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With Markelle Fultz Shut Down Yet Again, the 76ers Are Running Out of Options

The Markelle Fultz situation in Philadelphia is quickly spinning out of control, so what should the 76ers do with their struggling guard?

So apparently we’ve reached the veiled threat part of the ongoing saga that is Markelle Fultz, with The Athletic reporting Wednesday that Fultz—who on Monday informed the Sixers, via his agent/attorney, that he would be shutting it down until he saw an independent doctor about his sore shoulder—would prefer a fresh start with a new team.

Oh, and his wrist hurts, too.

What a disaster.

Fultz is 20, less than two years into his NBA career, and he already warrants a 30 for 30 (Or an SI Films because, you know, home team). In March 2017, he was widely considered the consensus No. 1 overall pick. In June, the Celtics—who saw something in Fultz’s workout that terrified them—tricked, er, traded Philadelphia the top pick for No. 3 and a future No. 1. In September, Sixers brass was mortified by the unilateral changes Fultz made with his shooting form and by October, Fultz began battling shoulder issues that limited him to 14 games last season.

That Fultz reportedly wants to reboot his career elsewhere—though it should be noted that Fultz’s agent, Raymond Brothers, told ESPN that Fultz had not requested a trade—isn’t surprising.

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Elsewhere, Fultz isn’t the No. 1 pick.

Elsewhere, Fultz isn’t rebuilding his confidence on a conference contender.

Elsewhere, Fultz could find a better fit than on a team that has little need for a ball-dominant playmaker.

The problem? Philadelphia can’t send him elsewhere.

Want a blunt assessment of Fultz’s trade value? One rival executive suggested the Sixers make a call to Phoenix, to see if a Fultz-Trevor Ariza swap could be on the table. Ariza is a versatile, defensive-minded forward who could help Philly’s playoff push. And Phoenix could take a flyer on Fultz, hoping to rebuild him in a low-pressure environment.

That’s right: The value of last year’s No. 1 pick is a faded, 33-year-old forward on a one-year deal.

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The Sixers have limited options here. When Fultz returns—and the Sixers seemed blindsided by his agent's decision to yank him out of the rotation—they don’t have many places to put him. He’s a poor fit in a Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons/Jimmy Butler lineup, and he has competition for backup minutes in the more limited but more reliable T.J. McConnell. 

Can Fultz’s confidence really be rebuilt on a team where his minutes are uncertain?

Probably not.

Know where it can? The G League.

Per the NBA’s collectively bargained rules, teams have the right to assign players with less than three years of service to its minor league affiliate. Demoting Fultz for an extended stint would be unprecedented, but Philadelphia is running out of options. Fultz’s lack of confidence in his jumper—he’s shooting just 28.6% from three—makes him virtually unplayable in the fourth quarter, particularly with Butler in the fold.

A couple of months in Delaware might be the best thing for him.

Are there risks? Sure. If Fultz stinks it up with the Blue Coats, his confidence could crater and his trade value would completely bottom out. But Delaware would allow Fultz to play 35 minutes a game in a pressure-free environment. In Delaware, Fultz would play for Connor Johnson, a former Philly assistant and Elton Brand’s hand-picked coach of the Blue Coats, who will play Fultz in a Sixers-centric system.

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Might Fultz resist? Maybe. It’s a drop kick in the ego to be sent to the G League. But Fultz doesn’t have much leverage. He’s under the Sixers' control for the next two seasons, three if you count the $16 million qualifying offer Philadelphia can extend Fultz in 2021. He could refuse the assignment, but the Sixers could then suspend him, choking off his $8.3 million salary this season.

Hard to see Fultz’s reps recommending that.

It’s a Hail Mary, but these are desperate times. Fultz has become a distraction—Simmons refused to answer any questions about Fultz before Wednesday’s game against the Pelicans—and a team trying to incorporate a new alpha in Butler on the fly can’t afford that. Whatever is going on with Markelle Fultz, it doesn’t seem to be fixable in Philadelphia. To rebuild Fultz’s confidence, the Sixers may need to sink it even further.