Is It Time To Have An Honest Conversation About TJ McConnell?
Just how much is TJ McConnell hurting the Sixers?
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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Considering everything the Sixers had done personnel-wise over the summer and the course of the next regular season, it probably shouldn’t be surprising to Sixers fans that depth seems to be such a problem currently. Given the combination of two-for-one trades, free-agency no-shows (and defections), prospect failures and injuries that this team has endured, if I had laid it all out for you at the beginning of the summer and told you I wasn’t sure there was a single player we could trust in the postseason beyond our starting five, I can’t imagine you’d be shocked.
But you might have one question, at the very least: Well, what about T.J.?
Good question. What about T.J.? Well, he’s a Core Four member of The Process, certainly -- always has been, always will be. That’s not changing. And he’s both our best locker room glue guy and sideline mascot. That’s probably not changing either.
But do we actually feel safe with him on the court right now? Well.
We’re not even a year removed from the T.J. McConnell Game -- Brett Brown throwing the crew-cut curveball last postseason that earned us our lone win of the Celtics series and one of the signature Ws of the entire Process era. And for much of this season, that T.J. still seemed to show up when we really needed him, feeding easy dunks in the open court, pile-driving into the lane and angling out for off-balance jumpers, and ball-hawking in the back-court for momentum-shifting steals. There were times when you felt like he’d never miss a ten-footer again. There were times when you were sure he’d end up a Sixer for life, somehow.
Those times feel pretty far away this late March. It’s never been the most urgent topic of conversation with this rollercoaster Sixers squad, but this has been easily the worst month of T.J.’s season, and very possibly the worst of his career with the Sixers -- since the games started actually mattering, anyway. He’s averaging five points and two assists in 16 minutes a night, shooting 42% from the field. He has 15 total turnovers and just four steals. He hasn’t hit a single three. He’s a minus-7.6 from the field, and has an offensive rating (89) a whopping 27 points lower than his defensive rating (116). He’s been absolutely brutal in nearly every respect, essentially dating back to the All-Star break.
Of course, everyone slumps in the NBA -- just ask his bestie J.J. Redick -- and bench players are particularly susceptible to small sample sizes making their fallow periods look more dramatic than they actually are. But it’s not just that the shots aren’t falling for T.J. (and they aren’t). It’s that it’s getting strangely difficult to feel confident in him even making the right decision on the court right now.
There was a moment in the Orlando game when I knew it was probably time for me to write this article. It was at the end of the first half, when T.J. got the live rebound with about two and a half seconds remaining in the quarter. It wasn’t enough time to do much, but it was enough time to do something. Dribble up and get a heave from just past the timeline. Quickly throwing ahead to J.J. and see what he could do with it. Not a high-percentage play, but one comfortably higher than zero.
And yet I instinctively knew that the buzzer would go off with the ball still in T.J.’s hands. He’s been dreadful at end-of-quarter situations for most of the season, either losing the ability to count along with the game clock in his head or suddenly becoming very concerned with not tanking his overall three-point percentage. Sure enough, the buzzer sounded with T.J. still pushing upcourt, releasing the ball comfortably enough after the bell that Marc Zumoff didn’t even bother pretending there would be any suspense with the ensuing replay. (His highly ineligible 25-foot runner went in, natch.)
It’s been a lot of that with T.J. recently. Clanked jumpers. Shrunken floor spacing. Trying to force passes where there’s clearly nothing there, or making an extra pass when there’s not enough time left on the clock for anything to really develop. Defense hasn’t been much better: He isn’t forcing turnovers or pressuring the ball the way he does at his best, and his two most memorable sequences on D this month have been him getting muscled through by Jeremy Lamb for what should have been a game-tying layup and him fouling Giannis Antetokounmpo at half-court on a buzzer-beating three attempt for no particular reason. (The latter gaffe made Brett Brown as angry as I’ve ever seen him in his six years of weathering ceaseless on- and off-court catastrophes.)
But by far the most maddening part of Teej’s current game has been his predisposition towards passing up open threes. Many is the Sixers possession with McConnell on the floor that ends up with the ball being swung to him in the corner, no defender within ten feet of him. He begins his wind-up -- whether he ends up shooting or not, he always slow-plays his hand -- and then most often, he lightly pump-fakes and drives into the lane. From there, it’s really nothing but bad options: turnover, pass to teammate with no time to do much, or bricked running leaner. In 196 combined minutes this month, he’s only attempted a total of five triples. It’s particularly infuriating, because it seems like at least once or twice a game, the Sixers will work for 18 seconds in order to create the offensive advantage that ends up with T.J. having a wide-open look for three -- and he ends up going Bartleby, the Scrivener with it.
And there doesn’t seem to be a particularly good reason why. Of course the Sixers have long specialized in point guards who can’t shoot threes, a proud legacy that goes back to at least Andre Miller and also encompasses Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, Ish Smith, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and countless other luminaries over the years. But T.J. has shown that he can knock down uncontested ones, at the very least: Last year, he shot 43.5% from deep, better than buddy J.J. even. Of course that was on fewer than one attempt a game and most of those were Black Moon-level open, but if you shoot 44% on the easiest threes, you should be able to at least shoot a semi-respectable number on slightly tougher ones -- respectable enough that it’s still a better percentage than passing them up for drives to nowhere. T.J. is such a cocky motherfucker in every other respect of his game and personality, why is this the one area where he seems cripplingly insecure?
Now, if it all feels bite-your-tongue sacreligious to you to discuss his game in this manner, fair enough. This is still T.J. we’re talking about here. A couple good games in the playoffs where he sparks the bench with a steal and a layup, throws Ben and Joel a couple alley-oops and spends an entire commercial break headbanging to AC/DC and we’ll probably forget all about this slump. And even if the season ends in disappointment for T.J. and the Sixers alike, his Process legacy is as secure as any Sixers player not already nicknamed The Process. He could punch Bryce Harper in the stomach after his final game at the WFC and still get cheered the next time he returns.
But speaking of a final game at the WFC: It’s worth mentioning that T.J. is a free agent after this season. The Sixers are going to have a ton of tough decisions to make this summer, and chances are pretty good that retaining Teej is not going to be their top priority, or anywhere all that close to it. It’s possibly he comes back on a team-friendly deal and spends the next decade-plus essentially as our Udonis Haslem or Nick Collison, but after four years of playing for relative peanuts in Philly, it wouldn’t be surprising or unfair to see the young man try to finally get paid.
Meanwhile, Brett Brown says he’s not going to be relying on Shake Milton in the playoffs, citing his relative experience. Makes sense, but the rookie has already shown enough signs of all-around competence in the G-League and some limited PT in the pros that he could he grow into a slightly better-fitting backup PG for this team, playing off-ball as well as on. If T.J. can’t get his mojo back this postseason, Milton might have to serve as the Break Glass In Case of Point Guard Emergency option. And whatever happens in the remainder of this season, chances are pretty good this is T.J.’s last ride with the 76ers.
I certainly hope that he gives us one last show in that time, to remind us of how much we loved him for most of his stay here, and to get us searching around the front office for loose change to at least cobble together a competitive offer to keep him here. But if his play this month continues into April and May, saying goodbye to T.J. McConnell after his unforgettable four-year Process term is complete is going to be much easier than we ever could have expected.