- Markelle Fultz’s future with the Philadelphia 76ers is in the air after the team traded for Jimmy Butler.
- Fultz has had a strange NBA journey since the Sixers traded up to draft him No. 1 overall in 2017, seemingly forgetting how to shoot, missing most of his rookie year, then struggling while playing this year.
- The Sixers’ trade for Butler is a win-now move, and with the team likely to pay him a big contract this summer, there may not be room to wait for Fultz to develop and pay him down the line.
The Philadelphia 76ers trade for Jimmy Butler was, in some ways, the end of their “Process” and their true leap into contention for the Eastern Conference.
In going all-in, sacrificing depth and likely financial flexibility, to add a third superstar, the Sixers made clear that they’re aiming to compete for championships now, rather than down the road, even with a young core in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
In the aftermath of the trade, aside from Butler’s fit with Embiid and Simmons, one of the biggest questions surrounding the team was the future of second-year guard Markelle Fultz.
Fultz has had about as strange of a journey in the NBA as possible. The consensus No. 1 pick coming into the 2017 draft, the 76ers traded the No. 3 overall pick and their 2018 pick to the Boston Celtics to move up to No. 1 and take Fultz.
When Fultz got into the league, however, his shot strangely disappeared as he struggled through a vague shoulder injury. The team sat him for most of the season as clips of him working out and shooting as if he was new to the game went viral. Fultz returned at the end of the season but played sparingly.
This year, the team has started Fultz to mixed results. At times, Fultz has shown the quickness, craftiness, and explosion that made him such a high prospect. Other times, he’s looked out of sorts and has tanked the lineups he’s played in with his inability to shoot and do much when he’s off the ball. There’s even some concern that his shot is regressing.
Already his role has changed since Butler was acquired. Fultz moved to the bench to make room for Butler, with J.J. Redick re-assuming his place in the starting five. It may not be a bad move for Fultz, as he can handle the ball more off the bench and play against other second units, but it’s clear that he’s not getting an expanded role in the wake of the trade.
In a 111-106 loss to the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, Butler’s first game with the team, Fultz played 21 minutes off the bench, slightly less than the 24 minutes per game he’s averaging on the season.
However, some think that Fultz’s future may be somewhere other than Philadelphia, altogether. Two league sources who spoke to Business Insider suggested the 76ers might not be done making moves, with one saying the team may shop Fultz. The same source said Fultz’s value is in the negative right now because of his play this season.
The Sixers will need to make additional moves to fill out their roster after the trade. They need shooting and bench depth, and while they could wait to explore the buyout market, they may ultimately have to explore trades. Fultz, along with future draft picks, could be potential trade chips.
The real questions concerning Fultz will start to emerge beyond this season. Embiid already started a five-year, $148 million contract extension. The Sixers will be able to pay Butler more than anyone else this summer when he becomes a free agent – a full max for Butler would be five years, $190 million. And Simmons is approaching rookie contract extension talks. If the Sixers ultimately max out Butler and Simmons, there won’t be a lot of room for Fultz.
If Fultz improves quickly and becomes a true contributor to the rotation, it could be beneficial to the 76ers having such a player on their rookie deal.
But the Sixers aren’t in a place to bring Fultz along slowly, particularly if they give max contracts to all three of their stars. It would be hard to justify paying Fultz the $9 million he’s owed next season and $12 million in 2020-21 (if the Sixers pick up his contract option) if he’s not contributing when they’re already paying the luxury tax for their three stars.
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on his podcast, “The Lowe Post,” there is a scenario where Fultz is bad, and the Sixers keep him through his rookie deal. The other option is he improves and gets paid by another team. Lowe said it’s possible to imagine Fultz not being on the team in two years.
Almost nothing about Fultz’s NBA experience has been typical. At 20 years old, given his odd beginning, it’s much too early to write him off. But after the Sixers made a big win-now move to acquire Butler, there’s also not much to suggest that they want to wait and see if he develops, when they’re on a timeline with Butler, Embiid, and Simmons.