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The Sixers should re-sign TJ McConnell

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How bringing back TJ McConnell can offer the Sixers cap flexibility.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Chicago Bulls Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

TJ McConnell did not have a good year last year. In particular his defensive on-off statistics were among the worst in the NBA. Those statistics are subject to random flukiness, especially for bench guys whose limited minutes give the regression analysis less data to work with. But the advanced numbers in TJ’s case match what the eye test tells people with working eyes: TJ’s lack of height, wingspan, and athleticism render him ineffective at the defensive end. For a surprisingly long time he was able to make up for this to some extent with steals of inbound passes and other hustle plays, but it appears that the league has caught on to his act and that stuff doesn’t work as often anymore.

And he doesn’t win it back at the other end. TJ takes care of the ball and hits a solid percentage on his midrange shots, but this is 2019, and if you can’t shoot effectively from distance — TJ can’t — you have to be absolutely tremendous at other things if you want to shine on offense. TJ isn’t, and doesn’t. He is somewhere between adequate and sub-adequate when the Sixers have the ball.

Consequently, if TJ is backing up Ben Simmons 12 minutes a night in the playoffs, that’s likely to be a disaster. And so fans were understandably concerned — almost 500 comments worth of concerned! — when the rumor floated yesterday that the Sixers were considering retaining the services of Timothy John for an additional stint. But despite the above, I actually think keeping TJ would be at minimum fine, and probably very wise.

This is the spot where many expect me to talk about culture and chemistry and locker-room fit and all that jazz. I have traditionally been skeptical of that stuff, but as time goes by and I have worked in different environments, I’ve come to believe there is in fact something to it. And TJ has a great rep as a fun teammate that guys want to be around. Moreover he offers a combination of professionalism — he’s played in big spots before and won’t panic if asked to do so again — with the bench-players-matter-too attitude. I.e. he won’t be disruptive if the coach gives minutes to others ahead of him. So, sure, the intangibles are on TJ’s side.

But that’s not really what this post is about: this is a salary-cap post! The reason we should think seriously about signing TJ is that doing so enables us to trade him for someone good. No, seriously! You may be thinking, why would someone give us a good player for TJ, who, after all, is not good? And the answer is: lots of reasons! In particular:

  • We might package TJ with draft picks to get a better player.
  • We might trade TJ, perhaps packaged with others, for someone better but more overpaid.
  • We might trade TJ for someone with a longer contract the other team wants out of.

I should probably say here that my preference would be for TJ to be signed as our third PG this season, not second. So let’s do that scenario. As has been widely reported, the Sixers have about $7.7M of cap space remaining. Let’s say $1.7M of it goes to Shake Milton, leaving $6M. We currently have:

Bigs

Joel
Al
KOQ
Jonah

Wings

Tobi
Richardson
Mike Scott (big wing or wingy big)
Zhaire
Matisse
Shake (maybe can play PG but maybe not)

Point

Ben

That makes 11. Let’s say we spend $6M for the best PG we can find; maybe we get lucky and it’s Tyus Jones. More likely it’ll be Shane Larkin or someone, but anyway, let’s say we get a backup better than TJ; I’ll call him VetPG.

In this scenario I am proposing we go over the cap to sign TJ (and, ideally, also James Ennis), and then wait around to see if there’s an interesting UDFA or veteran-minimum guy for the 15th roster spot (assuming here that Pelle and Shayok get the two-ways). Of course officially we need to sign the outside free agents before bringing back our own.

For concreteness let’s assume TJ gets two years at $5M/year.

So now we have:

Bigs

Joel
Al
KOQ
Jonah

Wings

Tobi
Richardson
Mike Scott
Ennis
Zhaire
Matisse
Shake

Point

Ben
VetPG @$6M
TJ

Plus a roster spot we can use to take advantage of opportunities.

So, how are we looking? Pretty good I’d say! Yes, yes, I know, we haven’t “replaced” JJ Redick’s shooting; some folks seem to think the team won’t be able to function unless we get one of the top five shooters of all time on the roster. I don’t anticipate that happening, sad to say. But the way I see it, this team has very good depth. If we assume that none of the young guys is a useful playoff contributor, we’re still fine, depth-wise. We have our probably-best-in-the-league starting five, and for the 12 times 5 = 60 minutes of backup play, we have O’Quinn and Scott and Ennis and VetPG; that’s plenty. and if one of the four young guys is good by April, so much the better!

But, look, we don’t know who VetPG is, maybe he’s Shelvin Mack, who is not really playoff quality; maybe that position requires an upgrade. Or maybe we really do need an excellent shooter off the bench, maybe we need a Wayne Ellington type despite his defensive deficiencies, or maybe we discover we need a creator, a Lou Williams type.

Such players are available come the trade deadline, or earlier. But... YOU HAVE TO MATCH CAP!! No doubt the Knicks will be interested in divesting themselves of Ellington come February, but if Wellington is making $8M, you need to trade someone making decent money to get him, even if the real heart of the deal is the return to NYK of one of their second-round picks. Or maybe we have a chance to trade for a real difference maker, maybe by packaging a first-round pick with players who make the cap math work. We can pick up LB favorite Patrick Beverley, or get JJ Redick back. Take a look at the roster without TJ and Ennis and ask yourself how we’re going to make that happen. But with TJ, it’s easy! For JJ, give them TJ, Ennis, and a pick. For Beverley, it’s VetPG plus TJ and a pick. Well, it’s Jerry West we’ll be trading with in that scenario, so probably it’s VetPG, TJ, and four picks, plus a first-born son to be named later! But you get the idea: if you don’t have players around who a) are not necessary elements of your core but also b) make pretty good money, then it’s really hard to upgrade your team. There are only two people in the whole world we are allowed to go over the cap to sign, and TJ is one of them. Arguably it would be foolish not to make a deal with him, even at an overpay. Indeed weirdly in a way he’s more valuable if he’s overpaid!

One last question (yes, I’m keeping this essay below 5,000 words, have to catch a flight!). If we don’t sign VetPG, if we enter the season with a PG rotation of can’t-shoot Ben Simmons, can’t-defend TJ, and hasn’t-proven-he-is-good-or-can-play-PG Shake Milton, should we panic? Like, say we spend the $6M on a wing, would that be worrisome?

Well, it wouldn’t be my first choice; like most of us, I enjoy the mental Tetris of building a beautifully-rounded roster. And I like watching us win, and if we lose some early games because of lousy backup PG play, that will be less fun for me, as well as hurting our playoff seeding — pretty sure that fourth bounce would have skittered off the rim if that shot had been taken in Philly!

But even if it goes that way, I’ll be Team Chill. Look at all the ways it can work out:

  1. Josh Richardson, who ran point in college, could turn out to be our backup PG for big games, playoff games and such. Remember, this is a scenario where we spent the $6M on a solid wing player, someone in the range between Justin Holiday at the low end and Danny Green at the high end. So if Richardson backs up Simmons for 12 minutes and plays 24 at SG, you still have VetWing (and perhaps Ennis as well) to play the other 24 SG minutes (and, if necessary, 12 more behind Toby at SF). And again, this is all under the assumption that none of Smith/Thybulle/Milton are ready for the playoffs; if even one of them is, things are even deeper and better.
  2. Shake could turn out to be a solid backup PG.
  3. We can trade TJ and picks for a good PG to play behind Ben.
  4. The buyout market.

One way or another, I’m pretty confident we’ll fill the final hole. I like my TJ/Ennis/VetPG plan best because it gives us a solid backup wing in Ennis, a solid backup PG in my $6M mystery man, plus TJ for leadership, fun, and cap help in a trade. But if it’s Vetwing/Ennis/TJ that’s almost as good, and even Vetwing/TJ with no Ennis is not hugely problematic.

Elton, go get ‘em!