Arguably the biggest gamble in franchise history, the Philadelphia 76ers trading up for Markelle Fultz in 2017 was a move that was supposed to catapult the Sixers into years of dominance. Pairing him with the likes of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, it would have no doubt created one of the best young trios in NBA history.
Obviously, we know how this story eventually panned out. Fultz played just 33 games across two full seasons as a 76er, failing to ever live up to the hype of being a #1 overall pick. Developing some sort of weird shoulder issue prior to his rookie season, Fultz’ jump shot looked utterly broken during his time in Philly.
After two years of poor communication between the Sixers and Fultz, the young guard was eventually shipped away to Orlando for a second-round pick. While he’s shown flashes of ability with the Magic, he’s still a shell of the player he once was in college.
So, what if the 76ers never pulled the trigger on trading up for Markelle?
No, Jayson Tatum Still Isn’t A Sixer
While the general rhetoric is that the Sixers “passed up on Tatum for Fultz”, that’s simply not true. The Celtics we’re always getting Tatum. He was their guy from the moment he declared for the NBA draft.
Entering into the 2017 draft, Boston had little to no interest in drafting a ball-dominant guard. Isaiah Thomas was coming off a near-MVP season and the team had just selected Jaylen Brown the year prior. On top of that, Danny Ainge and the Celtics were probably already in preliminary discussions with the Cavaliers on acquiring Kyrie Irving (a trade which would happen less than a month after the draft).
With pretty much everyone in the world already aware the Lakers would be taking Lonzo Ball at #2, the Celtics were more than happy to trade down with the Sixers just to still draft their highest-rated player.
In our alternate timeline, with the Sixers electing not to offer a trade-up package, the Celtics simply just take Tatum #1 overall.
With Lonzo Ball still going to the Lakers at the #2 spot, that leaves the Sixers with a pretty easy decision with the third overall pick.
Josh Jackson or De’Aaron Fox?
While Jackson may have been the higher-rated prospect coming out of college, Fox would be far more enticing to the Sixers due to his playstyle and position.
The main reason Philly was so aggressive in their pursuit of Fultz was that they wanted to pair another ball-handler next to Simmons. While not as attractive as Fultz pre-draft, Fox would have been a solid consolation prize for the Sixers’ front office.
I mean, talk about a trio.
While Fox likely never blossoms into the #1 option that he is today for Sacramento, the pairing of his abilities next to Simmons and Embiid would surely have resulted in a ton of success. Fox’s athleticism and above-average on-ball defense would have paired up beautifully next to Simmons in the backcourt. It would have been quite similar to that of Matisse and Simmons today.
Fox could operate as the secondary ball-handler, a role which the team initially had in place for Fultz (and later used for Jimmy Butler). Fox would “run the offense” while allowing Simmons to operate as a roller/cutter, a role which he has looked exceptionally dominant at in 2020.
While it’s tough to say how Fox would have developed playing next to two ball-dominant All-Stars, it’s safe to say him being on the Sixers would have resulted in some extra wins.
No Jimmy Butler?
Ultimately, the addition of Fox to the starting five in 2017 would have pulled the Sixers out of the Jimmy Butler sweepstakes two years later. With their franchise shooting guard position now firmly occupied by a rising star, the need for a veteran at the position likely never arises.
With Dario Saric and Robert Covington still sitting in limbo, it’s quite possible the team would have still explored a trade centered around these two. Notable players that were traded post-Butler include Kyle Korver, Trevor Ariza, and even Kristaps Porzingis(!).
Having Fox likely doesn’t affect the team’s move for Tobias Harris at the trade deadline.
Over the course of 199 games in the NBA, Fox is shooting 33.5% from beyond the arc. In a league now dominated by “shoot-first guards”, that’s not great.
While Fox’s prowess in handling the basketball would no doubt help the Sixers offense today, his lack of a reliable jumper would result in some of the same issues the team is facing in 2020. His playstyle reminds me a ton of Josh Richardson. Athletic, explosive, good handle, good midrange, zero consistency from the outside.
Even with Fox, Simmons, and Embiid all being super talented, their lack of floor spacing when on the court together would still get exposed by more experienced teams.
Fox>Fultz in 2017 clearly would have been better for the Sixers both short-term and longterm. They’d have a young, elite trio to build around and still tons of cap room to flesh things out with. Ultimately, the decision to not trade up for Fultz likely means no Jimmy Butler, but that’s not inherently a bad thing.
Pretty much anyone in the 2017 draft would have been an upgrade over Fultz for the 76ers. De’Aaron Fox looks like he would have been the best case scenario at pick #3, but even then I believe the Sixers would still have needed some external help later down the road to truly compete for an NBA championship.
Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports