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December 03, 2018

NBA Trade Rumors: Can Sixers afford to turn down first-round pick for T.J. McConnell?

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050818_McConnell-5_usat Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell reacts after scoring against the Boston Celtics during the second half of Game 4.

There is perhaps no city more interested in backup quarterbacks and point guards than Philadelphia. At least in basketball, you don't have to bench Ben Simmons completely to get Bobby Hoying involved.

The Markelle Fultz saga (I feel like saga is just attached to his name now, at this point) has thrust backup guard T.J. McConnell back into the spotlight for Philadelphia, with various rumors bubbling to the surface about his value around the league. Who better to turn to than Adrian Wojnarowski, who joined Ryen Russilo on last Thursday's episode of The Russilo Show, and had this to say about McConnell's value on the trade market:

T.J. McConnell, who had been the source of some trade talks...think about this, T.J. McConnell probably could have gotten, in fact, I'm very confident T.J. could have gotten Philadelphia a first-round pick in the last few weeks. Markelle Fultz probably can't, think about that.

There are so many teams who need a point guard, either a really strong backup or a spot starter, and there are teams that just don't have a point guard at all, who T.J. could just come in and organize their group. You can get a first-round pick for T.J. McConnell, but Philly's not doing that. They need him now, they need him to play on this team. They need him to continue in that role, and so they're not listening to those offers right now.

All that goes out the window with some crazy offer, but barring that, the Sixers want to keep T.J.

I'm certainly not plugged in enough nationally to figure out just how much (and from who) the Sixers could get for McConnell, but I do know they have scaled back any discussion of moving him in recent weeks. Let's ask a more relevant question — would moving McConnell at this juncture be a move that helps Philly short and long-term?

Yes and no.

The Fultz situation puts them in a bind

As much as this theoretical move sounds tasty on the surface, the Sixers are not in a great position to trade McConnell for anything right now.

That's because the uncertainty surrounding Fultz has brought his value down to what is (or at least could be) an all-time low. And if you don't want to take my word for it, here's more from Woj on the Russilo podcast:

I think right now my sense is they feel they would struggle to get a first-round pick for him. They might have been able to get one a month ago or two months ago, but the uncertainty now is murkier around the league about how much of this is physical, how much of this is mental. Probably more of a combination, but nobody really knows. He's due nine million dollars next year, that's a pretty big cut into anybody's payroll.

The one thing you hear people say is, well he needs to go somewhere where they're going to just let him play, and I've heard people around the league say just the opposite...putting him on the court and playing isn't necessarily the solution right now. Maybe the solution is bringing him in and just shutting him down and trying to fix whatever is wrong, and trying to first understand what that is.

Before we can talk about fixing anything, does anybody really understand what happened, why that happened?...listen, Philly hasn't solved it from within. And that's not an indictment of Philly, it's complicated, there may not be an answer to it.

As it pertains to the trade market for Fultz, that's obviously not good. But more relevant to the discussion about McConnell, it basically renders any trades involving their backup point guard impossible for the time being.

Who do the Sixers turn the reins over to in the event they move McConnell? It has already been reported elsewhere, including by Philly.com's Keith Pompey, that the Sixers are looking to turn the page on the Fultz era. They were already beginning to plant seeds of doubt before the latest development with Fultz, benching him against Phoenix to play McConnell in the second half of a close win.

The trade for Jimmy Butler also signaled a change in urgency for the Sixers. This was a year that started out on a relatively patient path, with the decision to develop Fultz alongside the starters coming at an immediate cost. The Sixers abandoned that quickly, and with Butler on hand, there is an expectation that they must compete for the conference crown.

Philadelphia will never come out and say it publicly, but it doesn't take an expert tea leaf reader to determine they believe McConnell is a safer bet to help them accomplish that than Fultz. Even when Fultz was playing heavy minutes at the start of the season, Brown turned to McConnell in crunch-time situations and had last year's No. 1 overall pick sit the bench.

The team's surprise at Fultz being removed from the lineup by his agent only complicates the trust a coaching staff can have for a player who has been fairly erratic on court. Improvement has been made since the start of the season, particularly on defense, but if they don't trust that he'll even attempt open threes, can you deal the only trustworthy backup option behind Simmons?

The answer is probably no. Some nights, McConnell may be downright essential. He was so on Sunday night against the Grizzlies, a healthy +16 across 31 minutes of action. He gives Philadelphia another guy on the floor who can dribble, which helped the offense keep moving in the fourth quarter when the ball was out of the hands of their star players. That's not a small thing to consider.

McConnell will be exposed in certain matchups and should absolutely be on the table if it's part of a process to get another high-level contributor in Philadelphia. But generally, the teams that need point guards enough to trade any sort of first for McConnell are bad teams, a la Phoenix. The Suns are (probably) going to send you a heavily-protected first at best, knowing they need draft picks to continue building around their young core, which more likely turns into multiple seconds.

Are a couple of second-round fliers worth the immediate hit you'd take? Probably not. Decent players on cheap contracts who don't figure to command big money in the future are a valuable commodity.

Is the upside really there?

Here's the other, less complicated side of this — getting a first-round pick for McConnell would be quite a deal for the Sixers, and it seems a little crazy that they wouldn't take it.

I think McConnell is pretty much the best possible version of his archetype, and a really good backup point guard, albeit with limitations. But this is about the investment of resources as much as anything else. One of your core players (who will be on a max extension soon enough) is a point guard. McConnell's utility next to a guy like Ben Simmons is ultimately pretty limited, so you could make the argument that Philadelphia should be in pursuit of more complementary pieces.

But the Sixers are no longer in a position where they can afford to take the gamble they'll hit again at the expense of their present-day roster. Barring some sort of crazy offer, trading McConnell this season would mean removing some of the minuscule depth the Sixers currently have in search of a small chance at future upside. Not only would the Sixers have to bet on the pick conveying, but they'd also have to be confident they can either get a contributor where it lands or flip the pick in a package for one. That's a sucker's bet.

The trade for Jimmy Butler was a 2-for-1 swap that you make every time, but even in that trade you've seen some of the repercussions of sacrificing depth. With two starters gone, the Sixers have had to lean heavily on Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala, hand minutes to the previously unused Furkan Korkmaz, and have basically no escape lever to pull if someone goes down. Remove McConnell from that mix and you not only lose another helpful, reliable guy, you take another great locker room guy out of the picture.

Look at the exact series the Sixers were bounced out of last season and tell me if you think depth matters for a team trying to win now. The Celtics lost two of their three most talented players, and they were still able to get within a game of the NBA Finals because their bench ran deep enough. A guy like Aron Baynes isn't all that valuable on his own, but the more of those players you can stack on a roster, the larger your margin for error gets beyond your stars.

Turning an undrafted free agent into a first-round pick sounds like a fever dream for the folks who stuck around during "The Process." And all of this comes with subtext — if a "real" first is on the table for McConnell, and not one equivalent to the protected nonsense Bryan Colangelo traded Nerlens Noel for, it would probably be malpractice to walk away from the deal.

But this is a reflection of the shift in dynamics around the organization. They can't exactly afford to chase small windows of upside at the cost of losing players who can help them win games right now.


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