Groundhog Day: Inside the Fultz melodrama that shadows over the Sixers

PHILADELPHIA – On the court Wednesday night, the Philadelphia 76ers played one of their most entertaining games of the NBA season.

Led by a dominant display from MVP front-runner Joel Embiid and an aggressive Ben Simmons, the Sixers built a big lead over a New Orleans Pelicans outfit that had won six of their last seven games. Then, as they have done with unfortunate regularity over the past two seasons, they proceeded to let their lead slip. It was Groundhog Day, as the Pelicans came roaring back.

With three seconds remaining, Anthony Davis stood at the free-throw line with a chance to tie the game. Fortunately for the Sixers, Davis missed his final free-throw, the clock ran out and Philadelphia escaped with a 121-120 victory. It was their tenth straight home win to start the season and twentieth straight in the regular season overall.

This was a fun, entertaining game with so many wonderful familiar pivot points. Even still, nothing that transpired on the court could overshadow the real story of this night.

The melodrama that has been brewing for 18-months kicked into gear on this Thanksgiving eve and erupted into a chaotic mess.

The already muddled Markelle Fultz situation exploded pregame. Attempting to quantify this on-going saga remains a challenge, as it is constantly evolving and moving in directions that are approaching absurd. But there was no mistaking the mood within the Wells Fargo Center tonight, and the Philadelphia 76ers franchise at this very moment.

For the first time all season, anger was in the air.

The first sign of trouble came pregame during Brett Brown’s media availably.

Brown is one of the more verbose head coaches in the NBA. His thoughtful nature makes him one of the friendliest interviews in the sport. Throughout this season, as the Fultz situation has bubbled away, he has maintained a calm demeanour and batted away questions with a politician’s whit. Not tonight.

As the Philadelphia media, predicably, peppered him with a plethora of Fultz-related inquiries, there was a blunt tone emanating from Brown that is beyond atypical. It is was a glimpse into a coach who was clearly frustrated; sick of the media speculation and annoyed at the conundrum a second-year player has created. The look on his face was, as the old saying goes, worth a thousand words.

If the Sixers head coach set the mood at terse, the reigning Rookie of the Year raised it to a point of irritation.

Sixty minutes after Brown took the stand, it was Simmons’ turn to face the media. Even by his notoriously blunt standards, what followed was pure agitation.

The mention of Fultz’s name all but shut the conversation down. Mentions of countryman Jonah Bolden and the Pelicans All-Star duo did nothing to dissuade his mood.

Following his 50-second availability, Simmons stormed away from the media pack. He was clearly displeased with the line of questioning and left barking back at one media member, stating that he doesn’t want anyone to “twist the situation.” This comment was clearly a reference to Fultz.

All of this happened before the NBA’s leading news breakers went to work. First, The Athletic reported that Fultz is suffering from an apparent wrist ailment that will be examined Monday. The report also claimed Fultz would prefer to be traded.

Not twenty minutes later, Raymond Brothers, Fultz’s agent, told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that he has “given no indication to Elton Brand or anyone else that Markelle would prefer to be traded.”

Confused? That would be the natural reaction given the latest turn of events in this saga. There is no need to doubt the reporting from either side. This information is being drip-fed to the NBA media, and information is undeniably coming from both sides of the aisle. To that end, some of the nuggets within The Athletic piece – which outline the entire Fultz timeline dating back to his time in college – are equally astonishing and not surprising in the slightest.

So where does that leave everything? The relationship between Fultz and the Sixers is deteriorating rapidly. That much was evident yesterday, when news of Fultz’s holdout broke, and tonight only ratchets up doubt over the long-term sustainability of this relationship. There has to be serious questioning of whether Fultz has played his last game as a 76er.

People around the team are bemused by the situation. “This is a crazy job, and this has been the craziest week of all,” a source within the Sixers front office told The Pick and Roll today. Everyone, from the coaching staff to the public relations team to the front office, is reacting to a changing mood from the Fultz camp in real time.

One thing does appear clear, however: those managing Fultz have misplayed their hand. Claims of physical ailments could be proven correct when he attends the specialist on Monday. But any suggestion these have been lingering for months, as The Athletic report suggests, fly in the face of what the Sixers, as a franchise, believe. The fact this whole situation elevated in the wake of Fultz’s benching on Monday night raises so many relevant questions regarding motives.

The entire situation is straight stranger than fiction and while a resolution is clearly approaching, it is anyone’s guess as to when closure will arrive.

For what it’s worth, the mood from all involved was more relaxed postgame. Simmons called Fultz his brother and reaffirmed his support. Brown stated he wouldn’t elaborate further, but he returned to his jovial self by evoking Bill Murray’s classic film, Groundhog Day, as a parallel for the situation.

On a night where everything felt so familiar on the court, it was only apt that Brown’s levity brought the mood back down. In the end, after everything that transpired tonight, there is still a cloud of confusion hanging over Fultz’s place in Philadelphia. The more things change, the more they stay the same for these chaotic Sixers.