Following a pleasantly surprising trade to acquire star swingman Jimmy Butler, the Sixers have finally assembled the imperative “Big 3” needed to have a legit shot at a Finals appearance in today’s NBA. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and the aforementioned Butler are all top 20 overall players in the league and the elite trio now represent a very formidable threat to the Eastern Conference crown this season.
This has certainly been a long time coming for the Philly-based franchise. After winning merely 75 games through the first five seasons of Brett Brown’s tenure, the young Sixers burst onto the scene with 52 wins in 82 games and a playoff berth last season. The team even snagged their first playoff series victory since 2012 for good measure. By all accounts, last season was a huge success for the Sixers and seemingly the beginning to a new dominant era of Philly basketball. Reaching the conference semi-finals, of course, is not the goal in the City of Brotherly Love.
The Sixers players, coaching staff, and front office has been adamant all offseason that the team’s sole intention is to win a championship in 2019 while remaining in position to compete in the successive years. There was a clear talent gap between Philly and the rival Celtics in their playoff bout last season that would persist for as long as the Sixers remained with only two proven stars, so almost exactly six months to the date of their playoff elimination, the Sixers acquired their missing link in Jimmy Butler.
The addition has understandably been met with a ton of excitement. Some may be a bit too enthused about the Sixers prospects following the blockbuster deal, perhaps, as it’s been widely suggested that the team should move on from 2017 first overall pick Markelle Fultz and upgrade their point guard slot as they hunt for a title. Names like Kemba Walker and CJ McCollum have been floated around as a couple candidates that could punch the Sixers’ ticket to the 2019 NBA Finals. While I understand fans desire for Philly to load up on weapons now- with an imminent battle against the Warriors awaiting them if they reach the Finals- and certainly agree that any franchise that feels they are one move away from being a virtual lock from a championship should execute said move if they have the resources. In this instance, however, I think it’s a bit premature and impulsive to try to trade Fultz.
Despite an unorthodox beginning to his career, Fultz is still an incredibly tantalizing prospect and is still just 20 years of age (doesn’t turn 21 until the end of the regular season). By the time Fultz is eligible for restricted free agency, he’ll have five years of NBA experience under his belt and barely be old enough to buy a celebratory beverage at 23 years old. Wisely, the Sixers are thinking long-term with Fultz and realize that he is a key foundational piece to their franchise.
The 6’5 combo guard is an explosive athlete who possesses tremendous court vision, ball handling, passing, and scoring ability. He uses his height advantage and acrobatic ability to abuse smaller defenders in the paint and his craftiness and footwork to create space and get open around the perimeter when matched against bigger, slower defenders. He was nothing short of dominant during his time at Washington and by no means were his lofty scouting reports inaccurate. Fultz is who the Sixers thought he was when they drafted him with the top selection and has already shown flashes of productivity at the pro level.
Although his numbers haven’t met the sky-high expectations that come with going first overall, he isn’t hindering the Sixers chances of winning a championship this season. And if his recent shooting stretch is any indication- 47% from the field- he will be one of the primary contributors in the second half of this season. The Maryland native’s confidence has been on the rise and his play has experienced a similar elevation.
Sure, trading for Kemba Walker or someone of that caliber would form a “Big 4” that could rival the Warriors all-star lineup, but it would limit the team’s financial ability to build a second unit as deep as other playoff teams, which is certainly less than ideal. Luckily for the Sixers however, Fultz can and will develop into that star player for a fraction of the cost.
The acquisition of 4x All-star Butler should be viewed as an aid to the progression of Fultz- not a hindrance or obstacle. Butler is one of the hardest working players in the entire league- being crowned the 2014-15 Most Improved Player just before his ascension to NBA stardom- and simply wants to be surrounded by teammates who are as passionate about their craft as he is. Butler realizes that effort is the leading ingredient in championship caliber teams and that without it a team won’t make it far, which is what lead to his clashes with apathetic teammates Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Fultz, however, is an absolute gym rat with a deep passion for the game, as evidenced by his insane summer workout regime with famed trainer Drew Hanlen:
Here’s the biggest thing I took from the new Unseen Hours episode.
Here’s Drew Hanlen’s schedule.
Markelle’s in the gym with him 3 times a day! Two of those times are focused on his jump shot! pic.twitter.com/OyaRJjIGpA
— Sixers Legion (@SixersLegion) July 11, 2018
After a disappointing start to his NBA career, Fultz practically locked himself inside of a gym with one of the most elite basketball trainers in the United States. Not only do I not expect Butler to intimidate Fultz with his seemingly aggressive leadership style, I actually think this is a match made in heaven for the talented floor general. Despite being drafted at polar opposite ends of the first round- Butler was selected 30th overall by Chicago in 2011- the two gifted players actually have a lot in common, both on and off the court.
On the court, both players entered as guards with high-motors and tons of defensive promise. Neither were viewed as knockdown shooters or went to a powerhouse basketball program. Fultz was a much better shooting prospect than Butler was coming out of Marquette, which says a lot about Butler’s work ethic, as he is clearly the much better shooter now. Butler should have little trouble teaching Fultz a few shooting fundamentals, as well as other ways he dramatically improved his play, once he gets to Philly.
Off the court, the dynamic duo share a lot of similarities as well. Butler, too, was drafted by a playoff team that was just a piece or two away from clinching a title. He is also familiar with not being the first, second, or even third option on your team during his rookie season, despite being drafted in the first round. They even share a having relatively low expectations for their respective careers at the beginning their sophomore seasons. Butler’s low expectations due to being buried on the depth chart after averaging less than 10 mins a game his rookie year and Fultz’s depreciated expectations due to a couple irregular, well-versed issues. Nobody projected Butler to become the top three shooting guard he is today, just like virtually nobody thinks that Fultz will live up to his draft slot.
Now with the opportunity to learn behind three(!) All-Star caliber teammates (Simmons got SNUBBED last season) and a head coach from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, it’s only a matter of time before Fultz starts to come into his own and start to flash his explosive scoring ability with more regularity.
Fultz rise to stardom may not have happened as quickly as some former number one overall selections, but all signs point towards him making major strides in his second season. Philly has done an excellent job by keeping the big picture in mind with their promising prospect, and should continue to be patient with him and refrain from trying to expedite the franchise building process by trading for a star point guard. Fultz is still far too young, naturally gifted, and hardworking to not become the star he was drafted to be, and his odds should be dramatically improved with the addition of Butler.
For those that haven’t sold their Markelle Fultz stock yet, keep the faith as he will soon make good on the Sixers investment. For those who have already jumped off the hype train and labelled him a bust, your premature proclamations will soon prove foolish.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports