76ers won't commit to establishing Markelle Fultz or T.J. McConnell as primary backup

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 20, 2018

PHILADELPHIA -- As the Philadelphia 76ers finally roared to life in the second half of Monday night's game at Wells Fargo Center against the hapless Phoenix Suns, reserve guard T.J. McConnell seemed to be right in the middle of all of it.

His stat line -- 2 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist and 2 steals in 8 minutes, 31 seconds -- was nothing special. But the Sixers outscored the Suns by six points in his time on the court, and anytime McConnell did anything, the sellout crowd showered him with love.

As they did, however, Markelle Fultz watched from the bench, having been benched in favor of McConnell as head coach Brett Brown tried to give his team an injection of life. And after McConnell did just that, helping lift Philadelphia to a 119-114 victory-- its third straight win -- Brown wouldn't commit to either player as his backup point guard moving forward.

"I don't know," Brown said after Monday's win.

When asked what would inform his decision, Brown said, "Just when I think it through deeper and look at tape and see who we're playing, the next opponent, all those things I should do."

For his part, Fultz -- who missed both shots he took and went scoreless in seven minutes -- downplayed the situation, saying he supports the team, including Brown and McConnell, no matter how much he's playing.

"Our relationship is more than teammates," Fultz said. "We both want to see each other do well, and we want to see the team win, so anytime one of us step on the court, we are probably rooting for each other more than most people. That's how it is.

"You definitely want to go out there and compete ... I'm a competitor. But, at the end of the day, coach made a decision to do that, so I have to live with it. My mindset is just, when I step on the court, go out there and play. But while T.J. is out there, I'm rooting for him.

"It's not like I'm sitting on the bench pouting or anything. I want to be out there, but I'm going to root for my teammates."

The fact Brown wouldn't commit to minutes for Fultz, the No. 1 pick in the draft less than 18 months ago, shows just how much things have changed in Philadelphia, and how difficult a spot both he and the Sixers find themselves in. The organization has gone to great lengths to try to put Fultz in the strongest possible position to succeed.

Before the season began, he declared Fultz would be in the starting lineup -- despite Philadelphia's original starting five of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid being among the NBA's best last season.

Soon after, Brown said Redick would begin starting the second halves of games, while Fultz would remain in the starting five for the first. Once the Jimmy Butler trade was consummated last week, though, and the Sixers had a roster with three ball-dominant stars (Simmons, Butler and Embiid) and a lack of spacing, Brown pulled the plug on that experiment and returned Redick to the starting unit to give Philadelphia some much-needed shooting.

After Fultz double-clutched a free throw in Miamia week ago, Sixers head coach Brett Brown told ESPN that he found himself torn between wanting to do what's best for Fultz, and also having to make sure he is fair to the rest of his team.

"It is [difficult]," Brown told ESPN after last Monday's 124-114 win in Miami. "Because you've got a human side, and a responsibility to the individual, but mostly you've got a responsibility to the team, and somewhere in that pyramid of layers I've got to figure it out.

"There's no book that tells you how to do that. I use my gut feel and best judgement and just keep it very candid. When I feel something, or see something, and you can convey it to you, or the team, or whatever, that's when I feel comfortable.

"And so Jimmy is going to come in, we're going to make a decision on what that looks like, and we'll roll."

At the time, the decision Brown was referring to was another decision he didn't want to speak about publicly just yet: whether to keep Fultz in the starting lineup, as he had been, or to replace him with Redick.

The choice seemed obvious. And, two days later, Redick was working with the starting group during Philadelphia's morning shootaround in Orlando, and Brown announced his decision to start him afterward.

This situation could play out in similar fashion.

McConnell doesn't have anywhere near the raw talent or pedigree that Fultz does. But he is a steady hand on the tiller, and a strong backup point guard -- one that showed, both down the stretch of the regular season and during Philadelphia's run to the second round of the playoffs, that he's capable of performing on big stages.

More importantly, he doesn't have to play with the ball in his hands. The same can't be said of Fultz, who because of his shooting issues would be a difficult fit for any team to make work, let alone one with so many awkward fits in terms of both ball dominance and spacing.

Yet, at the same time, the Sixers need to try to continue to foster Fultz's confidence in the hopes he can become something close to the player he was during his lone season at Washington -- or, at the very least, can have some semblance of trade value in order to allow Philadelphia to supplement its roster that way.

"It is a piece of it," Brown said, referring to the need to develop Fultz, and how it might factor into his decision. "How big? I don't know.

"I hear your question. The responsibility to grow him, the responsibility to coach the team to win, it's all on the table. It's part of what I weigh up, and we'll make a decision on what that looks like.

"But it certainly is part of it."

It undoubtedly is. But by trading for Butler, the Sixers moved past being a team straddling the line between the present and the future. Acquiring a 30-year-old star in the walk year of his contract means Philadelphia now has both feet firmly planted in win-now mode.

Fultz, though, is not a win-now player. And as Brown's decision to play McConnell over him shows, that internal tug-of-war between trying to develop him for the future and winning games in the present isn't going away.