Jayson Tatum and Markelle Fultz: The rivalry that never was

Jayson Tatum and Markelle Fultz were pit against each other as rivals before they even played a single NBA game. Now, things are looking much different as their careers take vastly different paths.

When the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers agreed to swap the first and third picks of the 2017 NBA draft, we knew the two players selected would be locked into a prime-time rivalry whether they wanted to acknowledge it or not. Except that's not how things work anymore. Jayson Tatum, selected third, and Markelle Fultz, selected first, are good friends off the court, as most young players are in the modern NBA. From AAU ball to high school tournaments, many top prospects cross paths and forge relationships long before they begin their NBA careers, much to the disappointment of the league's most outspoken retirees who think friendship is making the league soft. (Note to those players: Rule changes that remove physical contact from the game has made the league softer than any friendship).

“People try to make us be enemies by how we got drafted, but we don’t care about that,” said Tatum, who was selected two spots behind Fultz. “There’s no animosity between me and him. We’re really best friends off the court.” - Boston.com

Fans hear ya. Fans don't care. Fans want blood.

And they didn't get it.

The rivalry is dead. It's not coming back (I'll explain why later). I'd almost say it never lived to begin with, but there was one moment that looked to be a sign of what's to come before Fultz's injuries derailed his rookie season:

That was one of those Oh my god, it's really happening types of moments. And it felt so great for the Celtics to win the first round of the Fultz-Tatum legacy match. Remember, it was the Celtics who moved down in the draft. It was the Celtics who passed up on the consensus best player available. Danny Ainge took that risk even after the city of Boston adopted Fultz as one of their own as soon as the draft order was announced.

That Summer League game was the end of the rivalry.

How Fultz fared against his peers became a non-story as the only priority was to get him healthy enough to play. If only we knew what was wrong.

I mean, we think we know now. But we thought we knew a year ago, too. Sort of.

In an interview earlier Tuesday, (Raymond) Brothers 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. He decided to try and fight through the pain to help the team. He has a great attitude. We are committed to finding a solution to get Markelle back to 100 percent."

(Previously in the article, referring to an earlier report)

The agent for Philadelphia 76ers guard Markelle Fultz changed his explanation Tuesday night on the treatment that the No. 1 overall pick has received on his right shoulder, revising his earlier statement that fluid was drained from it during the preseason.
"He had a cortisone shot on Oct. 5, which means fluid was put into his shoulder -- not taken out," agent Raymond Brothers told ESPN on Tuesday night. "My intention earlier was to let people know that he's been experiencing discomfort. We will continue to work with (Sixers general manager) Bryan Colangelo and the medical staff." - ESPN, October 25, 2017

The key detail in re-telling the story is that, for a moment, the 76ers and Fultz's agent were reporting on totally different forms of treatment that Fultz was receiving, hence the clarification in the quotes above. This lack of communication between the Fultz camp and Philly's management is a huge red flag, almost reminiscent of the back-and-forth between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs last season, where every week brought conflicting reports of Leonard's health and desire to negotiate with the team.

In both cases, the key issues were no longer about basketball. The conflict may have started on the court, but ultimately the erosion of trust drove the team and the player apart. Now, Fultz and the 76ers haven't separated (yet), but it's not like they've ever really been together, either. Both parties seem to share a common goal in developing Fultz as a core component of the team moving forward, yet neither seem to know what to do, how to do it, or when. Evidently, substantial playoff experience was not in the cards for Fultz, not even to exact revenge on the team that glossed him over to take Jayson Tatum instead. Fultz played 23 minutes over the course of three games in the 76ers' first-round series against Miami and did not see the floor in any of the five games against Boston. My not-so-deep theory is that he wasn't healthy then, either.

Any further evaluation of Fultz's career will not be seen through the lens of a rivalry. There are two possible outcomes:

  1. Fultz becomes a serviceable NBA player, at worst, or a star, at best, and the league will be universally happy that he's found his way onto the court. Unless Philadelphia beats Boston in a series where Fultz and Tatum are prominently featured, their accomplishments won't ever be compared in a serious manner.
  2. Fultz is traded and bounces around to a couple teams who want to take a flyer on him before the experiment is over.

Meanwhile, Tatum has been rock steady in the face of unexpected adversity of a different form. A slow start and a myth that Kobe Bryant ruined Tatum's brain through voodoo magic (performed during a summer workout) feels like a fleeting distraction now, as the Celtics are back on track since adding Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris to the starting lineup. As things around him change, Tatum stays the same. He's reliable for about 20 points when you need them, on efficient shooting, as many of his teammates experience fluctuation in their roles, their production, and their physical health.

I guess the real spectacle here is the lack of one. I can't remember another time where a fan-generated rivalry evaporated so rapidly, especially given that Celtics and 76ers fans are constantly at each other's throats on social media. It's an odd act of unspoken chivalry that both groups have agreed to leave Fultz out of the crossfire. This is the same Boston crowd that cheered when LeBron James appeared injured in a conference finals game. It just goes to show that the competitive spirit around the Fultz and Tatum pick swap has been whisked away, likely to never return. While I'd like the Sixers to be awful, I'd love for Fultz to come back at full strength and duel with Tatum in a meaningful basketball game. It's what everybody deserves.

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