This felt like an inflection point, one of those moments that, with the appropriate amount of hindsight, will prove to be the mile that marked the beginning of a sea change: four minutes left in the third quarter, the Sixers finally playing their best basketball, the starters ready for a blow. The rotation said it was time for Markelle Fultz, but it was T.J. McConnell who instead checked in.
Later, the box score would say that it was only eight minutes, and a rather ordinary eight at that. The Sixers were up by five when McConnell assumed Fultz's usual role as Ben Simmons' back-up, and they were up by 10 when he returned to the bench. Brett Brown wouldn't be the first head coach to make a decision like this and then snap right back into his usual routine. Individual games are full of extenuating circumstances that dictate change for change's sake.
The ebb and flow of a basketball season is full of subtle currents. From a distance, it can be difficult to know if the tide is coming or going until it has already come or gone. But with your feet in the sand and eyes level to the horizon, you can sometimes detect it in real time. In that sense, a season unfolds like a romance, its major plot points often foretold by the moments before the moments, the subtle deviations in the baseline, the pregnant silences and unexpected hesitations, distant trembles that begin to animate one's needle with a near imperceptible quiver.
If there was any doubt about it at the time, it was gone by the time noon struck on Tuesday. Barely 12 hours after Markelle Fultz watched T.J. McConnell replace him as the Sixers' primary back-up point guard in the second half of a 119-114 win over the Suns, news broke that the mercurial second-year guard would be out of commission for the forseeable future as he seeks another consultation with a shoulder specialist at the advisement of Raymond Brothers, his agent.
With that, one of the most bizarre sagas in the bizarre history of our belovedly bizarre sports city took another turn toward the Kafkaesque. At no point on Monday night was there any indication that Fultz was hurting, or that the shoulder was a factor in his absence from the second half. After the game, Fultz said that, as a competitor, he wanted to be out there on the court but, as a teammate, he accepted the coach's decision and was pleased to see his replacement play well in his stead. Brown said he was looking for an injection of energy when he summoned McConnell from the bench, but it is notable that he was presented with several opportunities to downplay the significance of this turn of events. Each time, he demurred.
"I don't know," Brown said when asked if he will continue to utilize McConnell as his back-up point guard.
What would be the determining factor?
"Just when I think it through deeper and look at tape and see who we are playing, the next opponent, all those things that I should do," he said.
Of course, the decision-making process is never that simple when the decision involves Fultz. Dating back to Fultz's first trip to the injury report, in October of last year, the Sixers have never sounded convinced that the source of his shooting and confidence woes are physical in nature. Or, at least, they have not sounded convinced that there is an acute problem for which there is a concrete, achievable solution.
Last season, after shutting him down, they sent him to a specialist who diagnosed him with a scapular imbalance. Fultz has always insisted that his troubles originated with an injury in his shoulder. By the end of last season and a 13-game cameo that offered some reason for hope, the former No. 1 overall pick seemed to at least tacitly agree with the narrative that an injury led to a breakdown in his shooting form and, perhaps, his confidence to execute it. After a summer spent training with renowned shooting specialist Drew Hanlen, Fultz talked as if the struggles of his rookie year were dead and buried. He vehemently disagreed with Hanlen's contention, expressed in a podcast, that Fultz had been plagued by a case of the "yips." But he also disputed whispers from the Twitterverse that, even now, his shoulder was not completely healthy.
Whatever the case, we are back where we have always seemed destined to end up, with McConnell back in the rotation, and Fultz still mired in the fog that settled in shortly after the Sixers traded up to draft him.
Between Monday night and Tuesday afternoon, after Fultz's benching but before the latest news about his shoulder, there was plenty of reason to think that we were on the verge of a plot twist.
Brown is someone who has always stressed the importance of the long view with regard to his utilization of Fultz. It formed a significant component of the argument he advanced for opening the season with the former No. 1 overall pick in his starting lineup, a decision derived from the premise that the Sixers' clearest path to championship contention featured Fultz growing into the sort of player the organization envisioned when it called his name on draft night. Brown never pretended that there would not be some pain. In fact, he said so explicitly, multiple times. Fultz might not make the Sixers the best versions of themselves in the present, but his presence was required if they hoped to reach that threshold in the future.
>> FROM OCTOBER: Will things ever start looking up for Markelle Fultz?
One month into the season, one's evaluation of Fultz's development depends in large part on the eye of the beholder. At the very least, he has shown that he can take the court without saddling his teammates with glaring liability. The Sixers have shown that they can win games with him averaging 20-plus minutes per night. They have won 10 of their last 14 games. They have outscored their opponents by more than 15 points with Fultz on the court during that stretch. Their two most impressive victories, against the Clippers and the Pacers, have come on nights in which their point differential with Fultz was twice what it was with him on the bench.
On the flip side, one can argue that Fultz's biggest attribute thus far has been his ability to stay out of the way. That's not as backhanded of a compliment as it might sound. His athletic gifts are obvious, and they manifested themselves in a tangible — at times highlight-worthy — benefit at least once or twice on both nights. His length alone brings an element to the Sixers' team defense that McConnell cannot hope to provide. His ability to cover ground with the ball in his hand is impossible to ignore in transition. But there remains a passive, deferential element to his game that is impossible to ignore for a team that needs to get to a point where it is dictating the action for 48 minutes. We have yet to see a player who is comfortable consistently attacking the rim and using his ball-handling ability to break defenses down by getting into the paint. His assist percentage — an estimate of the number of buckets that he assisted on while on the court, as calculated by Basketball-Reference.com — is closer to Amir Johnson's than McConnell's, and it is roughly a third lower than Simmons'. Every trip to the foul line seems to be a study in desperation, a living snapshot of a player attempting to tunnel his way out of his own head. In the NBA this season, there is only one player who has logged as many minutes as Fultz has who has a lower True Shooting Percentage.
Fultz certainly wasn't the problem during his first half shift on Monday night. At least, not directly. The most conspicuous performance belonged to Furkan Korkmaz, who had a stretch where he turned the ball over twice on the offensive end and, on an interceding defensive possession, offered so little resistance to Trevor Ariza take that he might have been justified in billing the standard Highway Patrol rate for a police escort. When all was said and done, the Sixers had outscored the Suns 13-11 during Fultz's seven minutes on the court.
At the same time, this was the sort of situation where you would hope that Fultz would be able to do more than get along. He was matched up against Isaiah Cannan, once a Processor, now the back-up point guard on one of the worst teams in the league. On the nights where the starters spend the first quarter muddling through, a head coach needs to feel like he can turn to his bench for a spark, instead of just a careful maintenance of the status quo.
It was this sort of spark that Brown was seeking when he turned to McConnell in the third quarter. Energy was the word that he used, and it was energy that McConnell provided, starting with a remarkable standing ovation from the home crowd when he checked into the game.
It might have been just been a one-night thing. There is still plenty of potential lurking in Fultz, and plenty of incentive the Sixers to give him every opportunity to break out of this curious shell that has imprisoned him since the start of his rookie season.
"It is a piece," Brown said of the consideration he will pay toward Fultz's long-term development. "How big of a piece, I don't know. I hear your question. The responsibility to grow him, the responsibility to coach a team to win, it's all on the table, and it's part of what I weigh out, and will make a decision on what that looks like. But it certainly is a part of it."
At some point, though, a team needs to figure out who it realistically can be, and it needs to spend an ample amount of time refining that version of itself before the games really begin to matter. In many ways, the tightrope strong between present and future is one that Brown has been walking all season. Where the next step leads is the question of the moment.