The Markelle Fultz shoulder saga, now careening into its 13th month, is sad and could end the second-year guard's career with the 76ers.
The team seems tired of all the drama, and Fultz looks bad, with conflicting statements about his health dominating media reports off the court and his poor production getting full attention on the court.
Did it have to come to this? Maybe. Here is a look back on how the muddled mess developed:
Over much of the last year, perhaps as a way to protect the first overall pick of the 2017 draft, everyone involved went along with the idea that a shoulder injury was the cause of Fultz's shooting woes. The Sixers sent Fultz to several prominent doctors, but none of them found anything to prevent him from making shots. Sources have long said that Fultz's shooting woes were mental, that he had the yips and that the shoulder injury was not a factor.
Still, the Sixers maintained that Fultz's poor shooting was the result of, at first, his shoulder woes and later a scapular muscle imbalance. Perhaps they were protecting Fultz from the scrutiny they thought he would receive from having a mental block regarding his shot. Maybe they were protecting themselves from the scrutiny they would likely receive from trading up two spots and surrendering a future first-round pick for a player with a mental block.
Or it could have been for both reasons.
Others said the situation would blow over, and Fultz would regain the shooting form that made him an All-American in both high school and college. Instead, Fultz and his troubles have become a national curiosity.
On Thursday, Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper parodied Fultz during a touchdown celebration. Standing in front of the goalpost, Cooper mimicked Fultz's bizarre free-throw form of shifting the ball from his right hand to the left as he prepares to shoot. Fultz shot that way on Nov. 16 against the Utah Jazz in an attempt to eliminate a hitch in his foul shot.
Fultz apparently was not insulted. He shared his reaction to Cooper's celebration on Snapchat with the message "Good shot boy." Cooper said he doesn't know Fultz but thought the imitation was a cool thing to do.
Things had already heated up on Tuesday of last week when Fultz's agent and lawyer, Raymond Brothers, informed the Sixers that Fultz, who had played in 19 games this season through Thursday, with 15 starts, would not practice or play until he saw a shoulder specialist on Monday in New York. On Wednesday, The Athletic reported that Fultz is also dealing with a right wrist injury in addition to the shoulder ailment. According to that report, sources also said that Fultz would prefer a fresh start with another team. Later, Brothers denied the report.
The possibility of Fultz moving on is understandable considering how confusing things have been with the Sixers.
For now, however, Fultz is still around the team as if nothing has changed except his playing time. The Sixers keep saying they will do whatever is best for Fultz, but the situation has overshadowed the success the team has had this season.
Some sources have said that, despite the team's statements, Fultz is no longer in the Sixers' long-term plans. And they are no longer using his shoulder as an excuse for his performances.
Things have been gradually moving in this direction since Oct. 24, 2017, when Brothers inaccurately told ESPN that "Markelle had a shoulder injury and fluid drained out of the back of his shoulder. He literally cannot raise up his arms to shoot the basketball."
Hours later, Brothers changed his tune, saying, "He had a cortisone shot on Oct. 5, which means fluid was put into his shoulder — not taken out."
The next day, the Sixers said Fultz would miss at least the next three games with right-shoulder soreness. They said he would be reevaluated on Oct. 30, 2017.
Brothers' comments and the team's statement came after Fultz displayed poor shooting mechanics in four NBA games. The message was that his shot was altered because of shoulder irritation. While he did have scapular muscle imbalance, multiple sources have said that Fultz's shooting woes were more mental. ESPN's Mark Jones and shooting coach Drew Hanlen both said as much at different times in the last year.
Jones worked on the Sixers' nationally televised game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 28. He said during the game that coach Brett Brown disclosed in a production meeting that Fultz's shooting problems were mental. At the Sixers' request, Jones tried to take back what he said more than 24 hours later in a tweet.
Then, in June, Hanlen talked about Fultz on the "Talking Schmidt" podcast with host Daniel Schmidt. "With Markelle, obviously, he had one of the most documented cases … of the yips of basketball in recent years," Hanlen said, "where he completely forgot how to shoot and had multiple hitches in his shot."
Then, in July, Fultz reposted an eye-opening element on Instagram, now deleted, about emotional strength.
"Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are not a sign of weakness," the post read. "They are [signs] of having tried to remain strong for so long. 1 in 3 of us go through depression, anxiety or panic attacks at least once in our life. Would you share this on your wall for at least one day? Most people won't. To those who do — thanks for sharing the support. Let those who struggle know they're not alone."
Sources said a family member thought Fultz should delete that post because it looked bad. In September, Fultz, who did not explain the Instagram post, denied having the yips. He said Hanlen's comment in June was a "miss-term of words."
More recently, new Sixer Jimmy Butler weighed in. After videos of Fultz double-clutching on free throw attempts against the Miami Heat earlier this month went viral, Butler said, "He is a talented young player. From what I can tell, a lot of things are mental. In this league, 90 percent is mental. If you think you can do something, you can."
Fultz was cleared to resume team activities on Dec. 9, 2017, and the Sixers announced that the shoulder soreness and muscle imbalance were gone. But Fultz didn't play until March 26. Five months after he was projected to miss at least three games, he had missed 68.
Some sources said Fultz is getting bad advice. They said that the anxiety that resulted from the advice — not a shoulder injury — has affected his shooting. Some observers said there is no hitch in his shot when Fultz is in a good place mentally. But his shot is a mess during stressful times.
While they have been generally supportive of Fultz throughout the ordeal, the Sixers also created a false reality by saying he made drastic improvement under Hanlen. Hanlen also brought unwanted attention to the matter, at least from the Sixers' point of view, when he said during the summer that Fultz could be an all-star this season.
When the season started and it was apparent that Hanlen's projection was wrong, someone in Fultz's inner circle confronted Hanlen at halftime during a game and vehemently denounced him for Fultz's lack of improvement. Then, earlier this month, Hanlen created more controversy by claiming that Fultz is "still not healthy" while defending himself in a now-deleted tweet.
The next day, Fultz denied that he wasn't healthy.
"Everything feels good," he said. "Like I said, I'm out here playing. I'm out here competing."
Finally, we come to Tuesday, when Brothers broke the news about the appointment on Monday with a shoulder specialist. The news came six days after Fultz lost his starting position to JJ Redick and one day after Brown played T.J. McConnell in the second half against Phoenix instead of Fultz.
But Fultz showed up to practice on Tuesday anyway, participating in light shooting drills with teammates just a few hours after Brothers made his statement.
The difference between Tuesday's announcement by Brothers and the news Brothers announced on Oct. 24, 2017, that Fultz had a shoulder injury, is that the Sixers don't seem to be sure what to believe anymore.
"This news about his shoulder, it did catch me off guard," Brown said. "But if it's that real, that he needs to go seek further consultation, then we support him. In my eyes, it's not complicated. That's what it is, and we'll support him."
Brown noted that Fultz was lifting weights, and everything seemed fine with the shoulder. General manager Elton Brand said that Fultz seemed to be suffering from only the normal bumps and bruises that result from NBA games.
"He said he feels good," Brand said. "There's nothing that we saw medically that didn't allow him to play."
If the 76ers have tired of this saga and are considering trading Fultz, and multiple sources said they are, his trade value must have declined a great deal since the start of the season.
The team might be able to get a late first-round pick for Fultz from a desperate club willing to take a chance, or the Sixers could try for a player with an expiring contract. That would enable them to avoid paying the $9.7 million that Fultz is guaranteed for next season.
Butler is expected to opt out of the final year of his deal, and the money saved by trading Fultz could allow the Sixers to re-sign Butler and another top free agent.