Down by seven, down by one, down by 15. That's what the scoreboard showed when Markelle Fultz checked out for the first time in each of the Sixers' first three games. The usual disclaimers apply. It's early. If this were an NFL season, the Sixers would be early in the third quarter of their season opener. One can argue that Brett Brown is not anywhere close to having an actionable sample size on which to base significant decisions.
But that doesn't mean the rest of us can't take a moment to look at where things stand. And, at the moment, those things are standing rather tenuously. The Sixers have been a much better team with Fultz off the court than they have with him on it this season. That holds true regardless of the lens that you use.
To the naked eye, the offense looks less dynamic, less rhythmic, and a whole lot less technically skilled when Fultz is out there. On the stat sheet, the Sixers are scoring 20 percent more points with Fultz off the court, and they are allowing 5 percent fewer. Their effective field-goal percentage is a whopping 76 points higher when he is on the sideline. They have far fewer assists, and far fewer offensive rebounds.
On/off statistics can be misleading, given the interdependent nature of the five players on the court. A player who spends a plurality of his minutes paired with Joel Embiid is probably going to have better defensive splits than a player paired with Amir Johnson. The Sixers allow 30 percent more points when Johnson is on the court versus when he is off it, but how much of that is because of Johnson's performance itself, and how much of that is because of the performance of Embiid?
One thing we can do is look at the performances of the lineups that Fultz has been a part of and then subtract Fultz from the equation and evaluate how the remaining four players did when grouped with somebody besides Fultz. For instance, consider the starting unit of Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and Fultz. That group has been on the court together for roughly 17 minutes this season. In those 17 minutes, they've been outscored by 49-34. Over 48 minutes, that equates to 96.6 points scored, and 139.2 points allowed.
The foursome of Embiid-Simmons-Saric-Covington has also spent roughly 16 minutes on the court with a fifth player other than Fultz. During those minutes, that group has outscored opponents, 42-33. Over 48 minutes, that equates to 130.0 points scored, and 102.2 points allowed. In other words, those four starters are scoring an average of 33.4 more points per 48 minutes when joined by someone other than Fultz, and they are allowing 37 fewer.
Fultz has spent the vast majority of his minutes playing with that starting unit. But let's look at how another one of his groupings has performed: Fultz with Embiid, Simmons, JJ Redick, and Covington.
The four have played good defense with Fultz on the court, but the point production is well down. Granted, that's a small enough sample size as to be virtually irrelevant. In fact, within the context of an NBA season, both of those data sets are rather meager. But, as the saying goes, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
At the same time, one underreported aspect of Brown's utilization of Fultz in the early going is that the Sixers don't have much in the way of alternate options. With Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala working their way back from injuries, Brown was going to have to lean heavily on his available depth, regardless of his desire to get Fultz minutes, and regardless of whether the enigmatic second-year guard's current skill set is at a place where it can make a viable contribution to a championship-caliber roster.
The early part of the NBA season is very much a process of discovery. Brown has said he will not hesitate to replace Fultz in the starting lineup if the situation becomes untenable. He has also cautioned that the Sixers could need to endure some "pain" along the way. That pain has been evident in the early going, as has the Sixers' ability to overcome it.