders named in that question. I think Embiid and Covington are unimpeachable as elite defenders, the former basically representing an elite defense by himself. But I am less confident in the ability of Simmons and McConnell to make those sort of impactful contributions. 

Simmons is a much better defender than he has any right to be at this stage, but he's still prone to a lot of off-ball lapses and has a propensity for gambling a bit too much in passing lanes. I firmly believe he should be empowered to do that because he's a menace in the open floor and can turn a turnover into a bucket before you can blink. But just like Covington before him, Simmons has to learn to pick his spots better, and savvy vets around the league will exploit those defensive holes.

McConnell may be one of my favorite players to watch on defense in the league, but his limitation is a positional one. It's very difficult to make a real defensive impact as a point guard who can only realistically guard the smallest guy on the floor, and that's McConnell's niche. He is a great individual defender, but the positional value is much lower than that of a top defensive wing, and especially a top defensive center.

The dirty secret about this Sixers team is they have a lot of sketchy defenders in the rotation. I don't think they play anyone who lacks effort or scheme buy-in, but they all have issues. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot takes lots of silly fouls, Holmes has a propensity to overextend himself, and vets like Bayless and Redick have toolkits that offer little defensive versatility. The NBA is a switch-heavy league now, and teams with the league's best perimeter players will force you to continually switch until they get the individual matchups they want on the perimeter. Redick can try as hard as he wants if he's put on an island with LeBron James, he doesn't have a chance in the world.

For their defense to be consistently good, the Sixers either need to add more plus-defenders to the rotation or for Embiid to play more minutes. Thanks to the Trevor Booker addition and Embiid's growing presence, they've done both recently. But it should continue to be a point of focus for the front office and the coaching staff.

This will probably sound a bit weird to people who stuck around for the lean years, but I don't really think the Sixers will spend much time thinking about 10-day guys this year. They have guys who are presumably part of their future — namely Furkan Korkmaz — who are already on the outside looking in at the rotation. Right or wrong, the team's developmental minutes are going almost exclusively to guys they know are their core guys, with everyone else just fighting to get involved at all.

Luwawu-Cabarrot is the best example here. He's a factor in the rotation, sure, but Brown is not shy about burying him on the bench if he struggles during the early part of a game. If a player the organization invested a first-round pick in last season is seeing his role change nightly, I just can't see them scouring for a 10-day guy who likely won't play. The logic of the Booker move tells you they'd be more likely to use the final roster spot on a veteran on an expiring contract than a developmental project.

I do understand the reflex here because there were a lot of talking heads who flamed the Sixers the rebuild. But at this stage, I think it's just fun to have the Sixers being talked about for basketball reasons again, no matter who the outlet is. We collectively spent years arguing over philosophical BS with people on both sides of the Process fence. That gets old eventually, and my interest (as you all can probably tell) is watching and writing about the games themselves.

There are a few people at ESPN or otherwise who probably need to eat some crow over some outrageous things they said about the franchise, the city, and the players during the lean years. But there were definite supporters in the mix, like Pablo Torre, who loudly and clearly presented (and supported!) the vision of the team as their colleagues tore the idea down. I think it's great to have the Sixers back in the national spotlight, and I hope they stay there.