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February 22, 2018

Sixers mailbag: Would a Markelle Fultz return help or hurt Sixers this season?

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The All-Star break is great for a lot of reasons, primarily the ability to rest and recharge heading into the season's final stretch. But a full week without any real basketball feels like forever midseason, and it leaves us all with a lot less to talk about with the trade deadline happening earlier in February now.

Thankfully, the Sixers have dozens upon dozens of storylines to track over the last two months of the season. They have a veteran shooter to embed in the rotation, a young big man whose health still needs to be properly managed, a rookie who will be asked to maintain a high standard of play deep into his first season, and a player mostly working in secret to return to the court.

The Sixers have every right to believe they will be in the playoffs later this spring, and even a reasonable path to home-court advantage in round one. Things have changed dramatically since even one year ago, and once the Sixers tip off in Chicago on Thursday night we'll be back up and running.

For now, we have a mailbag, and lots of your questions to sift through leading out of the break. Let's get to it.

The Sixers have six back-to-backs between now and the end of the season, including one to close the regular season in mid-April. For a team built around a player just starting to play in those situations, the schedule is no small matter, even if the Sixers have an easy set of teams to play against.

As luck would have it, I was interested in this very topic myself, and I talked to Brett Brown about it at Wednesday's practice. From what the head coach told me, the Sixers will continue to focus more on following their health plan for Embiid healthy, and they won't overextend their young center to chase home court.

"Everything is still — and it should be — delivering him to a playoff round," said Brown. "It's not cramming for the exam and doing whatever we can do to get home court. And so I feel like the line, the path that we're all on, is both professional and responsible, and it's that more than trying to cram for an exam."

This is an easy decision. I wouldn't go so far as to say homecourt is meaningless, but it's far from essential in a seven-game series. What is critical for the Sixers is making sure they have better top-end players than whoever they go up against, and that comes down to making sure everyone is healthy.

The clear answer here is Robert Covington, because he is going to be in pretty much every permutation of Philadelphia's closing lineup. How he plays in a playoff series could swing it either way, depending on which offensive player shows up.

If the Sixers get the Covington who showed up at the beginning of the season, they are a completely different team. Covington was one of the league's best shooters over the opening two months of the season and was a big reason they were able to jump out to big leads against basically every team they played.

When the Sixers get out in transition, teams hunt JJ Redick in an effort to run him off the three-point line. But when Covington is in a groove, opponents have to track another guy while sprinting back toward their own rim, which adds an extra layer of stress in an already tough situation.

Dario Saric's improvement as a shooter has helped offset Covington's regression over the last couple months, and that has been a great development for Saric and the Sixers as a whole. But they need all the shooting they can get with Ben Simmons on the floor, and there's no better place to get it from than the guy who inked an extension earlier this fall.

From a long-term perspective, the Sixers treasure any reps they can get for Fultz alongside Simmons and Embiid. Whether they're in practice or in the thick of a real NBA game, those assumed core pieces need to learn to live and thrive together in every situation.

But that also assumes that Fultz is the Markelle Fultz we saw at the University of Washington, or even the guy we saw at Utah Summer League last July. A bastardized version of Fultz, unsure of or unable to shoot that once-beautiful jumper, is not of a ton of use to this Sixers team, and not really going to get a true feel of what his role would be once he's completely up to speed.

There have been a lot of armchair analysts suggesting the Sixers just throw him out on the court, assuming a lightbulb will just go off at some point. This seems to ignore a bunch of critical information we have, namely that he has not really stopped playing basketball at any point during this saga. If just throwing an endless amount of work and scrutiny at the problem was the way forward, he probably would have broken through by now.

Fultz is also not Simmons, who can get away with his lack of a jumper for several reasons. Simmons is 6'10" and a better athlete relative to his size, but he's also accustomed to having no access to a reliable jump shot. His entire game has been built around the fact that he and his opponent know he can't and won't shoot beyond 15 feet, and that mental realization has fueled the work he put in to impact the game without it.

The journey for Fultz is much different. His jumper is a big part of why he's here and was the weapon that propelled so much of his success. Teams had to close hard at him and fear his ability to rise up from anywhere on the court, which he could turn against them with pump fakes, head bobs, and all sorts of other tricks. Now that the book is out on him, he has to re-earn that level of respect from defenses, who will sag into the paint and dare the 6'4" guard to challenge their big men at the summit.

A team with playoff aspirations would struggle to implement a completely normal rookie in the season's final stanza. Frankly, it seems damn near impossible to work someone in Fultz's predicament into Philadelphia's rotation, unless you're prepared to take a major step back over the last couple months. There's no indication the Sixers are.

In fairness, Fultz would also give them more ballhandling and pick-and-roll prowess, skills they desperately need on the perimeter right now. Does that outweigh the challenge of having him learn a new style of attacking defenses? I don't think so.

I'm going to operate on the assumption the Sixers end up with a seed in the 6-8 range, because I think they're still young enough to finish the season on an uneven note. Moving up to four or five is possible and even reasonable, but I wouldn't bet my life on it.

So let's assume the Sixers are matched up with one of the teams from the Toronto-Boston-Cleveland trifecta. Here's how I would rank them from best to worst matchup:

  1. Toronto — The Raptors' primary strengths are their continuity and their depth, which serves to make them look better than they probably are in the regular season. Other teams are working to establish a rhythm, whereas the Raptors are just building on what they've done over the years. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have traditionally come up small in playoff settings, and with shorter rotations in the playoffs, Philadelphia's lacking depth will hurt them less than it does right now. Embiid is good enough to tilt this series in their favor.
  2. Boston — A lot of the same depth logic applies here, but I'm a bigger believer in Boston's top-end talent — really, just Kyrie Irving — in a playoff setting than I am in Toronto's. The Celtics have slowly come apart a bit after a blistering start to the season, and their regression has directly coincided with rookie Jayson Tatum regressing to the mean as a shooter. This would be a defensive slugfest, and in that setting I think the Sixers can slow the game down and play through Embiid early and often.
  3. Cleveland — This would be the one team I would not want to play if I were the Sixers, even though they're currently the worst team by record out of the group. They still have LeBron James on their team, and the shake-up Cleveland went through at the deadline seemed to breathe new life into a team that was headed nowhere fast. With shooters and athletes around him and guys like J.R. Smith even playing some defense, I wouldn't be super interested in going toe-to-toe with LeBron in an early round.
You could convince me of preferring to play either of Toronto or Boston. I think even with a totally revamped team you'd have to be crazy to prefer playing a team led by a guy who has gone to seven straight NBA Finals unless it's a misguided exercise in ego fulfillment, in which case knock yourself out.

Then again, that would make for a heck of a free agent pitch...

I'm not going to go into the 20 range just yet because transparently I just haven't been able to watch enough college hoops to be informed on that level yet. There are plenty of games waiting in the ol' DVR once this Sixers season slows down.

At 10 though, there's an obvious name on the board: Villanova swingman Mikal Bridges. His development over the last two seasons has completely transformed how talent evaluators view him, and the local kid should absolutely get a look wherever the Sixers end up selecting.

Bridges' progression as a shooter has been remarkable from his freshman year until now, rising from 29.9 percent two seasons ago to 41.1 percent from three on a high volume of attempts (5.6 per game) this season. Just as important as the percentage increase are the shot types from Bridges. He is taking and making contested threes while coming off screens, something that would be essential to his game at the next level. It would be a particularly useful skill for a Sixers wing, as they can use all the help they can get on catch-and-shoot opportunities.

Assuming Fultz ends up working out — and that's a big assumption — Philadelphia's biggest need is athleticism and shooting on the wing. Bridges has always had the physical tools and defensive profile to stick in the NBA, and scouts viewed him as a future contributor even before the jumper improved. Bridges has been a consistently good free-throw shooter from day one, which tends to be a positive sign in terms of translating one's shot to the next level.

Bridges' main weakness will be creating for himself at the next level, a problem which would be mitigated playing with the personnel already in Philadelphia. With Embiid posting up and Simmons/Fultz assuming ballhandling duties, the Sixers need guys who can finish possessions either as a cutter or a shooter. Bridges has shown he can do both, and his compete level and tools will make him an asset to any modern defense.

This is an instance where team fit and talent level intersect quite nicely, which would make the pick that much better. There are other good options out there, particularly if the Sixers end up with a pick higher up the lottery via the Lakers, but keep an eye on the local kid.

If we're assuming players are on an equal playing field and thus the "best player available" mindset can be thrown out, I would be targeting wing help first and foremost. The Sixers are still in a position where they have to believe in Fultz, and investing another high pick in a guard wouldn't make much sense at this juncture.

I think searching for a real, long-term answer behind Embiid — who will probably always have an extreme level of health management — is certainly intriguing, particularly if they end up with a higher pick in this year's draft. It's not a path I think the Sixers are interested in exploring, but there will be some talented big men, like Duke's Wendell Carter, who are likely to be available when they select with the L.A. pick this June.

But I think there's an easy way to think about this: the Sixers are not necessarily interested in building the team with the best chance to win 82 regular season games, but a team that can maximize their wins when they have their full complement of players. If Embiid ends up being a 60-65 game player over the course of his career, that's more than enough for the Sixers to make the playoffs. With a less than optimal team around him and their No. 1 overall pick playing just four games, the Sixers have basically played at a 50-win pace with Embiid on the floor this season.

If you feel confident you can play with anybody once you're in a playoff format, and that you can get there even with Embiid not playing the full 82, you have to draft a guy who can be part of your closing five, and not someone who is simply going to play mop-up duty for Embiid. I think the Sixers have that confidence, and that they would not hesitate to seek wing help wherever they can get it.

This is obviously a different calculation if there's a significant talent gap between the options left on the board. If the Sixers were sitting at 10 and Mo Bamba somehow slid down the board, I would personally not hesitate to take him. Otherwise, the Sixers should be looking for players with high upside who can compliment the pillars already in place.