Generally speaking, Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell are held up by the Sixers fan base as “Heroes of the Process,” those players plucked off the scrap heap and developed into valuable NBA contributors when a more traditional rebuilding team would not have had space on the roster for them. Covington has already received the more outward signs of having “made it”, being granted his 4-year, $62 million contract extension and awarded All-Defensive 1st Team honors. Meanwhile, McConnell enters the 2018-19 season on the final year of his first contract before entering unrestricted free agency. What does the future hold for the former Arizona guard both during the upcoming season and beyond?
Like at the beginning of last season, T.J. enters the year third on the depth chart at point guard. Ben Simmons is coming off a Rookie of the Year campaign and is already entering MVP deep sleeper discussions. Drew Hanlen can’t go a day without gushing about how Markelle Fultz is going to burst back onto the scene like a supernova. On the surface, there isn’t much room for McConnell to work his way into major minutes. Not the ideal scenario for a young player trying to strike it big in a contract year.
Of course, like life, T.J. McConnell always seems to find a way. He is still the best option on the roster to defend small, quick opposing point guards, a revelation Brett Brown came to a little too late in last spring’s series against Terry Rozier and the Celtics. Recognizing an improved outside shot was imperative to allow him to take the floor alongside Simmons, T.J. worked diligently on that area of his game and shot 43.5% from three last season (albeit on just 0.8 attempts per game). It wouldn’t surprise me to see McConnell make further strides this season, sacrificing some efficiency for more volume.
As a result of his hard work, between last regular season and postseason, McConnell and Simmons were in the lineup together for a total of 753 minutes (per NBAWowy.com). Expect to see more of the same this season, as well as even more of the McConnell and Fultz pairing that has only seen 70 minutes together to date, especially if Hanlen is a reliable soothsayer when it comes to Fultz’s shooting revival. Even without a definitive role as “backup point guard”, McConnell should scrap and claw his way to slightly over 20 minutes per game once again.
Though it may pain the Sixers faithful, whether the fan favorite sticks around beyond this season is more of an open question. Philadelphia has carefully arranged its books to retain enough cap space next summer for a max free agent. In addition, both Simmons and Dario Saric will be on the final season of their rookie deals and the club may wish to think about contract extensions. Those bigger picture moves leave a possible McConnell re-signing lower down on the list of priorities.
Furthermore, if there was any hope that McConnell might still be an under-the-radar gem, that went out the window when he was a legitimate difference maker in a second round playoff series. Teams across the league are well aware of what he brings to the table as a pesky defender and steady floor general. This summer, we saw the going rate for backup guards currently sits at around $10 million per year; Dante Exum signed for 3-year, $33 million with Utah and Fred VanVleet re-upped with the Raptors on a 2-year, $18 million deal. If McConnell’s value starts approaching that salary level, the Sixers would not even be well over the cap by bringing him back, but possibly even approaching the luxury tax depending on what other moves transpired.
McConnell will see his fair share of minutes for the Sixers this season, but any success he experiences represents a sort of double-edged sword for Philadelphia. The better he plays, the higher his potential asking price in free agency, and the increased likelihood some other team might be able to lure him away. So for now, soak in every second of gritness.