By plane, it takes a couple of hours to get from Philly to Orlando. By car, you can make it in 15 to 20. (Note: All five hours of that spread are in the hands of the geniuses who designed our nation’s capital.)
From that distance, it’s easy to look at the headlines and assume that Markelle Fultz is winding up to deliver one last kick to the nether regions of the Sixers organization.
On Wednesday night, the can’t-miss prospect whose arrival in Philadelphia prompted the fans to erupt in spasms of premature jubilation scored 21 points with 11 rebounds and 10 assists while leading the Magic to an upset win over the Lakers.
If your brain is endowed with the pattern-recognition capabilities of a typical human, you probably do not need me to tell you that all three of those numbers in his stat line are composed of more than one digit, which in NBA circles is referred to as a triple-double, and is regarded by experts as a Big Thing.
The performance is being hailed as the culmination of a rebirth for Fultz. Over his last three games, the former No. 1 overall pick is averaging 17.3 points, seven rebounds, and six assists for the Magic, who are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and closer in the standings to the Sixers (5½ games) than the Sixers are to the first-place Bucks (10 games).
Viewed from a certain distance — specifically, 993 miles as the car drives — all of this would seem to be setting the stage for a special kind of Philadelphia story that fans of the local basketball team know all too well.
It was less than a year ago that the Sixers cut ties with Fultz, shipping him to Orlando for a collection of spare parts that included Jonathon Simmons, a 2019 second-round pick, and what will likely end up being two future second-round picks (in 2022 and 2023, from Oklahoma City). The deal required the Sixers to take a huge loss on the investment they had made two years earlier, when they used the No. 3 pick in the 2017 draft and what ended up being the No. 14 pick in the 2019 draft to move up and draft Fultz.
They still have a chance at getting a late first-round pick instead of two seconds if the Thunder finish the regular season with one of the NBA’s top 10 records (the Magic sent the Sixers a top 20 pick from OKC that converts to two seconds). But that still would not constitute anything close to an equal exchange.
A lot of the Sixers’ current problems might have been solved had they simply stayed at No. 3, where they would have been in a position to draft De’Aaron Fox, the No. 5 pick by the Kings who has emerged as one of the league’s up-and-coming stars. And those problems certainly would have been solved had Fultz turned out to be the player for them that he was projected to be, a playmaking point guard who was equally adept at knocking down threes.
Thus, it would be hilarious in a bad sort of way if Fultz ended up becoming that player for somebody else, while the Sixers watch their once-robust championship hopes wither away with the absence of the critical piece he was supposed to be.
Now, for the good news: Despite the recent headlines, Fultz has yet to develop into that player for Orlando, and there haven’t been a ton of signs that he will ever do so.
At the very least, the Sixers can take comfort in knowing that they would not be in better shape had they kept Fultz instead of trading him. While you can certainly wonder whether Sixers general manager Elton Brand maximized his return on Fultz at last year’s trade deadline, you will be hard-pressed to make a compelling argument that they should not have traded him.
A few key points:
(1) The hypothetical world in which the Sixers retained Fultz and are a more capable team for having done so is a world that requires them to be better off with Fultz than with Josh Richardson, assuming all other things remained equal. We’ll delve into those other things in a little bit. For now, though, the point is that the decision to trade Fultz was as much about money as it was about anything else.
Had the Sixers kept him, Fultz’s $9.8 million salary for 2019-20 would have been on the books heading into the summer. In that case, the acquisition of Richardson in the Jimmy Butler trade would have left them with around $18 million to spend on the roster spot that ended up going to Al Horford. So if we assume that the Sixers were set on signing Horford, and that he would not have signed for $10 million less annually than he ended up getting, then they would not have had the payroll flexibility to acquire Richardson had they kept Fultz.
(2) There’s an argument to be made that they would have been better off with Fultz, Richardson, and a player other than Horford. And given what we’ve seen from Horford, that argument is impossible to dismiss. Had the Sixers kept Fultz, and acquired Richardson, they could have matched the two-year, $26.5 million contract that JJ Redick signed with the Pelicans, but not do much else. That would have given them the following rotation:
Starters: Simmons, Redick, Richardson, Harris, Embiid
Bench: Fultz, Thybulle, Scott, Ennis, Pelle/O’Quinn
Or, the Sixers could have tried to sign someone with a starting salary in the range of $16 million to $18 million, someone such as Bogdan Bogdanovic or, possibly, Malcolm Brogdon.
Again, though, this is revisionist history, because the Sixers had already decided that they would be better off with Horford than either of those two players, and the presence of Fultz probably would not have had an effect on that judgment (except to make it even less likely that they’d consider Brogdon). Besides, whether or not you agree with the rationale that brought Horford to Philly, the logic underlying it remains sound, because the insurance that he provides in the event of an Embiid injury was a piece of it.
(3) However you feel about the Sixers’ decision-making on the free-agent market, the biggest argument against hanging on to Fultz is that he still is not a player who would have solved the Sixers’ spacing problems. While he has shown more of a willingness to shoot this season, he has not shown a better ability to make. While he has attempted 68 threes so far this season, he has made just 18, for a 26.5% success rate that would not accomplish much when paired with Simmons. Which means he would essentially be a backup point guard on this team. That, with an effective salary north of $11 million, given that the Sixers would be paying the luxury tax.
Long story short, there’s definitely a hypothetical world in which the Sixers are better off having kept Fultz. But that hypothetical world would have been contingent on their making decisions that we’ve gotten no indication that they would have thought it prudent to make (namely, not signing Horford). While the Fultz we’ve seen in Orlando might have brought some value as a playmaking point guard off the bench, his primary worth would have come as a big salary that the Sixers could use to help them acquire a more expensive piece at the trade deadline.