Philadelphia 76ers: Forget starting, Markelle Fultz needs to close games

Markelle Fultz | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Markelle Fultz | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Should the Philadelphia 76ers start Markelle Fultz over J.J. Redick? Redick over Dario Saric? Those questions are largely inconsequential, as what really matters is who Brett Brown puts on the court with the game on the line.

There’s been a lot of chatter about Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown’s decision to slot J.J. Redick in the “Manu Ginobili” role in favor of starting Markelle Fultz. Some people love the decision. Some see it as unmerited. Some believe Redick and Fultz should both start, with Dario Saric coming off the bench. I see all of these opinions as valid, but they’re also focusing on the wrong end of the game.

Yes, first quarters and starting groups matter, especially when the Sixers starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, J.J. Redick, and Dario Saric had the best net rating of any starting group in the league last year, but what matters more is knowing your best guys for finishing a game.

Which is to say that the aforementioned group does not deserve to finish games merely by merit of last year’s net rating, especially when you consider that last year the Sixers had a group of five that included Amir Johnson that finished with a better net rating than the starting group, albeit in far fewer possessions. If you want Amir Johnson on the court in crunch time, I can only assume you’re either an undercover Celtics fan or Amir’s mother.

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Embiid has to play in the clutch. Simmons has to play in the clutch. Covington’s defense is too valuable to not play him in the clutch.

That leaves the Sixers with the trio of Redick, Saric, and Fultz fighting for late-game playing time (and maybe Wilson Chandler in the right situations, but for the sake of argument I’m leaving him out of this).

In close games, three-point and free throw shooting become essential. Down six with a minute to go? Threes go farther than twos. Up two with under twenty seconds left? A great free throw shooter wins that game.

Last year, Redick shot 42 percent from deep and 90 percent from the line. Saric? 39 percent from deep and 86 percent from the line. They best space the floor for Simmons and Embiid while being proven commodities to go to for clutch free throws. Fultz could be those things, but he isn’t yet.

In fact, Fultz might never be an elite three-point or free throw shooter. I think he’ll be at least good in those areas, but Redick’s 42 percent from deep and Saric’s 86 percent from the line are numbers that Fultz shouldn’t be judged for never reaching.

To say that Redick and Saric are the better late-game options by merit of those numbers alone is to say that the Sixers should make sure they always have two such players to plug in with Embiid, Simmons, and Covington to close games.

I, for one, don’t think Markelle should forever be banished to the bench when games get tight.

Still, perhaps he shouldn’t close games during his first full year, or at least not to start the season.

The problem with that is that if the Sixers are going to outperform last year, Fultz is going to be a big reason why. To not throw him into the fire in order to, what, motivate him? Teach him a lesson? He watched enough close games from the bench last year.

Fultz brings enough elite skills to the table, such as playmaking and defense, that his unproven three-point and free throw shooting shouldn’t matter. He was also brought to Philadelphia in large part due to his ability to create and make tough shots, someone who would score essential late-game buckets. He can’t grow either his confidence or ability in that area if not placed into the highest-pressure situations.

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Playing Fultz in the clutch might fail at first, but long-term the idea is that he, Simmons, and Embiid will be indispensable players who can’t leave the court with the game on the line. More important than learning to start together, they need to learn how to close together.

Of course, Brett Brown doesn’t have to be so strict about his closing unit, as great coaches adapt to particular situations. If a matchup favors Fultz, play Fultz. If the matchup favors Redick, play Redick. If the matchup favors playing both Fultz and Redick, then sit Saric.

Perhaps some games it will be best to switch Fultz and Redick out for each other for defense and offense respectively. Maybe, while Fultz plays clutch minutes, Brown yanks him when it’s obvious that the team needs either a three or their best free throw shooters on the floor (here an interesting argument could be made to pull Simmons, but we won’t go there).

The heart of this debate is that the Sixers are spoiled to have at least six players who fans wouldn’t be mad to see on the court in crunch time (don’t worry, you’re still on my mind, Wilson Chandler).

The Sixers are dealing with an excess of riches, and it would be hard to fault Brown for going with any combination of Fultz, Redick, and Saric in the clutch, but when the playoffs arrive, and fans expect a better result than last year, it’s more likely that Fultz will be the kind of player who can generate that difference-making impact, which he won’t be ready to provide unless he’s learning his true importance all year long.

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In an Eastern Conference that promises to be tight at the top, eking out close games will matter for playoff seeding. Fultz might encounter initial failures as a closer, but he needs to be placed in that role as soon as possible. When the regular season begins, Fultz should be a starter, which is a smart decision, but the smarter choice will be for Brett Brown to put Fultz on the court when it matters most, in the situations the Sixers traded up to number one and drafted him for.