According to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Sixers have “been engaged in talks” with the Spurs on a deal involving Leonard. “So far, they have kept three players off-limits” in those conversations, per Woj: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz.
Philadelphia’s refusal to part with either Embiid or Simmons is self-explanatory. Embiid, who is entering the first year of the five-year, $148 million max extension he signed last summer, has MVP potential if he remains healthy and improves his conditioning. Simmons, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is a 6’10” nightmarish mismatch who likely will be under team control for the next eight seasons.
The Sixers drawing a line at Fultz is notable, however, especially in the wake of his disastrous rookie season.
Fultz displayed a wonky shooting form throughout training camp and the preseason, which caused the Sixers to shut him down after only four regular-season games due to what they labeled a “scapular muscle imbalance” in his right shoulder. He proceeded to miss 68 games as he recovered from whatever was ailing him, although he returned for the final 10 games of the regular season and made three appearances in the playoffs as well.
For a player who shot 41.3 percent from deep on 126 attempts during his lone season at Washington, his drastic shooting regression was difficult to fathom. One Eastern Conference general manager described the situation as “perplexing” while speaking with Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger in early November, and it only further dovetailed from there. Even after his return in late March, Fultz largely operated as a slasher rather than a jump shooter, as all but nine of his 84 field-goal attempts came within 15 feet of the hoop.
Fultz has spent this summer working with renowned NBA trainer Drew Hanlen, whose other clients include Embiid, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Washington Wizards All-Star 2-guard Bradley Beal. While no new footage of Fultz’s shooting form has emerged as of yet—a carefully edited video notwithstanding—Hanlen hasn’t shied away from pumping up the hype train.
Can’t wait to meet Drew Santore! https://t.co/R5lDZtTTmp
— Drew Hanlen (@DrewHanlen) July 3, 2018
Sixers fans… Get excited!
— Drew Hanlen (@DrewHanlen) July 8, 2018
“We’re way ahead of pace where I thought we were gonna be. I thought it was gonna take me at least six weeks before we had kind of a serviceable jump shot. And we’ve already started to shoot with a jump in Week 2.
“It’s not perfect yet, but I think that by the end of the summer, it will be perfect. He’ll be back rolling and he’ll show people why he was the No. 1 pick.”
It appears as though the Sixers are encouraged by the early results, too. According to Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice, they “remain confident in Fultz as a major piece of their program moving forward,” which aligns with what head coach and interim general manager told reporters at Las Vegas Summer League on Monday.
“I have tremendous optimism and confidence that he’s going to have a hell of a year next year,” Brown said, per Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated. “I believe that completely, and I’m just really excited to see him with us and to bring him back into our program on a full-time basis.”
“He is putting in work. That’s the first thing,” Brown added. “I have a gut feel that he feels good about himself, that he is confident. When I’m with him, he feels and looks confident. Then I start seeing the progression of his shot and I start listening to him talking about his shot, it confirms that he’s feeling good.”
If the Sixers are confident Fultz will regain the shooting form that rocketed him to the top of draft boards last June, there’s no sense in selling low on him now. Allowing him to rebuild his value would be the prudent play. He isn’t the second coming of Jahlil Okafor, who got relegated into obsolescence because he can’t defend a pick-and-roll if his life depended on it. Fultz will carve out a long-term NBA career if he regularly starts to drill jumpers again.
ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe reported “it’s unclear” if the Spurs even want Fultz, so the Sixers’ refusal to include him in trade discussions may be a non-issue. Instead, the Spurs reportedly “have strong interest in a package involving burgeoning forwards Dario Saric and Robert Covington as well as a future first-round pick,” according to Fischer. Philly acquired the Miami Heat’s 2021 unprotected first-rounder in its draft-night trade for Zhaire Smith, which could help grease the wheels on a Leonard deal, but Lowe isn’t convinced the Sixers have offered that pick along with Covington and Saric yet.
According to Wojnarowski, the Sixers “have shown a willingness to trade for Leonard without a promise that he’d re-sign with them in 2019, when he’d be able to opt out of his contract.” Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the Sixers “are confident that they can sway him to pick up his player option or re-sign with them via free agency next summer,” while Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News has hinted that Leonard would consider remaining in Philadelphia beyond the 2018-19 season.
Both Pompey and Jordan Schultz of Yahoo Sports reported the Spurs want two of the Sixers’ players—”believed to be Saric and Covington,” according to Pompey—along with three future first-round draft picks. “The Spurs keep trying to raise the ante for Leonard,” Pompey reported, “saying that another team is offering more.”
Until Leonard proves he’s over the mysterious quadriceps injury that limited him to only nine regular-season appearances this past season, the Spurs may struggle to stoke a bidding war. Without assurance that Leonard isn’t dead set on joining the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent in 2019, as Wojnarowski has repeatedly suggested, no other team will be incentivized to give up its top assets for what could be a one-year rental.
If the Sixers can consult with Leonard and his representation and deduce whether he’d be willing to re-sign with them in 2019, that would help them decide where to draw the line in trade talks. Seeing as they’re likely to have Fultz under team control for the next seven years, they’ll have to weigh whether that certainty outweighs the upside of Leonard, who’s a top-five player in the league when healthy.
For now, Philadelphia has no incentive to include Fultz in negotiations. Unless the Boston Celtics are willing to give up Jaylen Brown or the Los Angeles Lakers dangle Brandon Ingram, the reported package including Covington, Saric and the Miami 2021 first-rounder likely blows any other offer out of the water. For now, the Sixers are calling the Spurs’ bluff and waiting until they lower their asking price, as they know it’s untenable for San Antonio to enter training camp with Leonard still on its roster.
Philly is involved in a high-stakes game of poker with the Spurs and other Leonard suitors, as any team willing to cave to San Antonio’s demands could swing negotiations unexpectedly. After the Sixers’ star hunt fell short this summer, Leonard may be their last chance to significantly bolster their roster until 2019.
If the Sixers feel as though a core of Simmons, Embiid and Leonard can push them past the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference and make them competitive against the Golden State Warriors in a potential NBA Finals clash, they’d have more incentive to deal for him now. Gaining his Bird rights wouldn’t hurt, either, as it would allow them to offer Leonard an additional year on his contract and higher raises than any other suitor in 2019.
From the Sixers’ perspective, they’d ideally like to foist an offer structured around Covington, Saric and the Miami 2021 first-rounder upon the Spurs without including Fultz. Leonard would be a marked upgrade over Covington, while Saric is likely to get priced out of Philadelphia in two years’ time.
Without some reassurance from Leonard about his willingness to re-sign, the long-term team control of Fultz makes him too valuable of a chip to discard, even in the wake of his lost rookie season.