During Friday morning’s exit interview, general manager Bryan Colangelo confirmed the Sixers plan to exercise the team option for T.J. McConnell for the upcoming 2018-19 season. The decision made perfect sense with McConnell set to earn just $1.6 million, as having a rotation caliber player at such an affordable price is vital to Philadelphia’s current salary cap flexibility. It’s no secret that the team has its sights set on the pursuit of a high-level free agent, with LeBron James and Paul George the big names on the market.
The fact that McConnell will be around next year in Sixers red, white, and blue has to thrill fans of the 26-year-old point guard, a growing contingent on the heels of his tremendous playoff series against Boston. However, the flip side of picking up the option is that McConnell will now be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Given the current roster construction for the team, I would argue next season will be T.J.’s last in Philadelphia.
As mentioned, the Sixers are interested in signing the caliber of free agent worthy of a max contract in the coming months. If they miss out on the top guys, they will likely pull a repeat of last summer, signing players to top-dollar, one-year deals, in order to roll the cap space over a year to wait for the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson to enter free agency.
So Philadelphia will either be employing its present cap space for a max-level player, or conserving it for such a player next summer. Furthermore, after this season, the Sixers will have to begin worrying about extensions for Ben Simmons and Dario Saric. All of which is to say that they won’t have the cap space to retain McConnell when he hits the open market.
To see how things will likely play out, we only have to look back at another undrafted, fiesty defender at the point guard position to which McConnell is often compared, Matthew Dellavedova. Delly signed a two-year deal with Cleveland back in 2013 for $1.3 million. After one additional year under a qualifying offer, Dellavedova then signed a 4-year, $38.4 million deal with Milwaukee as part of a sign-and-trade.
Cleveland clearly would have liked to retain Dellavedova. Later on in the 2016-17 season, the Cavaliers even tried to trade for McConnell to fill the scrappy point guard void left by Dellavedova’s departure. But the economics of paying $9-10 million per year for a rotational player didn’t work for Cleveland when it was paying max level money to multiple stars.
The Sixers will be in a similar situation with McConnell. They will be paying max money to Embiid and Free Agent X, with considerations for Simmons and Saric forthcoming. By the end of next season, Markelle Fultz will (hopefully) be a regular part of the rotation and the team’s primary ball handler whenever the rock is not in the hands of Simmons. It would not be feasible then to pay $9-10M per year to a third point guard in McConnell.
From McConnell’s perspective, while I’m sure he would ideally like to stay in Philadelphia, why should he take the proverbial hometown discount? After next season, he’ll have made just shy of $4.5M total across his four seasons in the league. I know that’s an enormous chunk of change for us regular joes on the 9-to-5 grind, but it’s a pittance for a modern NBA player. McConnell should absolutely be looking to maximize his earnings in his first chance at hitting free agency right in the middle of his prime.
Philadelphia fans have come to love the energy and passion McConnell displays whenever he takes the court. He was an integral part of the feel-good vibes surrounding the team these past few years, in both the good times and the bad. Yet, as we are so often reminded, in the end, this league is a business. We will likely have one last year watching T.J. flexing and slapping the hardwood at the Wells Fargo Center before he goes off to grab his big payday. Hopefully, like Dellavedova, if McConnell does leave next summer, he’ll do so shortly after becoming an NBA champion.