The Road Less Traveled

“Are we there yet?”

No, I’m not talking about the 2005 Ice Cube movie. Rather, I’m referring to the persisting question during any long journey. A turbulent flight, a strenuous road trip, a crowded train ride. The “there” in question usually hints at a better place than you currently are. Sunny beaches, thrilling amusement parks, the bright lights of a big city. You want to know how far away you are because of how excited you are to arrive at your destination.

Additionally, this inquiry often comes up in the latter stages of the expedition. At the beginning of the trip, everyone feels fresh and ready for the long road ahead. However, after a while, impatience settles in. The novelty of traveling wears off. Sure, the trek is fun and all, but you’re ready to move on.

This is the exact point in the journey where the Process Trusters currently reside.

The end goal for every NBA franchise is a championship. Every owner, every coach, and every player wants to be holding the Larry O’Brien trophy after the final game of the season. Ultimately, each team begins the new year on a journey, hoping the end result is an awkward congratulatory encounter with Adam Silver.

For Sixers fans, the journey has lasted far longer than just one season. Like the other 29 teams in the Association, our end goal was always a championship. However, the organization strayed from the norm and took a different approach when trying to reach the promised land.

When Sam Hinkie took over and launched “The Process,” Philadelphians knew we would not be competing for a title for quite some time. Hinkie looked at the landscape of the league and saw the bigger picture. He had, some may say, the longest view.

Winning a championship in the NBA requires star-level talent. Hinkie looked at the roster and quickly realized no superstar free agent was going to be enticed by Spencer Hawes manning the paint and Evan Turner launching deep twos. Hinkie knew a championship was nowhere within reach considering the current construction of the roster. He was not satisfied to remain on the treadmill of mediocrity, fighting all year long to finish with the 7th seed and get bounced by a superiorly talented team in the first round.

Instead, Hinkie discarded every actual NBA player in hopes of acquiring more assets. The Sixers no longer needed established, talented players such as Thad Young and Jrue Holiday. Instead, they trotted out Casper Ware and Brandon Davies, guys who wouldn’t even be the best player at your local YMCA. Hell, even Kwame Brown found minutes with the Sixers.

For the most staunch 76ers fans, the beginning of this journey was welcomed. A few losing seasons seemed like a small sacrifice to pay in order to secure championships down the line. Many supporters got on board with celebrating second-round selections and the draft lottery becoming the most important night of our season. The Process was embraced.

Now, Philadelphians seem ready to take the next step. We’ve endured national analysts blaspheming against Sam Hinkie. We’ve put up with demands to change the draft lottery system and accusations of stupidity. But now, the fruits of our labor have arrived. Our patience has paid off. The FEDS are coming, and they’re guaranteeing to bring us to the promised land.  

Believers in all things Process are ready to do away with losing and welcome in the years of dominance assuredly on the horizon. We’ve paid our dues and believe our team has finally made it. However, we need to keep the final goal in mind.

The ultimate “there” is not merely reaching the postseason. Yes, this year looks promising, and the Sixers should secure a spot in the 2018 playoffs. However, let’s not lose sight of where we want to end up. The “there” we are working towards is a championship. The Sixers might not be quite “there” yet, but the trip is almost over, and the final destination is in sight. The journey has been bumpy, but the wait will be worth it. Sit back and relax, we’re coming in for a crash landing.

Sixers at Mavericks: Game Preview

The Sixers (1-4) will take on the Dallas Mavericks (1-5) in Dallas at 8:30 PM. The Mavs lost their first four games of the season before splitting a home-and-home series with Memphis. The Sixers will look to bounce back from Wednesday’s heartbreaking home loss to the Rockets. Markelle Fultz will be inactive again with a sore shoulder and broken jumper.

3 Things to Watch For in Tonight’s Matchup

Former teammates/best buds Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel will face off in the paint. Both centers have been talking trash to the media leading up the game. If we are to believe Joel, Nerlens should prepare for his ass to be cooked. Embiid should have no problem posting up the shorter, leaner Noel. However, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Embiid said he expects Dallas to double team him and even play zone. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle wants to cover up Noel’s weaknesses and put Embiid in uncomfortable situations. A nearly perfect basketball player, Embiid’s major problem this season has been turnovers. Carlisle will not hesitate to send double teams until Embiid proves he can read the defense and make accurate passes under duress. Also, look for Noel to test Embiid’s conditioning by repeatedly sprinting to the rim in transition.

Few teams plays zone defense in the NBA, but the Mavs will likely deploy it tonight. Asking Dirk Nowitzki to guard either Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid man-to-man would be disastrous. Expect Carlisle to use a “matchup” zone, which is less like the classic 2-3 set defense you played as a kid and more like a man-to-man with extreme switching. Look for Brett Brown to select offensive sets that will force Nowitzki or Noel to close out to Redick, Covington, and Bayless in the corners. Additionally, the Sixers could try to pull the Dallas bigs out to the perimeter with Embiid-Simmons pick and rolls. Simmons should have a field day passing the ball if he can split the gaps in the zone and get into the paint. Here’s how the Spurs attacked the Mavs zone a few years ago. Watch how San Antonio uses a ball screen to pull Chandler out of the paint. Diaw gets a three when Nowitzki’s closeout to the wing is late.

  1. Disregard the numbering. I just can’t delete it without deleting this whole paragraph. Sorry. Anyway, I fully expect Robert Covington to make life miserable for Harrison Barnes on isolation plays. Every time Barnes stares him down, Covington will know every move and counter move that Barnes is likely to use. When Rock guards a guy like Kevin Durant, scouting reports and film study can only help so much. Tonight, Covington should be able to stick with Barnes athletically and use his IQ to contest every shot.

This is a game that the Sixers should win, but if they lose, let’s not panic. Only panic if someone gets hurt. Follow our Twitter during the game for commentary. See you on the other side.

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Longest View Conversation: Sixers, Kyrie, Bucks, Dennis Smith, and More

Hey there, Jack Coolahan here. Today, we are offering our readers a look into a short email chain between myself and Executive Curator of Takes Connor Grabowski. We test out some hot takes and air out our frustrations regarding the NBA. I would love to title this article a “roundtable,” but our website only has two writers, so it’s a conversation. Again, please contact us if you are interested in writing.

Jack: Hey Connor, here are a few takes for you on this lovely afternoon. I honestly think Embiid might stay healthy this year. Apparently, he’s been working on his landing mechanics this offseason, so hopefully he won’t keep landing awkwardly after dunks and blocks. I kind of want the Cavs to trade Kyrie to the Knicks, mostly because Porzingis NEEDS help. The best case situation for their careers would be to stay far away from New York, but Kristaps doesn’t have a choice, at least right now. Otherwise, it’s a pretty slow time for NBA news right now. When do you think Okafor is getting traded?

Connor:

Good afternoon my good sir, I enjoyed those takes of yours!

I too think Joel Hans Embiid will be healthy for the majority of the season. I have always believed that his slew of injuries and setbacks were primarily coincidental and not a danger to his long-term health and longevity. I just think his body grew too fast for how little basketball he’s played in Cameroon. So as he develops more as an athlete, he’ll have less and less injuries. Right?

Kyrie to the Knicks would surely be saucy. What do the Knicks have that teams want besides like Filthy Frank and future picks? You’d probably have to get a third team like Phoenix involved to send out Bledsoe and some picks and maybe even highly-touted center, Alex Len! I really do think Kyrie will stay in Cleveland and will have an ungodly uncomfortable year on the Cavs with his drama, LeBron’s drama and DRose’s imploding ACLs. I would love to see Kyrie go to Minnesota though. Kyrie-Teague-Wiggins-JB-KAT … yikes. Imagine how little defense would be played by that team.

Here are some takes of my own:

  1. Dennis Smith Jr. will either suck or get injured really early on in the year. He has too many *almost* dunks for him too be a stud and/or healthy in his rookie year. The fact that he’s #2 in the odds for ROY is a joke. What’s an even bigger joke is that I would have drafted him at 3 if we didn’t trade for Fultz. I’m such a hypocrite. I’m also a huge JTate and Jackson hater.
  2. The Bucks will be bad this year and win no more than 45 games. Everyone’s super high on them because they got the 6 seed in a super weak east last year, but they didn’t really add anyone and a bunch of other teams did (1-2-3-4-5-Sixers). Their bench is also pretty rough and Brogdon is aging. The Rookie of the Year in the twilight of his career! Sad!
  3. Jahlil Okafor will play the whole season with the Sixers, and I’m pretty sure of it. I think they’ll just decline his option and he can go waste away in Chicago next summer. There’s no way Colangelo is still popping his collar and waiting for better offers like he claimed to do with Portland and Denver back at the deadline.

Also, an underrated headline is that Nerlens still isn’t signed. The Mavs are being bums and not giving him what he wants because his market is so dry. Would you rather have an underpaid Nerlens back or Justin “Can’t Play Basketball” Anderson and two second round picks that we will probably trade for Cash Considerations anyway. Granted, Cash Considerations is a decent player with some upside.

Jack: Lot of Takes to make my way through here. Kyrie on the wolves would certainly be interesting. They’d probably have to give up Wiggins to get him, so you can take Wiggins out of your theoretical lineup. I think Thibs, Jimmy Butler, and Taj Gibson would just force the young guys to play. I could see them finishing top 4 in the west. Your DSJ take is certainly a hot one. I’m not as low on him as you are, but I agree people are overreacting to his summer league performance. Point guards often go through a lot of growing pains and I don’t think he’ll win Rookie of the Year. I’m also annoyed at people’s optimism about Milwaukee. A lot of NBA writers think they’re going to be the next East team to make the Finals, but they lost to the Raptors, who got smoked by the Cavs. It all depends on how much improvement Giannis can make.

Should The Sixers Trade For Kyrie Irving?

As NFL teams prepare for training camp and MLB teams gear up for the pennant race, the NBA is still drawing significant fan and media attention in the middle of the offseason. Cleveland Cavaliers star guard Kyrie Irving has officially requested a trade, shockingly spurning LeBron James after three trips to the NBA Finals together.

Irving listed the San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, and Minnesota Timberwolves as his preferred destinations. However, The Cavaliers are free to trade him to any team, given that Irving does not have a no trade clause in his contract.

According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Cleveland desires “one or two veterans that can help LeBron dethrone Golden State, [a blue chip young player], and picks.”

For the Sixers, that young prospect would be Markelle Fultz. Keep in mind that Fultz cannot be traded until August 7, 30 days after he signed his rookie contract.

The only true impact veteran on the Sixers roster is J.J. Redick, and he cannot be traded until December 15. The Sixers would probably have to give up Robert Covington to fulfill the veteran requirement. As for the picks, let’s throw in the Sixers 2018 1st round pick and maybe a few 2nd rounders.

To recap, the Sixers would trade Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and their own 2018 1st round pick to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Is Irving worth cashing in that many assets?

Acquiring Kyrie would have a major impact on the Sixers’ salary cap situation. In the short term, swapping Fultz and Covington’s combined $8.5 million (approximate) salary for Irving’s $18.8 million salary would cost the Sixers roughly $10 million in 2017-18 cap space.

More importantly, Irving will likely opt out of his contract following the 2018-19 season, making himself an unrestricted free agent. He will not be eligible for the supermax deal the Stephen Curry received, but he still could command a contract in the range of 5 years and $150-170 million.

Fultz, on the other hand, is on a 4-year, $33 million rookie-scale contract through the 2020-21 season. Because of restricted free agency, he likely will not be able to leave Philadelphia until at least eight years into his career.

By the Summer of 2019, The Sixers could be on the books for Irving’s max contract, a possible max extension for Joel Embiid, and significant raises for bench players like Dario Saric and Richaun Holmes, to name two. Also, Ben Simmons will be entering the final season of his rookie contract and looking for an expensive contract extension.

With all of that money committed, the Sixers likely will not be able to add a fourth max player to complement Embiid, Simmons and Irving. To justify relinquishing offseason flexibility, Irving should be the guy who catapults the Sixers into Finals contention. Is he capable of that?

Kyrie has earned his reputation as one of the game’s best shotmakers, but it is troubling that he has struggled to win without LeBron throughout his career. The Decision turned Cleveland into a talentless wasteland, and no one should blame Irving for that, but his lackadaisical defense and clashes with teammates did not exactly create a winning culture.

After the arrival of LeBron, Cleveland has been a below-average team when James is off the court. Since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, the Cavaliers are 4-19 when LeBron does not play, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN (stat as of February 25, 2017).

In the games that LeBron did play, Irving had a plus-minus of -120 in 635 minutes without James in 2016-17, according to the Cavaliers Nation Twitter account. As much as I want to find it, there is no evidence that Irving can lead a winning team as the best player.

Additionally, Irving’s fit with the Sixers is questionable. The version of Irving that played with LeBron would be a great fit with Ben Simmons. Simmons could play the primary distributor role while Irving gets buckets.

The issue with that reasoning is that Irving wants to leave Cleveland because LeBron dominates the ball too much. Irving wants to be a real point guard, and the presence of James in Cleveland has stunted his development in that respect.

The basketball media has labeled Irving as a subpar passer, but he flashed potential as a distributor before LeBron returned to Cleveland. His rookie season AST% of 36.5 would have ranked top 10 in the NBA in 2016-17. In his second and third season, he would have finished in the top 20. After renouncing primary ball-handling duties to LeBron in 2014-15, Irving’s AST% plummeted to 25. His desire to test his point guard abilities in another environment is valid.

Stylistically, Simmons is a similar player to LeBron, and many of Irving’s on court issues with James would resurface in Philadelphia, in my opinion. Before trading for Irving, Bryan Colangelo would have to figure out how much Kyrie wants to share the ball.

Trading Fultz, Covington, and a 1st round pick for Irving would not be a catastrophic move by any means. A core of Embiid, Simmons, and Irving would contend for the Eastern Conference championship for the foreseeable future, assuming health and a long-term deal for Irving.

The risk of making this trade is losing a decade of Fultz, Simmons, and Embiid growing together and making the Sixers a sustainable championship contender. That’s a big risk. When taking into account the salary cap ramifications and the possibility of Irving leaving in two years, as well as the questionable chemistry fit between Irving and Simmons, the reward of Irving is not worth the risk.

Also, you just can’t give up Covington. He’s too good.

Part 1 of Investigating The King: LeBron’s Ties to Los Angeles

By bringing an NBA championship trophy to Cleveland, LeBron James fulfilled his duty to his hometown. With that title under his belt, James now has the political capital to prioritize promoting his personal brand, growing his business interests, and adding to his basketball legacy when he hits the free agent market on July 1, 2018. The pressure is on the Cavaliers’ makeshift front office to build a championship roster around LeBron, and they have disappointed thus far. Recent actions and business decisions by James and his agent, Rich Paul, could offer insight into which franchises LeBron considers viable free agent destinations. Let’s dive into conspiracy land. Remember, I am only speculating.

Many NBA analysts have posited that the Los Angeles Lakers will be a major player for LeBron’s services, and I have to agree. Los Angeles attracts celebrities like no other city, and James values his life outside of basketball.

Unlike many other free agency rumors that have surrounded the Lakers in recent years, this one has merit. First, James, Paul, and business manager Maverick Carter have all purchased multi-million dollar homes in the Los Angeles area within the last two years. James and Carter also own SpringHill Entertainment, a production company headquartered in Los Angeles. Additionally, James is an investor and franchise owner of Blaze Pizza, a Pasadena-based pizza chain.

These long-term investments by LeBron’s inner circle suggest that James plans to relocate to Los Angeles after his playing career. Making the move a few years early and returning the Lakers to glory would be enticing.

Clearly, James has been setting himself up for a move to Los Angeles, either in retirement or in free agency next summer. How have the Lakers been preparing to capitalize on the opportunity?

On February 21, the Lakers hired Magic Johnson as President of Basketball Operations. James and Johnson seem to have mutual respect for each other. James told the Associated Press that he would choose Johnson and Michael Jordan as his teammates for a hypothetical 3-on-3 team. Johnson called James, “one of the greatest that has ever laced them up,” in an interview with CNBC. Also, Johnson has made the transition from NBA superstar to successful businessman, the same leap James plans to make. Theoretically, Johnson could serve as a role model and mentor to James.

One of Johnson’s first transactions as President of the Lakers was trading D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the 2017 draft. The deal freed the Lakers of the final three years of Mozgov’s disastrous contract. In return, the Nets gave them Lopez, an expiring contract that allows Los Angeles to create maximum cap flexibility next summer and offer James a maximum contract.

Next, Los Angeles signed free agent shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a 1-year, $18 million contract. This transaction connects the Lakers to LeBron on multiple levels. Like Lopez, Caldwell-Pope’s 1-year deal takes up none of the Lakers’ precious Summer 2018 cap space. Also, Caldwell-Pope is a client of Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports Group. The Pistons renounced Caldwell-Pope after trading for Avery Bradley, sending Caldwell-Pope into a free agency market where most teams with cap space had already spent it. Johnson threw Paul a life vest, hoping that Paul will return the favor in the future.

While the Lakers have been one of the worst teams in the NBA in recent years, signing James could return them to contender status Oklahoma City star forward Paul George will likely head to Los Angeles with or without James. James and George, along with rising stars Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, could compete with Golden State in the Western Conference.

To create a true superteam, however, Los Angeles would have to add a third superstar. Coincidentally, Washington point guard John Wall, another Klutch Sports client, has not accepted a 4-year, $170 million extension from the Wizards. Wall will not hit free agency until 2019, but if his actions continue to point to a future outside of Washington, the Wizards could look to trade him. With prospects like Ball, Ingram, and Julius Randle, as well as the expiring contracts of Lopez and Caldwell-Pope, the Lakers will have a treasure chest of assets at their disposal if the opportunity arises.

Early next week, I will take a look at the possibility of James joining the Sixers. Stay tuned for Part Two, where social media takes a bigger role.

ESPN First Take–June 10, 2020

Narrator: Today is June 10, 2020. I flew in from Philadelphia last night, and I am visiting the ESPN Headquarters in Los Angeles, California with my friend Alvin, who’s been in a coma for over three years. ESPN moved their whole operation to Los Angeles after LeBron James left Cleveland to team up with Lonzo Ball (and LaVar Ball) in Los Angeles. The offices are buzzing with excitement over tonight’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the hometown Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers. Here’s the SportsCenter set. Linda Cohn and Stan Verrett are this morning’s anchors. Stan just read a statistic from ESPN Stats & Info that said when the Western Conference team plays Game 1 of the Finals at home on a Tuesday, they win the series 83% of the time. It’s not looking good for Philadelphia. Hey, there’s Stephen A. Smith walking onto the set of First Take. The show is about to start!

Molly : Good morning! Welcome to First Take on ESPN presented by Big Baller Brand. I’m your host Molly Qerim, here with Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman. Guys, are you ready for the Finals?

Stephen A: (grins) Molly, I HAVE NEVER EVER been more ready for an NBA Finals in my entire life. LEBRAWN JAMES in the CITY OF ANGELS. LONZO BALL!!! And PAUL GEORGE!!! Max, you cannot POSSIBLY think Philadelphia can win this series.

Max: There are arguments to be had on both sides Stephen A., and we’ll make our predictions later. However, this matchup illustrates how much of an advantage the NBA franchise in Los Angeles has. Both of these teams were among the worst in the NBA just 5 years ago. The Sixers, with Sam Hinkie, and later Bryan Colangelo, in charge, made all of the right decisions to put themselves in position to win a championship. The Lakers, on the other hand, bungled their rebuilding process, only to be bailed out by the allure of Hollywood, which landed them Paul George and LeBron James.

Stephen A: Max, you’re not giving enough credit to Magic Johnson. MITCH KUPCHAK WAS A COMPLETE AND UTTAH IDIOT. 72 MILLION DOLLARS FOR MOZGOV…

Dick Vitale: (faintly, listening from another room) ARE YOU SEEERIOUS?!?!?

Stephen A: … A MAN WHO COULDN’T RUN FASTER THAN THE WHEELCHAIR HE SPENT SO MUCH TIME IN!!! (Hyperventilating) AND LUOL DENG, MY GOD!!! I can’t think about it anymore. Magic Johnson dug the Lakers out of a deep hole, Max, and you’ve GOT TO credit him for that.

Max: Yes, Stephen A., Magic Johnson brought the Lakers back to contention, but my point is that rebuilding is easier if you’re the Lakers.

Molly: Alright, we have to take a quick commercial break. We’ll be back with more Finals talk in a second, but stay tuned for later in the show: Will the Mayweather-Tebow fight ever happen?

Narrator: That was an intense start. Stephen A reminded me of Alvin when I told him how Sam Hinkie became general manager of the Seattle Supersonics. Sam Presti left the Oklahoma City Thunder after the Paul George-Russell Westbrook experiment failed. George went to Los Angeles, Westbrook went to Miami, and Presti went to New York. The Thunder hired Hinkie to replace him. His first move in his home state was trading Steven Adams to Presti’s Knicks for the 8th pick in the 2018 Draft (injured big man Mohamed Bamba) and a 2022 pick swap. Hinkie didn’t realize that a fragile small market like Oklahoma City couldn’t handle the Process, however, and the team was forced to move back to Seattle to stay in business.

Molly: Welcome back to First Take. Who is an under the radar player that you guys think might become an X-factor in the Finals? Stephen A?

Stephen A: The X factor in this series, AND IN EVERY SERIES, is LeBron James.

Molly: Well, what about someone who’s more under the ra-

Stephen A: LEBRON JAMES has been stuck on 3 rings for some time now. He might not even be in these Finals had Draymond Green not gone missing…

Narrator: In Game 4 of the conference finals between the Lakers and Warriors, referee Monty McCutchen called a reach-in foul on Draymond Green. Draymond, in disbelief, sprinted to the other side of the court with his hands on his head. He continued through the tunnel and out of the arena. Authorities finally caught up to him on the Golden Gate Bridge at halftime of Game 7, but it was too late for the Warriors.

Stephen A: If LeBron James, THE KING, cannot defeat a young, inexperienced Sixers team, any debate of LeBron versus Jordan should NEVER… be spoken of again.

Molly: Max?

Max: I think T.J. McConnell could be a key player in this series. 2 years ago, the Sixers traded him to the Lakers for a second round pick, which they later sold.

Narrator: Worst moment of my life.

Max: He has to take that as an insult. All of those years in Cleveland, LeBron needed a good backup point guard. Now, he has one, an angry one at that. Now that T.J. McConnell is a Los Angeles Laker, LeBron has everything he needs to win a championship.

Molly: Okay, I think it’s time to make our predictions. Max, who is going to win this series?

Max: I’m not going to allow myself to be influenced by the star power of the Lakers. The Lakers do not have Joel Embiid, who won his first MVP award this year. I think Embiid and Ben Simmons will dominate inside, and Markelle Fultz and Luka Doncic make up the best backcourt in the NBA. I have to pick the 76ers to bring a championship back to Philadelphia.

Stephen A: WHAAAAAT!!! WHAAAAT!!! MAX KELLERMAN DO NOT TELL ME YOU JUST PICKED AGAINST LEBRON JAMES?!?!? AND AGAINST LAVAR BALL, A MAN WHO HAS BEEN ON THIS SHOW MANY TIMES!!! THAT IS BLASPHEMOUS!!! BLASPHEMOUS!!! Right here, on this show, I am going with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James is too good to lose another NBA Finals. LaVar Ball sat right here on this set before the season and guaranteed a championship. The Larry O’Brien Trophy is returning to Los Angeles.

Molly: Well, this is why they play the games. Next, is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback?

 

T.J. McConnell is in Survival Mode

The whirlwind NBA offseason has slowed to a calm breeze, with Nerlens Noel’s free agency and a possible Carmelo Anthony trade being the two major storylines remaining. Here at The Longest View, we plan to continue producing content during the dog days of Summer despite the dearth of relevant Sixers news.

With an eye on the upcoming season, I will be profiling as many Sixers as possible. Where else to start but Timothy John McConnell?

God wants T.J. McConnell to play in the NBA. As an undrafted prospect from Arizona, he somehow found a roster spot and playing time on Sam Hinkie’s Process Sixers. As a second-year player, injuries to first overall pick Ben Simmons and veteran addition Jerryd Bayless allowed McConnell to retain his role as backup point guard. In early January, then-starter Sergio Rodriguez missed time with an ankle injury. McConnell assumed a spot in the starting lineup and never relinquished it.

The addition of McConnell to the starting lineup coincided with Philadelphia’s surprising January winning streak. The team posted a 10-5 record that month with McConnell at the helm. His play convinced head coach Brett Brown to keep him in the starting lineup upon Rodriguez’s return, and McConnell even drew trade interest from the Cavaliers before the trade deadline.

T.J. averaged 8.6 points and 7.7 assists per game as a starter, proving that he belongs in an NBA rotation. In an article by Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype on July 8, an anonymous Eastern Conference center named McConnell as the most underrated player in the NBA: “The most underrated player in the NBA is T.J. McConnell from the Sixers. If you just look at his stats, they’re never going to jump out at you, but that little f***er is tough. He’s a tough kid. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just screen this little white boy and lay him out,’ but he fights through every screen. He’s gritty and he doesn’t back down from anyone. It’s hard being a point guard in today’s NBA because you’re going against a star most nights, but he holds his own. He demands respect every single night. If you don’t respect him entering the game, you’ll respect him by the second half.”

Despite his breakout season and newfound league-wide respect, McConnell’s role for the 2017-18 Sixers is still in question. Simmons and Bayless are expected to join the rotation, and another point guard, 2017 top pick Markelle Fultz, has entered the fold. Suddenly, McConnell could be on the outside looking in when it comes to playing time.

Fultz and Simmons will start. Even if McConnell somehow outplays them in training camp, the development of the two first overall picks is too important for Brett Brown to start McConnell over either one. McConnell will earn his playing time by competing with Bayless for backup minutes.

If I were McConnell, I would spend the entire summer practicing catch-and-shoot three pointers. McConnell shot 20% from three last season, and Simmons was unwilling to shoot threes during his lone season at LSU. One of them must become passable in order for the two to coexist on offense. If McConnell cannot make a drastic improvement from behind the arc, Bayless and his 43.7% three point shooting (2015-16) could nail McConnell to the bench.

Theoretically, McConnell and Fultz could play together with Fultz as the shooting guard. However, Brett Brown will likely want to give Fultz reps as the lead ball handler when Simmons is off the court. The more I look at the Sixers’ roster, the much celebrated trade to acquire Fultz looks like beginning of the end for McConnell in Philadelphia.

McConnell’s situation reminds me of Nerlens Noel’s entering last season. Nerlens had great moments in Philadelphia (the block on James Harden, a bunch of alley-oops) and was a productive player with promising upside. Last season, T.J. became one of the most underrated players in the league, had a 17-assist game against the Celtics, and nailed a game-winning buzzer beater over Carmelo Anthony to beat the Knicks. That shot produced arguably the two most iconic photos of the Sixers’ season: McConnell’s leaping fist pump and Joel Embiid choking McConnell in a frenzy of joy.

Ultimately, however, Noel could never find the playing time he deserved in Philadelphia, where he was embroiled in a constant battle for minutes with Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. He was shipped to Dallas at the trade deadline, where he is expected to start at center next season. If McConnell fails to emerge from the glut of point guards this year, he could suffer the same fate, or be granted the same opportunity, depending on how you look at it.

As a Sixers fan, I want to make more memories with T.J. I hope the last time I watch him steal the inbounds pass after a made basket will not come this season. I pray that T.J. shows up at training camp with an improved jump shot and forces Brett Brown to play him over Bayless.

Sometimes, though, when you love someone, you have to set them free. The Sixers set Nerlens free, and now he is running wild in Dallas with Dennis Smith Jr. I am prepared to set T.J. McConnell free, but only if I have to.

Earlier, I wrote that God wants T.J. McConnell to play in the NBA. That is only half of the truth. T.J. McConnell also wants T.J. McConnell to play in the NBA. 6’2 white guys who can’t jump or even shoot do not become NBA starting point guard without serious work ethic and toughness. I trust T.J. to grind his way into some playing time next season. If he plays his way into a lucrative contract from another team in free agency, I’ll feel like a proud father. However, I’d rather watch him celebrate a championship in Philadelphia. Keep working, T.J. Love you.