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The End of the Affair: Markelle Fultz and the Sixers Are Probably Breaking Up

He was supposed to be the missing piece. The Sixers went all in to get him. But a little more than a year into his pro career, Markelle Fultz’s injury situation remains a mystery. And with the relationship on the rocks, it looks like the Sixers might be looking to end it while they can.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Relationships are complicated, and ending them isn’t easy—not even when both sides (to say nothing of mutual friends, families, and random observers) know it’s probably for the best. There’s a reason bad breakups make good fodder for song lyrics.

Much to the Sixers’ surprise and chagrin, Markelle Fultz and his agent/lawyer, Raymond Brothers, decided last Tuesday that Fultz should see other people—in this case several specialists in New York. I was told he’s expected to undergo further testing over the next few days, and the team isn’t expected to issue an update until later this week. Making matters even messier, The Athletic reported that Fultz would “prefer a fresh start” with a new team. Given how badly things have gone for Fultz in Philly, that’s an understandable position—which is why it was weird that Brothers sort of undermined it by telling Woj that he has “given no indication to [Sixers general manager] Elton Brand or anyone else that Markelle would prefer to be traded.”

Brothers and Fultz are operating in a gray area here and doing a bad job of it. It’s like Fultz is trying to ghost the organization while simultaneously staying around the team for practices just in case everyone has a change of heart. He might as well pass Brand a sheet of paper asking him to check one of the “yes/no/maybe” boxes on whether the Sixers still like him.

Judging by recent events, they don’t. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Fultz is no longer in the Sixers’ long-term plans.” After asking around about that, my interpretation is that the Sixers are operating as though they won’t get much of anything out of Fultz beyond some semi-regular drama, and so they’d rather just play T.J. McConnell at backup point guard and be done with it. Put another way, they’ve reached the “fuck it” stage with Fultz.

They were probably already at that stage even before Monday’s string of unexpected medical evaluations. Roughly 12 hours before Brothers shut down Fultz—after the Sixers recently beat the Suns at home in a game where McConnell got the second-half minutes and Fultz just atrophied on the bench—Brown said that the backup point guard duties would be divvied up based on situations and matchups. At the time, Brown, Brand, and the Sixers had no idea Fultz was about to take his shoulder (and wrist) and go home. It’s just one more episode in a long timeline full of them. The Sixers have to be pretty tired of the Fultz saga by now. Just look at Brand’s body language and face when he addressed the media last week.

He looked like a man who was being held hostage. I kept waiting for him to blink out “send help” in Morse code. It’s gotten so bad that it’s not just NBA players who make fun of Fultz—now NFL players do too. Fultz might find that funny, but not many people in the organization are laughing these days. They’re too busy struggling to make sense of what went wrong and why it continues to do so.

The day that Brothers put Fultz on the shelf, I got two text messages from two different Sixers sources asking what I knew about Fultz possibly hurting himself in an ATV accident—a variation on a motorcycle-injury rumor that was already swatted down by Brothers (and, via a team source to PhillyVoice.com, the Sixers) earlier in November. While I was recently in Philly, a different team source said Fultz’s issues were “definitely the yips”—which was refuted not 15 minutes later by someone close to Fultz, who told me he’s hurt and suggested that his thumb was bothering him. (I was directed to the “It slipped” free throw hitch for proof of the thumb theory.)

Shoulder, wrist, thumb, head—everyone has an opinion about what’s wrong with Fultz, but no one seems to know the real truth. Maybe not even Fultz himself. The only thing that anyone knows for sure is that this is ugly and likely to get uglier.

If we learned anything from the Bryan Colangelo administration—beyond the dangers of social media—it’s that holding on too long to a player can wind up costing you. Jahlil Okafor is Exhibit A. The organization declined the former no. 3 draft pick’s option a year ago, but rather than admit defeat and buy him out, Colangelo kept Okafor around and slapped him with endless DNP-CDs while they searched for a deal. Any deal. They eventually got the Nets to take Okafor off their hands, along with Nik Stauskas, but they had to pay Brooklyn a second-round pick to do it. The Sixers got Trevor Booker back and said all the right things about how much they liked him, but Booker played only 33 games before he was waived. Okafor had no value and everyone but the Sixers knew it.

The Fultz situation is obviously much worse and more complicated. Not only did the Sixers take Fultz first, but they had to trade the Kings pick (top-one protected in the upcoming draft) to the Celtics to make it happen. Maybe that pick isn’t as attractive now as it appeared at the time since Sacramento is playing better than it has in years, but if the Sixers had a do-over, they’d definitely rather have that asset and whoever would have fallen to them if they had just stayed put and selected third overall in the 2017 draft.

Fultz has been compared by people around the NBA to Anthony Bennett as one of the worst first overall picks in recent NBA memory, but that’s hardly fair—to Bennett. No one expected Bennett to be taken first, maybe not even Bennett; Fultz might not have been the consensus no. 1 pick, but he was close. Bennett had some questions about his work ethic and whether sleep apnea contributed to potential on-court sluggishness, but mostly the concerns about him weren’t so much physical or mental. Mostly he was just bad. Reuniting with LeBron and drafting Andrew Wiggins certainly made it easier for the Cavs to untangle themselves from Bennett and put him in the deal that landed Kevin Love. It won’t be so simple for the Sixers and Fultz to part company.

Even if the Sixers decided right now to dissolve their union with Fultz, what could they possibly get in return? After talking with a handful of league executives, the answer seems to be not much. Judging by their reactions, getting so much as a late-first/early-second-round pick for Fultz sounds difficult if not impossible. One person suggested maybe folding Fultz into a deal to fetch a shooter, possibly someone like Kyle Korver who has been bandied as trade bait in Cleveland. Korver is 37 and has a lot more days behind him than he has ahead. That is an awfully long way for a 20-year-old no. 1 pick to fall.

That’s another issue with offloading Fultz—how a deal might potentially impact him. As another longtime league exec put it, Fultz needs “a low- or no-pressure” environment. That’s going to be tough to find. This is the NBA, after all. There have been suggestions that maybe Fultz should just go play in the G League for a while, but when I brought that up to people around the league, concerns were raised about how Fultz would take it and the attendant optics of the demotion. The consensus was that the Sixers might have to do what they did with Okafor and just not play Fultz for a while—if Fultz and his camp ever declare him fit to play in the first place. That’s not a real solution, but the Sixers only have bad options at the moment. (A team source said the Sixers expect Fultz to return at some point and fight for a role off the bench, but I’m not sure how convinced the Sixers are about that or whether they actually even want it to happen.)

We’ve reached the point where simply getting Fultz’s contract off the books might represent a (minor) victory for the Sixers. If Jimmy Butler sticks around and signs a five-year max, the Sixers could free up close to $30 million to throw at another quality free agent next offseason—but only if they renounce all their other free agents and find a taker for Fultz, who is set to make a little less than $10 million next season. The year after that, Fultz’s club option would cost the Sixers $12.2 million. That’s an awful lot of money for someone who can’t clear a T.J. McConnell–sized obstacle to playing time.

On paper, the Sixers would be better off allocating those funds in a different way. Moving Fultz now will be hard, but doing so later might cost the Sixers even more. If the team waits until the offseason and other clubs know it needs to jettison him to clear cap space in order to sign a potential free agent, the team might have to incentivize a trade partner by adding a pick to push the deal through. But even if the Sixers find someone interested in him, offloading Fultz is not without risk. He was never supposed to be the savior for the Sixers. He was seen as the final piece to the rebuild—a guard who could play on or off the ball, shoot and create. Now those duties and the third-star role fall to Butler while the Sixers decide whether (and how) to cut their losses. The absolute worst-case scenario would be for the Sixers to dump Fultz for little to nothing, only for him to go elsewhere, figure out what’s wrong, and return to the form that made him so attractive coming out of Washington. The Sixers would never hear the end of that. None of us would. Of course, we’re probably not going to hear the end of this either way. Not anytime soon.

If nothing else, Fultz and his camp were right. He could use a fresh start. The Sixers could too. But that’s easier in theory than reality. How do any of them move on when they’re all boxed in with nowhere to go?