How TJ McConnell helped turn the Sixers’ season around

All the focus is on the bigs, but the littlest Sixer has filled a huge role.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Philadelphia 76ers
John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports
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On Monday night’s telecast of the Sixers’ 122-119 come-from-behind victory over the Sacramento Kings, CSN Philly color analyst Alaa Abdelnaby said that, outside of Joel Embiid, second-year point guard TJ McConnell is the team’s MVP.

That’s high praise for a guy who some (read: me) thought might not even make the team this year.

McConnell did play in 81 games last season, starting 17, and logged just under 20 minutes per game, but the Sixers were really, really bad. In order to make this year’s team better, they went out and signed Sergio Rodriguez and Jerryd Bayless to run the point.

Rodriguez was lured back from Europe on a one-year $8 million contract, while Bayless inked a three-year deal that pays him more than $9.4 million this season. McConnell makes the league minimum, earning every bit of his $874,636 this season.

Unfortunately, Bayless played in just three games this year, as his pre-season wrist injury required surgery. And yet, were it not for that injury and a hole in Brett Brown’s point guard rotation that needed to be filled, McConnell may not have seen much of the floor this year, if at all.

Bayless was pegged as the starter at point guard before the season, and while he rehabbed his injury, that role was given to Rodriguez, with McConnell spelling him off the bench. The duo still plays about equal minutes, with Rodriguez the better shooter and McConnell the far better defender, but as the second-year pro from Arizona has gotten more time with the first unit, his ability to dish and create shots for his teammates, combined with that effort on defense, has begun to set him apart. And his minutes in big spots continues to grow.

mood. [📷: @asubers]

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It’s not just that McConnell has been better than Rodriguez over the last 15 or so games, it’s that the team has played better around him. In games McConnell has started — his first a 12-point, 10-rebound, 9-assist, 3-steal outing in a win at Detroit — the Sixers are 11-5. What’s more impressive, though, is the team’s record in the games he’s ostensibly finished.

The Sixers aren’t just 11-5 in games McConnell has started, they are 11-5 in games he’s played more than 25 minutes.

In games he’s played 28 or more minutes, the team is 10-3.

Those three losses? One game where Joel Embiid didn’t play, one where Rodriguez didn’t play (and Nik Stauskas served as the backup point guard) and one where both Embiid and Rodriguez didn’t play.

The Sixers are 6-2 this season when both McConnell and Embiid play more than half the game (24 minutes or more) and 4-2 when both McConnell and Nerlens Noel play more than half the game. Ironically, one of those two losses was the only game Embiid, Noel and McConnell all played more than half the game.

If you look closer at the numbers, it’s no surprise the Sixers are thriving with McConnell and Rodriguez sharing time at the point, because — in admittedly different ways — the duo runs the floor precisely how Brown wants his point guards to play. The Sixers lead the NBA in passes made with 354.8 per game, 23.6 passes more than the next team. While they are eighth in the league in assists, they are fourth in potential assists. (Hint: shoot better.)

In distance traveled, the Sixers also lead the NBA with 17.59 miles per game, nearly 850 feet more than the next most traveled team. They also lead the league in offensive distance traveled, a good thing for Brown’s ball movement-based offense. In the NBA’s hustle stats, the Sixers are fourth in the league in deflections, with Robert Covington actually leading the league in that stat and McConnell firmly in the top 25 of all the players in the league.

The NBA also tracks the average speed of players, and Rodriguez leads the league, with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot second and McConnell fourth.

And yet, when the game is close, Brown has gone with McConnell more and more.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Philadelphia 76ers
John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Per Basketball Reference, the Sixers effective field goal percentage is .514 when McConnell is on the court, and .488 when he isn’t, a difference of 2.6 percent. The team’s assist ratio is 66 percent when he’s on the floor to 61.1 percent when he isn’t, a difference of 4.9 percent.

The team’s steals are up by .7 percent when McConnell is on the floor, while their turnover rate is half a percent lower. The team’s pace, or possessions per game, is higher when he’s on the floor. The Sixers have a higher offensive rating when McConnell is running the point and perhaps most importantly, late in games, opponents have a lower offensive rating when he’s out there.

McConnell’s own numbers are markedly better as a starter than as a sub, with an offensive rating of 105.6 when he starts and a 98.7 offensive rating when he’s a sub. He has a 102.2 defensive rating as a starter and a 106.4 rating as a sub, which means his margin is plus-3.4 as a starter and minus-7.7 as a sub.

Things have improved for the new starter. In 14 games in January, all starts, McConnell averaged 8.1 points and 9.3 assists and was a plus 4.1 with a 111 offensive rating. Also, this happened.

In the fourth quarter of games in January, McConnell’s numbers improve even more, with a 103.6 offensive rating and a 96.8 defensive rating in his 8.3 minutes per game.

This is why the Cavs want to trade for him. This is why Brown was upset he wasn’t included — with Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric — in the rising stars game. And this is why he’ll continue to start, even as the team gets closer and closer to Ben Simmons being healthy enough to play.

What happens then will remain to be seen, if Brown really plans to install Simmons as a true point guard. Until then, though, McConnell is doing everything to keep the starting job for himself.