Entering the Sixers 105-87 season opening loss to the Boston Celtics one of the biggest questions for the Sixers this season was a familiar one: with the return of a healthy former #1 overall pick into point guard rotation, would there be any minutes for TJ McConnell?
For now, the answer appears to be yes.
TJ played 22 minutes in the loss, but that doesn’t particularly mean too much for the long term. Last year in Game 1, Jerryd Bayless started and played 27 minutes only to be out of the rotation by March. It’s also of note that the Sixers were without the services of Mr. Bayless, Wilson Chandler, and Mike Muscala. The latter two figure to be part of the rotation once healthy. The point being that when it comes to the early season rotation, there’s a lot of room for adjustments.
So once again, we find ourselves questioning the place of TJ McConnell on the Sixers roster and although this is nothing new, this year the question carries more weight than ever. TJ is no longer beating Kendall Marshall out for minutes as the point guard on a 10 win team. Not only does McConnell now find himself fighting for time on a team with NBA Finals aspirations, his minutes and role may also be directly affected by the success or failure of Markelle Fultz. If the water wasn’t already murky enough, don’t forget to take into consideration that this is a contract year for the 26 year old Pittsburgh native.
Let’s dive into what possible roles and outcomes for the Point God (all apologies to Chris Paul), and see what they might mean for the general good of the Sixers.
Behind Door #1 … TJ McConnell is traded before the Feb. 8th Deadline.
Just after the tip against Boston, Philly.com’s Keith Pompey reported that the Sixers turned down an offer from the Phoenix Suns that would have sent TJ to the desert with a second round pick headed back to Philly.
With their extreme lack of point guards, there is a chance Phoenix ups their offer, and there’s also the chance that an injury crisis (like the one San Antonio is currently experiencing) could also trigger another offer. Expect trade offers to continue to come in for McConnell and his expiring contract, as teams look for a solid piece to fix any short term issues at point guard.
With a depleted bench and just five combined pre- and regular season games with Markelle Fultz back in the lineup, a trade (especially one that doesn’t bring back another useful on court piece for this season) involving TJ doesn’t seem all too likely for now. If the Sixers are getting decent production from Fultz and/or Landry Shamet, they may be able to pull the trigger on a McConnell deal down the line — especially if they know they are unlikely to resign him in the offseason.
The TJ McConnell problem:— Eric Sidewater (@SixersScience) October 2, 2018
Every single starter on the @sixers performs better without him (even addressing multicollinearity issue).
Redick + Embiid are good enough to cover his lack of Off/Def, but
Dario, Simmons, and Covington straight up can't play with him, whatsoever. pic.twitter.com/Xe6RkVDPzC
TJ McConnell’s presence on the floor doesn’t make the Sixers better, last season the team performed 2.8 points worse while he was on the floor. Which leads us to Door #2 … TJ McConnell is relegated to a deep bench role.
While teams typically see a drop off in the production from their starters to their bench unit, the fact that each member of last years’ starting lineup performed worse with him is telling. For all his effort and energy, the simple fact is on a team trying to build around three non-shooters, there might not be a place for a pesky point guard who also does not shoot.
As the spacing above shows, lineups that include, McConnell, Fultz, and Simmons are just simply not going to cut it for the Sixers.
Even if Fultz doesn’t seem like the third star the Sixers need, all the team would need to see for this situation to play out is that Fultz can become a better backup point guard than TJ McConnell. If that doesn’t happen, that leads to Door #3… TJ McConnell usurps Markelle Fultz as the team’s secondary ball handler.
Unfortunately for TJ, the most positive outcome for his playing time this season is also the darkest timeline possible for the Sixers.
The team has invested heavily in Markelle Fultz, and as Kevin Arnovitz detailed in his ESPN.com piece last week, when the Sixers envision Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons winning championships in Philadelphia, they envision Markelle Fultz under the confetti with them. For Fultz to once again be benched in favor of TJ would be devastating for the team and it’s long term future.
With three “push” guards who all struggle to shoot, the clock might be ticking on TJ’s time in Philly. However, this morning on The Woj Pod, Zach Lowe mentioned that there have been “talks” between the Sixers and McConnell regarding an extension, but there hasn’t been much traction. Lowe noted how high Brett Brown is on TJ and that he has a lot of fans in the organization, but he did go on to mention that given how protective the Sixers are expected to be with their cap space it is unlikely that a deal gets done before he hits free agency.
Since arriving in Philly, TJ McConnell has beaten the odds time and time again and become a fan favorite in town. He now faces his toughest challenge to stick with the 76ers and become a long-term member of what hopes to be a perennial contender.