The Sixers have a bit of a problem right now: they have 3 point guards, and none of them can shoot. It’s not a universal truth that a point guard needs a jumper, but it makes life a whole lot easier for the player and his teammates. The good news is that about 36 of the 48 minutes of point guard play belong to Ben Simmons, who is highly effective even without a jumper. But those other 12 minutes of point guard play are a question mark because of TJ McConnell and Markelle Fultz’ lack of jumpers and the reactions defenses have to that.
For much of the season, the backup point guard role belonged to TJ McConnell. When Markelle Fultz returned to play in March, he took over that role, for the most part. It wasn’t the case that McConnell didn’t play at all, but since March 26th (when ‘Kelle made his return), TJ has played more than 20 minutes just once after averaging 24 MPG before that date.
It made sense. TJ had been in a funk, and Markelle, well, the list is endless as to why it made sense to get him as much tick as possible while managing his load. But the Sixers are in the playoffs now, and the time to experiment has passed. The Sixers need to limit the damage when Simmons leaves the court. Especially without Joel Embiid in Games 1 and 2, the team has been vulnerable when Simmons hits the pine.
The dilemma Brett Brown faces is who deserves the backup point guard minutes between Fultz and McConnell? Both players are flawed, with both lacking consistent shooting. But they also bring something to the table. Fultz has shown an ability to break defenses down with his dribble penetration. It hasn’t shown itself as regularly as you’d hope, nor has his touch around the rim, but it’s there at times. TJ is a competent initiator, hounds opposing guards on defense and just has a knack for making hustle plays. Grit, is what they’ve told me.
In the Sixers’ Game 1 against the Heat, Brown opted to rely on Fultz more than McConnell. Fultz played 14 minutes, scoring 5 points to go along with 2 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals, and finishing +12. In the same game, McConnell saw just 6 minutes of play, tallying 2 points, 1 rebound and 1 assist, and finishing -6.
Game 2 on Monday didn’t have the same success in the cards for Markelle Fultz. Fultz looked bad, no other way to put it. In 5 minutes, he was a negative. No points, rebounds or assists. Just 1 turnover and 1 foul. His shot was totally off. TJ showed a little more, if only marginally: he added 2 points to 1 rebound and 1 assist. Yet McConnell was a -6, compared to Fultz who was a -1. Now, plus/minus in a single game or even over a two game stretch isn’t exactly indicative of much at all. But it’s the evidence we have.
One thing to note about Fultz’ Game 2 stint is that he saw just 1 shift. 1 shift, and Brown had seen enough. Fultz was done for the game. But Brown didn’t replace Fultz’ shift with one from McConnell. Brown, instead, upped the minutes of the starters. The move was likely more in response to the Sixers trailing in game, and not as much a condemnation of either Fultz or McConnell. But it still begs the question, what exactly is Brown’s plan at backup point guard moving forward?
With Simmons playing nearly 40 minutes in Game 2, one obvious possibility is that Simmons’ heavier minutes distribution becomes a pattern. But that runs the risk of wearing Simmons out and not preparing him for a long run into the playoffs. Another solution revolves around the return of Joel Embiid. Once the star center is back, the Sixers can stagger his minutes with Simmons, and that way, Brett need not worry about the offense falling off a cliff when Simmons goes out. But they still need someone to initiate in the scenario.
Assuming the premise that one of Simmons and Embiid is on the floor at all times, it might make more sense to have TJ running the point in absences of Simmons. McConnell was Embiid’s primary point guard for a significant portion of Embiid’s playing career, so the chemistry is there. And a lineup that includes, say, Embiid, McConnell and Covington could be anchored in defense, alleviating some of the pressure to score. But I’m not so sure the chemistry matters as much as I’ve lead on, which leads to the case for Fultz.
Fultz has a feel for the game that’s undeniable. And while Fultz has appeared hesitant to pull the trigger at times, there’s also been glimpses of his refusing to be denied of getting to the rim. He’s been adequate at times on defense, but also aloof here and there.
So here’s what it really comes down to: the ceiling for the offense is higher when Fultz is on the floor rather than McConnell. But with Fultz, there’s the possibility that he’s totally off or makes rookie mistakes, while Brown almost always knows exactly what he’ll get out of McConnell. Brown will often face a decision revolving around trust and expectations. Sooner or later, the rotation will have to shorten if the Sixers advance in the playoffs. Brown may not phase one of Fultz or McConnell out if he tries to play McConnell with Simmons. In that case, TJ takes minutes at the 2. However, we know that hasn’t worked out very well. In terms of the backup point guard role, the minutes should go to Fultz.
While you have to love the tenacity and veteran presence McConnell provides, Fultz precipitates a more dynamic offense. Markelle gives the Sixers an isolation scorer, regardless of his lack of a consistent jumper. The Sixers need to be able to score in the half-court more frequently, especially in lineups devoid of Simmons. I’m willing to listen to any argument to the contrary; I understand there’s a fear of trusting a rookie Markelle Fultz in the playoffs. I don’t have a whole lot of evidence to support my opinion, 2 games isn’t a great sample size on top of limited minutes. But everything I’ve seen thus far, not ignoring Fultz’ Game 2 struggles, leads me to believe it would be a mistake to phase Fultz out of the lineup or to take away his role as backup point guard.