Now we know why all the drama in Philadelphia is happening: Markelle Fultz is secretly SerAthony Dominguez.
The idea that the Philadelpha Sixers once-prized point guard would be moonlighting as the Phillies’ closer might be the least weird thing about the whole Affaire Fultz. Especially given Fultz’s recent diagnosis — ballplayers, not hoopsters, are the ones who usually get Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS), a narrowing of the space between the top rib and collarbone that can sap strength in that arm.
If it’s true, then there is a path to recovery for Fultz. Or, maybe not. TOS has ended the careers of several All-Star hurlers. But, it does give both the Sixers and the rest of the league something they’ve all been seeking — a little clarity as to what the heck is going on with Fultz. (Unless of course it turns out that Markelle doesn’t have TOS — which, given everything else that he’s dealt with seems depressingly possible.)
I’d been planning to write this article for a little over two weeks, so the news that Fultz has TOS doesn’t change my evaluation of him. This is a distressed asset. And what do canny corporate raiders like Raptors president Masai Ujiri do with distressed assets? They pounce on them — if the price is right.
But do the Raptors want to take on a player who can’t shoot, is injured, and whose camp seems more than happy pushing into team affairs? Let’s not forget that before the TOS diagnosis Fultz’ team had unilaterally pulled the guard from the Sixers to seek “other voices” regarding his shoulder woes.
Fultz to the Raps? Does it make sense.
Why Would The Raptors Want Fultz
Fultz, in a word, is good.
Despite his problems in the NBA to date there is plenty of evidence that a healthy Fultz is a difference maker.
In college, for a mediocre Washington Huskies team on which most agreed he was the only NBA talent Fultz put up a 23.2/5.7/5.9 line on .502/.413/.649 shooting while adding almost a combined three “stocks” (blocks plus steals) a game.
ESPN’S Kevin Pelton called Fultz the number two player in the draft, and number four using his stats-only analysis.
While there have always been legitimate questions about Fultz’s shooting stroke — his 40% mark from the shorter NCAA line being counterbalanced by his more predictive, and mediocre, free throw rate, everyone agreed that Fultz’s physical tools, and his ability to get to the hoop, combined with his vision to make plays gave him an extremely high floor.
And the ceiling? Well, there’s a reason he went number one:
Sure this is a highly edited, giant flashing small sample alert, but you can see what Fultz can do. Even with no threat of a jumper he can still beat multiple players and finish at the rim. He’s a legit point guard in that he understands how the balance of the floor works and how to use that against his opposition.
Now, imagine what Fultz could do in the Raptors vaunted development system. With the incredible depth of the Raps, they could leave Fultz in the G League for this season, maybe even parts of the next one. Down at the Paramount Centre, is re-developing that three-point shot possible? Why not?
And even if not, Fultz can have a long Shaun Livingston-esque career (a jumbo-sized PG who can defend multiple positions, seamlessly run an offense, and punish you in the paint), if he can develop a reliable mid-range shot.
The Celtics, for all their struggles, still have an avenue to add at least one more Top-10 talent, via the Kings deal. They are young and good. The Raps don’t have that option right now — and sooner or later you have to feel all those top picks will balance the scales in Boston’s direction.
If there is Top-5 talent still in Fultz, let alone “better than Jayson Tatum talent” that sounds exactly like the type of big(ger) gamble Masai Ujiri would be willing to take.
Why Would Markelle Fultz Want The Raptors?
I’m not in Fultz’s head, but this comes down to one thing: Does Markelle Fultz want to be the best basketball player he can be?
If so, then playing on a top-flight NBA team, with a great development program, in a city where the pressure on him to produce short-term results would be limited, where there is a legitimate path to playing time in the near future, is a no-brainer.
Now, Fultz would likely have to swallow his pride and play in the G league. But, with the 905 experience being as close to the NBA as is possible in the G league, that might not be as big an ask as we think.
The worst case would be that Fultz needs most of the year to rehab, and has to agree to spend a chunk, maybe a big chunk, of his third year in the G League. After that though, Kyle Lowry becomes a free agent, who knows what the market will be for a stocky guard in his mid-30’s?
While both Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet have starter potential, an even mostly activated Fultz would have to be considered at least even-money to take one of their jobs (or, because of Fultz’s length, the Raps might be able to play all three).
Any which way, a Markelle Fultz who is dedicated to getting better (and by all accounts he’s been a hard worker), might not find a better place to find himself.
Why Would the Sixers Want To Do This?
This is where things get trickier. Before the TOS diagnosis things between the Sixers and Fultz looked like this:
There were reports that “nobody” wanted to trade for the Sixers guard. It was said that “it would be difficult if not impossible” for the Sixers to get a late first or even an early second round pick for their former number one.
Now though, the situation has changed. There’s at least a reason now, a medical name to give, to explain Fultz’s under-performance. With that, there is also perhaps a timetable for his eventual return. All of this makes Fultz immediately more valuable and that group of nobodies has definitely expanded. (Just look at all the trade think pieces sprouting around the internet today. Did I mention, I’d been thinking of writing this for two weeks?)
Complicating factors is whether Philly would want to deal an asset that could bite them back so badly to a divisional opponent.
There are a few things here working in favour of a trade. It seems like the Sixers want to wait the four to six weeks that has been recommended for Fultz to rehab and then check back. Of course, Fultz has been basically doing nothing but rehabbing for the first two years of his career, so there may be no real improvement in that time. Impatience from the Sixers may have settled in by that time — and it seems clear that Fultz already wants out of the city of Brotherly Love anyway.
On top of that, the Sixers are in definite win now mode after the Jimmy Butler trade. They may be light on shooting and play-making (which Fultz could theoretically provide), but they could be looking for a more known quantity in those regards as they make their push into the playoffs. Regardless of Fultz’s health, the Sixers may not want (or be able to) rely on him in the coming post-season. Would you?
And this is all without mentioning that the Sixers may want to make a move before the coming off-season largely vaporizes their available salary cap room.
OK You Convinced Me, But How Does a Deal Get Done?
Remember how I said the last part got tricky? Well, this is moreso.
Before the diagnosis, there was a case to be made that a player like C.J. Miles might be the key part of a deal for Fultz. (There were rumours the Sixers were thinking of making Fultz part of a package for 37-year-old Kyle Korver). Miles has been brutal this year, but over 3,200 career three-point attempts has proven he can shoot.
The salaries here would basically match — even if Miles opts into his final year of the deal. Add in a second rounder, and given what the Sixers were facing, that might have gotten a deal done.
After the diagnosis, it’s harder to imagine that now.
Another piece on the Raptors, Norman Powell, offers considerably more utility to the Sixers, both with the ball and off it, especially if his three-point stroke this year is proof that his rookie year wasn’t a fluke. Again, in a world where Fultz was just mysteriously injured, maybe there’s a way that deal works. Admittedly, Powell’s contract might have stuffed that, as the Sixers could be looking to clear the salary decks to add another superstar player.
If Powell isn’t of interest because of the longer term money, would Ujiri go a step further and move Miles and a first rounder for Fultz? This is tricky too, because the earliest first round pick the Raps can trade in season is the 2020 pick (because of the DeRozan deal and the Stepien rule).
Maybe, the Sixers would see that as a plus — if Kawhi leaves, and the Raps let Lowry walk they could be getting a mid-rebuild pick.
Let’s assume though that the Raps are going to stay competitive. The question would then come down to, which would have more value: Fultz on a $12.3 million dollar deal (and about to have a $16 million dollar cap hold), or a late-round first on a deal closer to $3 million?
I’d argue you win titles by gambling on upside. Still, it’s not an easy call — but making touch calls is Masai’s job. As a man whose made a living raiding other front offices, the lure of swooping in and claiming a potential All-NBA talent might be too much to ignore.