One of the notable aspects of the Sixers' 5-4 start has been the re-emergence of T.J. McConnell as a viable member of the rotation after offseason skepticism that the installation of Ben Simmons as the team's primary ball handler would leave him without a meaningful role. In fact, over the last four games, all wins, the Sixers have done some of their best work with McConnell and Simmons on the court together, which helps explain why Brett Brown seems more and more comfortable pairing the duo.
Since sharing the court for less than seven minutes total over the course of the Sixers' 0-3 start, McConnell and Simmons are averaging roughly 14 minutes, 20 seconds of action together, a stretch in which the Sixers are 5-1. Against the Pacers on Friday night, McConnell and Simmons were on the court together for the most time yet (17:22), and the Sixers outscored Indiana, 36-33, during that time, the fourth straight game that the pairing resulted in a positive point differential.
Lately, Brown has been bringing McConnell and Jerryd Bayless in off the bench, starting Dario Saric at the No. 4 spot in what he has said is an attempt to get Saric into a rhythm after a rough start to the season. (In his four starts, Saric is shooting 47.6 percent from three-point range, hitting 10-of-21 after starting the season 3-for-14 while coming off the bench, though he has continued to struggle around the rim.) But McConnell has actually gotten more court time than Saric, averaging 27.4 minutes per night to Saric's 25.6 minutes over the last four games.
Heading into the season, it was easy to assume that whatever role McConnell ended up carving out for himself would need to come with Simmons off the court. Simmons, the thinking went, would need to be surrounded by shooters in order to make the offense operate according to Brown's vision. (Through nine games, the rookie has yet to connect on his first three-pointer, with all five of his attempts being period-ending heaves from long distances.) McConnell, meanwhile, hit just 29.2 percent of his three-point attempts in his first two seasons in the league. If his only offensive utility was with the ball in his hands, and the Sixers were planning on putting the ball in Simmons' hands, then how would it ever make sense to have the two players on the court together?
One factor has been Robert Covington's hot start from beyond the arc. Of the 22 players in the NBA who were averaging at least six three-point attempts per game heading into Saturday, only three were shooting at least 45 percent from behind the arc: Klay Thompson, at 46.4 percent, Kevin Durant, at 49.1 percent, and Covington, at 49.2 percent. Compared with last year, when Covington's 33.3 percent success rate was the lowest of any of the 24 players who averaged six attempts per game, the Sixers are getting far more production and efficiency out of the three-spot, reducing the need to have two additional knock-down shooters in the lineup. In fact, when Covington and McConnell are on the court together, the Sixers are shooting a blistering 52.4 percent from downtown with an effective field goal percentage of 60.3 percent. Last year, when McConnell and Covington were on the court together, the Sixers shot just 34.1 percent from three-point range.
Another factor is that, as it turns out, Simmons' and McConnell's games complement each other: McConnell's ability to generate secondary penetration off kick-outs or perimeter ball movement initiated by Simmons leaves defenders scrambling while opening up deep looks for Covington or JJ Redick or a variety of others. It also hasn't hurt that McConnell has knocked down five of his first nine three-point attempts in addition to finishing at the rim. (His .778 field goal percentage inside three feet is third best on the team, up from .580 in 2015-16 and .615 in 2016-17).
The numbers speak for themselves: In the three wins leading up to Friday night's victory over the Pacers, the Sixers had outscored opponents by a combined 25 points when McConnell and Simmons were on the court together, compared with point differentials of 0 and -13 when Bayless and Saric were on the court with Simmons.