Jimmy Butler trade to Sixers puts an even brighter spotlight on Markelle Fultz dilemma
What is Fultz's realistic place on a title-contending team?
Well, it happened. As first reported by Shams Charania and John Krawczynski of The Athletic, Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers, who also get Justin Patton in the deal while sending Dario Saric, Robert Covington and a future second-round pick back to Minnesota. In the coming days, there are going to be a lot of questions being asked. Who won the deal? What does this deal mean for the Wolves' future? Does this make the Sixers a title contender?
To me, you can't even start to answer that last question until you face the reality of a different one. Where does Markelle Fultz fit in to all this? It's fair to say the Sixers are officially in the title business. Whether you think this makes them a legit contender is up to you, but you can bet they see themselves that way. There are reports that this deal was done with the intention of the Sixers and Butler coming to a long-term agreement, but that's speculation at this point. All the Sixers know for sure right now is they have Butler for the rest of this season, and they have to make the most of it.
The development of Fultz has been a priority from the start this season. The Sixers moved him into the starting lineup, busting up the best starting five in the league last season by sending JJ Redick to the bench, all in the name of long-term development. There is no question it has screwed with their team in the short term. One league scout told me Fultz is killing the Sixers as they try to force him to succeed. Perhaps you could argue this was the smart play in the long run, because the Sixers needed a third star next to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to be a real threat, and if you really wanted to trick yourself, you could make the case that Fultz still had, or has, the potential to be that.
But now they have a third star. They're ready to win for real. Suddenly the presence of Fultz, as he's looked so far, appears to be the lone roadblock in an otherwise pretty clear path into the Eastern Conference elite -- along with Toronto, Boston and Milwaukee (man, are the East playoffs going to be a ride, or what?). Fultz has made big strides, to be fair. But he was starting from rock bottom, so let's keep it in perspective. Getting to a place where A No. 1 overall pick can make 31 percent of the 12-to-15-foot jump shots that are being absolutely conceded to him is not grounds for contributing on a title-contending team. What it is, if we're being honest, is grounds for holding one back.
When Fultz has had moderate success this year -- and again, we're talking in relative terms -- it's been with the ball in his hands. Off the ball, he makes Tony Allen look like Ray Allen. Fultz is shooting 18 percent on catch-and-shoots this season, per Synergy Sports. Defenses sag so far off him that the paint is completely packed for Embiid and Simmons -- who, as we know, is a non-shooter in his own right. Per Synergy, Simmons has taken 13 jump shots inside 17 feet this season. He's missed 12 of them.
In today's game, you cannot have two complete non-shooting threats on the floor at the same time. It's hard enough to get by with one player like that. Two would be a death sentence come playoff time, when teams buckle down on their scouting and expose your weaknesses to a merciless end. The Celtics straight up schemed Simmons all the way to the bench in the second round last season. Literally, the guy was losing crunch-time playoff minutes to T.J. McConnell.
So you can't play Fultz and Simmons together. Simmons has not made any kind of a jump this season, and perhaps has regressed some, but he is a capable star with the ball in his hands. Fultz, on the other hand, needs the ball and control of the offense to even be playable. The obvious move is to send Fultz back to the bench, and bring Redick back into the starting lineup. Problem is, the Sixers just lost two starters in Saric and Covington. Even if you bring Redick back, you still need a fifth guy.
To me, Wilson Chandler is the answer. He's a size defender who can stretch the floor -- the closest thing the Sixers have to the role Ersan Ilyasova filled last season. With Butler, Redick and Chandler, that puts three 3-point shooters -- four if you count Embiid -- around Simmons, who is at his best with shooting around him to create the floor spacing he can't create for himself. You play up-tempo and kill teams with shooting, defense and Simmons in transition. It is a scary thought.
Then you bring Landry Shamet off the bench for instant shooting in the Marco Belinelli mold. If you can find minutes for Fultz when Simmons is off the floor, and he continues to improve to a point where he's able to command at least some respect on the offensive end, that's a bonus come playoff time. He can help defensively. He can make plays for others, but needs to ball to do so. This isn't to suggest they need to relegate him to the end of the bench.
But from here on out, Fultz's development can't be a priority. He's officially going to have to sink or swim. Because the Sixers are for real now. They can play with anyone. They have every right to believe they can win the Eastern Conference and play for an NBA title. That's bigger than any one player. Always has been, always will be.
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