The 76ers organization, no stranger to odd positions, finds itself in another these days. The Sixers are hanging around waiting for a fresh spin from the public-relations machinery of the Markelle Fultz Image Conservancy while occasionally having to attend to the small matter of playing the NBA schedule.
Another game popped out on Wednesday night, this one against the New York Knicks, and even though the Knicks are pretty awful, that didn't mean much considering the Sixers' recent struggles to gain defensive traction following the trade for Jimmy Butler.
As the team has been lit up by a succession of opposing perimeter players, the question was whether the Knicks could follow suit with Tim Hardaway Jr. making it a tough game, or perhaps Emmanuel Mudiay or even Damyean Dotson. When Spencer Dinwiddie tosses down 31 against you, as was the case Sunday in Brooklyn, anything is possible.
Fortunately for the Sixers, although their defense didn't necessarily improve, the opponent failed to arrive. The Knicks were playing their third road game in four nights and were on the second of a back-to-back after losing Tuesday in Detroit. They showed up short-armed and dead-legged. New York got a lot of the same open shots the Sixers have been allowing recently but didn't make them.
In the first half, the Knicks shot 35 percent from the field, making just 2 of 18 three-point attempts as the Sixers built a 20-point halftime lead. Winning makes everything look better, so even playing under screens and sagging on pick-and-roll defense is acceptable occasionally. It's not a long-term plan, but it can work now and then.
The long-term plan with Fultz is similarly up in the air. He went through a battery of examinations by orthopedic specialists in New York this week at the behest of his personal advisers, which seems to consist largely of his mother, Ebony Fultz, and his agent, Raymond Brothers. The need for further testing was ordered by Team Fultz one day after the former No. 1 pick was removed from the rotation for the second half of a game, and one week after the Butler acquisition bumped Fultz from the starting lineup.
It seems unlikely the timing was coincidental, and that his supposed shoulder issues only became cause for action when he wasn't getting minutes, but in the absence of anyone telling the truth, the vacuum is filled by believing what one wants to believe.
"I hope he gets healthy," guard JJ Redick said, asked about the Fultz situation. You can take that as you like, too. Did he mean physically healthy – which the team has insisted that Fultz is – or mentally healthy, which is the bonfire everyone dances around?
Feeling sorry for the kid is hard to avoid. He appears to be marooned between his personal and his professional families, unable to be helped by either one. An obvious narrative is that the personal advisers are unwilling to admit the problems with his shooting are anything but physical, perhaps because there is a stigma to the alternative. That would be defensible if Fultz hadn't already been poked and prodded by a long line of shoulder experts, all of whom have cleared him to play basketball since he recovered from what was termed a "scapular imbalance" more than a year ago.
The latest twist in the Fultz saga comes at a time when the team's front office is structurally incapable of handling it. Elton Brand has been a general manager in the league for less than three months, and lacks the experience or weight to navigate these strange waters. Above him, he's got an overactive ownership group, beneath him a head coach with problems of his own, and little recourse but to take orders from an agent and pretend he's fine with that. Say what you will about Bryan Colangelo, if he were still around, the team wouldn't have come off as weakly as it did.
None of this would be as problematic if the Sixers hadn't placed themselves on a precipice this season that demands them to win a lot, and right away. The front office needs to figure out what is required for a serious playoff run and put itself in position to be active for the rest of the trading period and in the bazaar that is the waiver and buyout market. As currently constructed, the Sixers are a good team, but a couple of rotation players away from being great. If they want to make a splash in the postseason – and make it more likely Butler that sticks around to sign his next contract – Brand has to act decisively.
But how does he do that without knowing if Fultz can play or, failing that, be useful as a trade asset? That's the rub, leaving aside the potential sideshow distraction of the whole mess. It is tempting to suggest that the Sixers should just cut bait, but they are on the hook to Fultz for $9.75 million next season and that is cap space they could use to keep moving forward.
It's possible that Fultz will be given another clean bill of health, but since that's not what the folks hiring the doctors are looking for, it would be a surprise. So, the cycle of medical procedure (if any), rehabilitation and slow return will probably be repeated while the clock ticks on the team.
Everything considered, this is a strange scenario, even for a team that has been built on strangeness. Markelle Fultz, formerly a big piece of the puzzle, is struggling to become a professional, and part of the reason is that, looking at his advisers and his employers, he is surrounded only by amateurs.