Perhaps that's because LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have given few indications they're capable of flipping the switch and have played like a mediocre squad for much of 2017-18.
The Indiana Pacers are too new on the scene to promote fervent belief. Even the Raptors, dominant as they've been, fail to inspire confidence because of their shoddy postseason resume in recent years.
The door is open for a second-tier contender to creep into the conversation, and none have a wild card quite like the Philadelphia 76ers and injured rookie point guard Markelle Fultz.
In the interest of full disclosure, we still can't confidently guarantee the Washington product will suit up again during the current campaign. Head coach Brett Brown won't yet give any indication he'll get back on the court as he recovers from the mysterious shoulder injury/mental block that's prevented him from taking jumpers during in-game situations:
But signs hinting at a return are popping up with increased frequency.
Fultz Making Progress
"Everybody’s path is different. Everything happens for a reason. What he's going through is only going to make him stronger and better as a man and a person..." Victor Oladipo recently told Philly.com's Keith Pompey about the young guard who graduated from DeMatha Catholic High School six years after him. "His time is coming. I know he'll be ready for it, because I know he puts the work in."
All season long, the basketball world has searched for signs of progress, breathlessly analyzing pregame videos of his shooting form and speculating at every turn. At one point, the coverage grew so intense that teammate JJ Redick—one of the league's more media-friendly players, to the point that he hosts his own podcast—couldn't take it any longer.
"JJ Redick was out on the court getting shots up during shootaround this morning, and he let some choice words fly as the media assembled to watch Fultz shoot. 'The kid's f--king 19,' he made sure to say pretty loudly," PhillyVoice's Kyle Neubeck reported at the beginning of February.
But all of a sudden, the takeaways are becoming positive.
His free-throw form still needs significant work as he seeks fluidity from legs through the flick of his wrist, but he's no longer displaying an ugly hitch halfway through the motion:
He's finding twine on turnaround jumpers:
Running into the corners and hitting deep shots on the move? Not an issue:
Ditto for this step-back bucket, though it would be nice to see him move right into the shot rather than momentarily pausing to gather:
None of this guarantees a return in the imminent future. Warm-ups are different from five-on-five drills, and five-on-five drills are lightyears away from full-game action with something on the line. But progress is still progress, and that's more than we've seen from the reigning No. 1 pick in quite some time.
At the very least, this growth offers hope he could get back on the floor before the end of the regular season and prepare to provide some sort of spark for the playoffs. And if he morphs into anything like the player he was expected to become in college, he'd fit perfectly with his healthy compatriots.
Exactly What They're Missing
Philadelphia has become a formidable team, outscoring opponents by three points per 100 possessions on the season. Only the Utah Jazz (3.2), Celtics (4.2), Raptors (8.6), Houston Rockets (9.1) and Golden State Warriors (10.0) have superior net ratings. Dwindle the date range down to include only what's occurred since the Feb. 8 trade deadline, and the Sixers' mark elevates to an impressive 6.3.
But in each situation, they're winning through defense, as this graph from NBA Math helps illustrate:
Through the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign, Philadelphia ranks Nos. 13 and 5 in offensive and defensive rating, respectively. Since the trade deadline, the Sixers are at...the exact same spots. No matter which portion of the year we isolate, the team is winning because it has a switch-happy, seamless scheme that makes the most of the length and athleticism of everyone on the floor.
The offense is capable, but that's largely because individual presences have been so strong.
Ben Simmons, despite his limited shooting range, is already one of the league's premier interior finishers and has vision that would make 99 percent of the league jealous. Joel Embiid is one of the most dominant frontcourt forces, demanding double-teams on the blocks. Dario Saric's versatility is useful, and the shooting combination of Redick and Robert Covington, while reliant on set-up feeds, keeps defenses honest.
But the Sixers are missing someone who can consistently score off the bounce, breaking down a defense and getting buckets in key situations. The playoff demands such presences, and a frustrating season from Jerryd Bayless—to the point he's fallen out of the rotation—hasn't helped fill the void.
That's where Fultz could be so useful. As Brown revealed in mid-March, via NBC Sports Philadelphia's Matt Haughton, "He really does something with the basketball that no other player with the exception maybe of Ben [Simmons] can do with a live ball."
No team uses isolation sets on a lower percentage of its possessions than Philadelphia's 4.1, with the San Antonio Spurs (4.5 percent) coming closest. Worse still, its 0.83 points per ISO possession prove superior to only the numbers posted by five squads currently outside the playoff picture.
The struggles don't end there.
Golden State is the lone outfit (10.3 percent) turning to pick-and-roll ball-handlers for a lower percentage of its plays. Philadelphia checks in at 11.1 percent, well behind the New Orleans Pelicans (12.5 percent), Denver Nuggets (13.3 percent) and everyone else. And again, it's not efficient; its 0.84 points per relevant possession narrowly avoid the bottom 10.
The individual excellence of Simmons and Embiid has helped overcome these struggles, but this is atypical for an NBA offense. The Sixers are in a world of their own with their utter lack of reliance on perimeter-oriented ball-handlers as scoring threats:
These are the areas in which Fultz is supposed to excel. Let's turn to Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman for some pre-draft analysis, hearkening back to a time featuring fewer shoulder concerns:
"He's the complete package of scoring, playmaking and shooting. Fultz was the only freshman in at least the last 25 seasons to average no fewer than 20 points and five assists per game and shoot over 40 percent from three-point range.
"He scores from all three levels, both on and off the ball. Unlike Simmons, Fultz is an advanced one-on-one shot-creator with an arsenal of pull-ups, step-backs and crafty maneuvers off the dribble. He could even play some 2-guard with the ability to shoot off screens or spot-ups."
Lest we forget, we've already seen that player battle against fellow pros. Not during the regular season, but when he was suiting up for the 76ers' summer-league outfit:
To shore up their biggest weakness, the Sixers wouldn't even need him to look like that pull-up artist. In fact, he could make just two off-the-bounce shots per game and supplant Marco Belinelli (3.5 pull-up points per game) as the team's second-leading pull-up scorer, trailing only Redick's 6.0.
How Good Could They Be?
Defenestrate any and all stats from Fultz's first four professional games. Once those are all firmly out the window, we can move forward. It's no longer relevant that his team scored just 80.4 points per 100 possessions during his 76 minutes, or that he slashed 33.3/0.0/50.0.
If Fultz is playing well enough that the Sixers are confident throwing him back into the fray, he'll likely resume with a minimal role. He'll play sporadically in lineups coveting more offensive punch before threatening for a starting job and teaming up with Embiid, Simmons, Covington and Redick to form the dream team of the future, with Saric serving as a supreme sixth man.
But here's the key part: The Sixers, strange as this may seem after so many tankjobs, aren't far away from unabashed excellence. And they're reaching such a level while posting a minus-7.5 net rating when Embiid and Simmons are both riding the pine, per PBPStats.com.
Those situations only occur, on average, for six minutes per game, but imagine if that time featured better production. After all, it's the offense that grinds to a complete halt, scoring just 103 points per 100 possessions.
Even with those dry spells, Philadelphia sits at No. 3 in overall net rating among teams out East:
- Toronto Raptors, 8.6
- Boston Celtics, 4.2
- Philadelphia 76ers, 3.0
- Indiana Pacers, 2.0
- Washington Wizards, 1.3
- Toronto Raptors, 13.3
- Philadelphia 76ers, 6.3
- Cleveland Cavaliers, 4.7
- Miami Heat, 4.5
- Indiana Pacers, 3.5
The good news doesn't stop.
Even though the Sixers are already brushing shoulders with the best and brightest in their half, they've done so while facing the conference's most difficult schedule. Now, they get to capitalize on the league's easiest slate of remaining opponents, per Tankathon.
The teams left on Philadelphia's calendar have a combined winning percentage of 0.397, putting them in a different ballpark than the Charlotte Hornets (0.426), Warriors (0.450), Detroit Pistons (0.452) and everyone else.
The 76ers, already an ostensible lock for the postseason, may currently possess the No. 6 seed, but they have a distinct chance to overcome a three-game deficit and move into bronze-medal positioning. And the key is ending up in the right spot, because they'll be capable of beating any non-Raptors outfit, especially if even a poor-man's version of Fultz is able to help mitigate their biggest weakness.
Assuming Toronto ends up with the East's best record, finishing with the second or third seed, staying put at No. 6 or dropping one spot sets the table for a manageable path to the Eastern Conference Finals—a stage that hasn't featured the Sixers since Allen Iverson led the franchise to the 2001 NBA Finals.
Don't laugh, but Philadelphia, as currently constructed, is capable of making that deep a run while Cleveland is struggling with chemistry and defense, the Celtics are beset by injuries and no other team has emerged as an elite unit. But the organization would still benefit from a Fultz return, since we can safely assume he'd only re-debut if he were in working order.
If that happens, we'll have to figure out a new ceiling on the fly.