The other night, someone I consider an expert in NBA player evaluation said that the recent play of 76ers point guard T.J. McConnell is reminiscent of that of a young John Stockton, the all-time assist leader who went to the All-Star Game 10 times and was inducted twice into the Naismith Hall of Fame (once as a member of the 1992 Olympic "Dream Team.")
That struck me as a bit of a mouthful, but there's no denying that McConnell, since he supplanted Sergio Rodriguez as the starter, has shown toughness and smarts - prime Stockton qualities - and just enough skill and athleticism to convince those who doubted him as an NBA player. Taking that farther down the road, to extrapolate what his career might become and whom he might emulate, is a little soon for me, but apparently the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have handy examples on their roster for comparison, think McConnell is an NBA player, too.
According to a story that broke over the weekend, the Cavs wanted to trade for McConnell, having finally realized that the sign-and-trade with Milwaukee that cost them backup point Matthew Dellavedova might not have been the best idea.
Cleveland needs someone behind Kyrie Irving and figured McConnell might be a great fit. It's true the Cavs are up against a punitive luxury-tax wall (or they would have kept Dellavedova) and that McConnell is a nice-price option. It's also true that, according to sources, all that was offered in return was guard Jordan McRae, who couldn't make the 76ers when they really stunk and doesn't appear to be a logical addition now. So, it would have been a trade in which Cleveland assumed little or no risk and could have potentially filled a hole that might make the difference between winning a title or just coming close. You can see their point of view.
The Sixers, not getting anything of value from the proposed deal, however, politely declined the offer and, for his part, McConnell said he didn't feel bad about not going from the 14th seed in the conference to the top seed. He said he is enjoying what's been going on lately with the Sixers.
"What more can you ask for?" McConnell said.
Well, those 15 added wins might be nice, and the extra exposure of playing for the Cavaliers could be helpful. Dellavedova's career shooting and assist-to-turnover numbers are no better than McConnell's, and he's sitting in Milwaukee now with that $38 million guaranteed contract.
Nevertheless, McConnell remains with the Sixers, although the outside interest means he could be a valuable piece on the table when the trade deadline arrives in three weeks. That is shaping up as a potentially crucial day in the team's development, depending on Bryan Colangelo's willingness to disturb the current group rather than wait for the annual draft night trading fest.
What is a little amazing, as you step back to consider it, is that the Sixers now have a number of players who would be attractive to contenders looking for a piece here or there to set them up for a substantial playoff run. That wasn't the case for most of The Process, of course. No one was beating down the door to get to Henry Sims and JaKarr Sampson. When Brett Brown talks about the development of the entire program - sounding a little like a college coach after a good recruiting season - this is what he means.
It's been understandably easy to focus on what the Sixers will do about their glut at the center position and that is the biggest mystery Colangelo needs to solve, but while waiting for him to move Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor, or both, the real talk at the trade window could be about McConnell, Richaun Holmes, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and Ersan Ilyasova. All of them have shown their value despite playing for a losing team, which isn't the easiest thing to do.
As crazy as it sounds, some team might have to take on, say, Okafor, in order to get McConnell or Holmes, and also have to bring real assets to the table on the other side of the deal. Being in that position of leverage doesn't mean the Sixers have arrived, but it means they are no longer trading scraps for future second-round picks that would only yield more scraps.
That is the lesson from the news that T.J. McConnell, signed as an undrafted free agent, passed over by every team in the league, has developed into an NBA player other teams want to acquire. Maybe that's a long way from the Hall of Fame, but it's also a long way from where the Sixers were not that far back.