Should Opponents Try to Ruin Markelle Fultz?
The on-going Markelle Fultz saga has taken a downward turn over the last few days. The ugly hitch in his free throw form has returned, elevating to a full double-clutch miss yesterday. On the same day, his summer trainer, Drew Hanlen, tried to cover his own ass by revealing that they're no longer working together, or even speaking.
Plenty of people have tried to diagnose what's troubling the young Sixer, but I think we've reached a point where a more brutal but interesting question should be asked:
Should opponents start trying to break Fultz to the point of ruining his career?
The league has made the Hack-a strategy of intentional fouling less appealing for teams to employ within games, but in this case the tactic would not be about maximizing your chance of winning a specific contest. Instead, the strategy would be to target an important player asset, who is on a long-term title contender but has a perceived mental struggle, in a way that would destroy their on-court and trade value though high profile embarrassment.
Teams target player weaknesses all the time, of course. Offenses use Isaiah Thomas's size against him. Defenses ignore Andre Roberson at the three point line. The reason we have the "Hack-a" term is from coaches sending Shaquille O'Neal to the free throw line to target his weakness there. Baseball teams run on Jon Lester because he seems to have a mental block about throwing to first base.
Fultz isn't close to the level of those players, though. Currently he exists more as a theoretical asset than a useful player, which presents a unique opportunity for competing teams to influence his value. If multiple teams started hacking Fultz specifically to embarrass him at the free throw line, could they trigger a psychological death spiral that makes him at best unplayable and at worst ends his NBA career? Could a concerted effort by rivals "Macky Sasser" him in just a few weeks?
The potential upside to doing this would be significant. Having acquired Jimmy Butler, the 76ers look poised to complete for the NBA title for years to come. However, their team is not particularly deep and the parts may not fit seamlessly together. Fultz certainly doesn't look like he fits with Butler, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons. Just over a year ago he was seen as a future superstar and there are likely still teams who want to acquire him now and think they can fix whatever it is that ails him, though.
That means that he still has trade value, and the 76ers need assets with trade value to solve their depth and fit questions. A calculated move to crush whatever remaining value Fultz has before Philadelphia can move or repair him would take one of those assets off the ledger. At the very top end of the league, that could be the difference between the 76ers trading for the one piece that unlocks the talent on their roster or struggling to ever quite make it fit as well as is needed for a championship.
If competing teams could render him unplayable and ruin his trade value, it would also force the 76ers to decline their option on the final year of his contract. They've already picked up his third season option but if he's a non-entity in the league that would also impact their cap space for next season by making it costly to get another team to eat his salary. If they find no reason to clear him off the books, they would at best lose him after three seasons where he has produced functionally no on-court value.
A downside does exist, too. It's possible that a heartless targeting of Fultz could be the motivating factor that fixes his problems. If his issues are entirely mental, it's impossible to know exactly how he would react to a major change in circumstances. While it seems more likely that he would break, it could galvanize the team around him or drive him into a mental state where he lets go of whatever problems are plaguing him.
It may be important to note that there is no outcome to this strategy that takes away that Fultz will make $25M before his 22nd birthday. There are ways that this could get really dark if it impacts Fultz off the court, but from an economics standpoint, he has already been a wildly successful professional athlete.
Ultimately the question is that with Fultz's trade value already relatively low, is it worth it to sacrifice the flow of your teams' games to try to shatter his ego and drive him out of the league, knowing that there's some small risk that it backfires? I think that the 76ers have now collected enough talent to rise to a high enough risk level to the rest of the league to make it worth trying. Philadelphia would still be greatly aided by turning Fultz either into a productive player or trade piece and so competing teams should take this opportunity to try and stop that, by whatever brutal means necessary, within the rules.