The Sixers’ season-opening 105-87 loss to the Boston Celtics at TD Garden re-exposed warts that the Celtics routinely abused during the Eastern Conference semifinals this past spring. Philly shot a miserable 5-of-26 from deep and didn’t have the wing depth to counter Boston’s never-ending glut of interchangeable forwards, especially with reserve swingman Wilson Chandler sidelined by a hamstring injury.
Until the Sixers have more off-the-dribble creators and consistent long-range shooters on the floor, the Celtics’ swarming defense will have an overwhelming advantage against them. Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 pick in 2017, is the Sixers’ best hope of addressing both of those flaws this season.
After a lost rookie campaign, Fultz spent the summer working with trainer Drew Hanlen to rediscover his mojo, but the early returns Tuesday didn’t inspire much confidence. In 24 minutes of action, he finished with five points on 2-of-7 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, one steal and three turnovers. Fultz did not attempt a single three-pointer, and he finished a team-worst minus-16 on the night.
Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice tweeted a damning clip that highlighted the difference between the Fultz on display Tuesday night and the pre-injury version who wasn’t afraid to bomb away from deep during 2017 summer league.
Here is the clip in question. If you watch it, you will see the point of Neubeck’s tweet:
First two plays in this clip: Fultz with space to take longer jumpers vs. BOS tonight, conceding it to shoot around the paint
Final two plays in this clip: How Fultz used to attack *any* semblance of space he had to shoot, vs. BOS in Summer League pic.twitter.com/lbo83wDmNt
— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) October 17, 2018
Until Fultz proves he’s willing to take long-range shots, defenses will take advantage by packing the paint and daring him to shoot. In turn, that will clog the floor for his teammates, causing the offense to get bogged down.
If Fultz continues to play like he did against Boston, it won’t be long before the Philadelphia faithful begin calling for JJ Redick to usurp him in the starting lineup. While such a move would likely boost the Sixers’ short-term prospects—after all, they had the league’s best starting five in terms of net rating last season—it isn’t optimal for the long-term outlook of the franchise.
For the Sixers to reach their ceiling, Fultz needs to get back to his pre-injury form.
Tuesday’s game underscored a cold, hard truth: The Celtics are better equipped to contend for a championship than the Sixers are at the moment. They have the right mix of high-upside prospects (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown), stars in their prime (Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward), stalwart veterans (Al Horford) and crucial bench depth (Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes). It’ll be nigh impossible for the Celtics to retain all of those players beyond this season, which puts them under more pressure to win a championship right away.
Despite rosy win-loss projections and the scorching way they closed out the 2017-18 regular season, the Sixers aren’t yet on the Celtics’ level. The Kawhi Leonard-led Toronto Raptors have a higher likelihood of contending for a championship this year than the Sixers, too. Hell, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Milwaukee Bucks and/or Indiana Pacers finished above Philly in the regular-season standings.
None of that should be cause for major concern in Philadelphia.
Joel Embiid, who won’t turn 25 until March, is in the first year of a five-year max contract. Ben Simmons just turned 22 in July, and he figures to be the recipient of a five-year max extension next summer. So long as those two remain upright, the Sixers will be an annual threat to win 50-plus games.
Fultz, meanwhile, is only 20. Prior to Tuesday night, he had played a combined 276 minutes in the regular season and playoffs. Rookie guards—point guards in particular—often struggle with efficiency early in their NBA careers. Though Fultz’s inexplicable regression as a shooter puts him into rarefied air, he’s hardly the first young floor general to not make a seamless transition to the Association.
As ESPN’s Bobby Marks tweeted following Tuesday night’s game, it’s in Philly’s best interest to stay patient with Fultz through the good and the bad.
The Markelle Fultz growing pains are going to be tough to watch at times. – 16 with him on the court tonight but Philadelphia moving forward is going to have to stress patience. Sounds difficult but the role of Fultz has short and long-term ramifications.
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) October 17, 2018
Doing so will inevitably cost the Sixers a few winnable games this season, which will lead to even more frustration from an oft-aggrieved fanbase. Given the uninspired state of the Eastern Conference outside of the top five or six teams, that’s OK. The regular season is an 82-game experiment for teams that should breeze into the playoffs. Head coach Brett Brown needs to continually mix and match his lineups to find out which players work best alongside one another.
After Tuesday’s loss, Brown spoke with reporters about his expectations for Fultz this season.
“Markelle is going to have steady, slow growth,” he said. “Sometimes, he’s going to be just incredible. Other times, he’s going to, you know, be a part of the NBA at a very young age on a pretty good team.”
The early-season schedule should do Brown, Fultz and the Sixers wonders. Outside of road tilts against Milwaukee, Toronto and Indiana, the Sixers get to feast upon a host of likely lottery-bound teams between now and mid-November. It’s one thing if Fultz can’t get going against Boston’s smothering defense; it’s a far larger concern if he struggles against the likes of Orlando’s D.J. Augustin and Atlanta rookie Trae Young.
How Brown juggles his rotation is perhaps the biggest storyline to monitor in Philadelphia over the coming weeks. Fultz started against Boston and played all but three minutes in the first half, but he came off the bench in the second half and only got three minutes of run at the end of the third quarter. On Monday, Brown hinted that he was leaning in that direction—starting Fultz in the first half and Redick in the second—but that unconventional approach may not be viable long term. Eventually, he may have to pick a lane and stick with it to allow his rotation to develop a semblance of normalcy.
On most nights, Simmons and Embiid will overwhelm lesser opponents into submission. Perhaps Fultz will get more playing time in those games, as the Sixers should have a larger margin for error. The Chicago Bulls should provide the first test of that in Philly’s home opener Thursday night, as will Saturday’s game against the Orlando Magic.
Heading into the season opener, Brown admitted the Sixers “may have to experience some pain along the way” as he worked out his rotation, particularly with regard to how best to utilize Fultz.
“How do I grow Markelle and especially with Ben and Joel?” he asked. “How do I win games and put us in a position to move us forward? And how do you deliver a team to the end of April and May and hopefully June that’s better when it started?”
Giving Fultz a short leash and burying him on the bench may accomplish the former goal, but it’ll thwart the latter. Considering how crucial Fultz is to the future of the franchise, the short-term setback of integrating him into the rotation is worth the long-term payoff.