The final headlining move of Thursday’s trade deadline came as the 76ers finally chose to part with Markelle Fultz, their No. 1 overall selection in 2017 whose career has been in flux ever since due to injuries and on-court struggles. Fultz is headed to the rebuilding Magic, where he will receive all the opportunity he could ask for, in exchange for Oklahoma City’s protected 2020 first-rounder, a 2019 second-rounder, and veteran wing Jonathon Simmons. It’s a deal that makes a ton of sense for both sides in concept. Let’s break it down.
Although it surely hurts for Philly to admit defeat and move on from Fultz, for whom they surrendered an additional first to move up two spots and draft, this is a good return based on the way his value had bottomed out. Getting a real first-round pick in return should be viewed as a win at this stage, and recoups assets after the Sixers surrendered two future first-rounders for Tobias Harris early Wednesday. The selection belongs to the Thunder and is Top 20 protected for next season, meaning it will have a good chance of conveying given how consistently competitive OKC has been (if not, it becomes the Thunder’s 2022 and 2023 second-rounders). The second-round pick will be the most favorable of Cleveland, Houston and Orlando’s selections in this year’s draft, meaning it will likely be a valuable choice in the early 30s.
While surrendering Fultz will understandably be tough to swallow for some, it was a necessary move for both the present and future—he was not likely to help their playoff rotation and needs on-court development time to resuscitate his career. Any remorse at this point was worth throwing out, and both Fultz and the Sixers should benefit from moving in different directions. His bizarre off-court saga, the mysterious disappearance of his jump shot, subsequent injury woes and the fact he’d become a poor fit next to ball-dominant Ben Simmons had made this a tenuous situation. Sometimes, the best thing is to admit you flubbed the pick (which, in Philly’s defense, was more or less a consensus choice at the time) and move on.
If you throw out the optics of Fultz’s past and purely look ahead, this is a strong move by the Sixers, who needed to create long-term cap space to help retain Jimmy Butler and newly-acquired Harris as part of their core. Two real draft picks, future flexibility and an extra wing player in Simmons, who could potentially beef up their rotation in the playoffs (and is only guaranteed $1 million for 2019-20) helps Philadelphia on multiple levels. There is a school of thought that the Sixers could have moved Fultz for a more useful role player as they pursue an Eastern Conference title, but after adding James Ennis for next to nothing earlier in the day and then getting strong value here, the entire thing makes a lot of sense. This is a team positioned to contend for the next few years, and they complete a busy deadline with another positive move. Expect the Sixers to stay active on the buyout market, as well. Even if Fultz has a rebirth in Orlando, if Philly hits its ceiling as a Finals contender, it will be something everyone can stomach.
For the Magic, who have been perpetually stuck in first gear trying to get their rebuild off the ground, acquiring Fultz on the cheap is a perfect low-risk, high-reward decision. He is still just 20 years old and under team control on his rookie contract through 2021, when he could become a restricted free agent. Although Fultz’s struggles have been public and well-documented, if you believe his shooting problems are tied to the health of his shoulder, then there is certainly a chance for him to rehabilitate his value. To have any chance of doing that, Fultz needed to go somewhere he could actually play through his mistakes, and with the Sixers’ timeline having accelerated massively in the past six months, the Magic are a perfect low-pressure environment for him to do that.
While Fultz has not done much of substance in his 33 NBA games, Orlando is right to take a chance here. Even if he’s not a real star, as he was pegged by many going into the 2017 draft, there is a definite level of upside here by simple way of the fact that things can’t get any worse. The Magic get a chance to develop a starting-caliber point guard and need a real scorer to place alongside Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba going forward. They hope Fultz can at least be that. Both picks they are giving up are on some level superfluous, as Orlando has all of their own future first-rounders, and also has the Nets’ second-round selection in 2019. Even if Fultz never fully delivers on his upside, it’s really not much to surrender for a chance to find out.
One question worth asking with Orlando is why they chose to hang on to Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, both of whom are on expiring contracts and could have returned some value at the deadline. That said, the Magic can afford to re-sign Vucevic this summer and trade him later if they choose. Altogether, this is a worthy, intelligent gamble by Orlando that could inject some energy into their organization. And if Fultz is reborn in central Florida, everyone will be better off for it.