T.J. McConnell Is Set Up Well For A Potential Return To The Indiana Pacers
NBA free agency is just around the corner, and front offices are starting to lock in their offseason plans. With the draft concluding on Thursday, each team’s situation is more clear, which makes it easier to predict what might happen with each organization in free agency.
The Indiana Pacers are one such team. After adding two first round picks on draft night, the salary cap situation in Indiana is slightly different. The front office in the Circle City distanced themselves from the luxury tax while parting with minimal assets on Thursday, which makes it slightly more manageable for the blue and gold to add talent in free agency.
One position the Pacers altered in the draft was at point guard, but instead of adding someone to their ball handling rotation, they subtracted one — Indiana will reportedly send Aaron Holiday to Washington in a deal that netted the team rookie big man Isaiah Jackson.
While Holiday struggled with the Pacers and was overdue for a change in scenery, that trade gave the team a need at point guard. It left them with just one, Malcolm Brogdon, on the roster with free agency coming up in just two days.
That bodes extremely well for a potential T.J. McConnell reunion in Indiana. McConnell is a free agent and is coming off of a career-best campaign with the Pacers, one in which he was extremely important for the team on and off the court.
“I trust T.J. very much out there. I trust the basketball in his hands that he’ll make the right plays and the right reads and the right passes,” former Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren said last season. “His teammates trust him just the same.”
McConnell finished the 2020-21 season with career-high averages in both points and assists per game while also leading the entire NBA in steals. Those stats display McConnell’s strengths well. He is effective at getting into the paint with the ball in his hands and breaking down a defense, which both opens up shots for his teammates and gives him space for his favorite shot — a fall away eight footer. McConnell has hit 55.4% of his looks from 3-10 feet since joining the Pacers, and last season he led the team in both assists that led to made three-pointers (181) and assists that led to shots at the rim (221). He is an effective shot creator that provides efficient looks for the blue and gold.
On defense, his size limits the number of players he can contain, but whoever McConnell is defending is not going to have a fun night. He is a pest and is usually up in his matchup’s face, making their life harder. Plus, roughly once per game he steals a lazy inbounds pass from his opponents, which typically leads to laughably easy points for the Pacers. He is one of the best defenders at his size in the NBA.
Because of the improvements McConnell has made to his game since joining Indiana, mainly his finishing from inside 10 feet, he is due for a pay raise this summer. The first contract the University of Arizona product signed with the Pacers was for two years and $7 million, though only $4.5 million of that was guaranteed. He was viewed as a depth piece on the open market at the time.
Now, though, McConnell is seen around the league as one of the better backup point guard options. And despite the limitations he has as a shooter and defender (mostly due to his size), he is set to be paid like a useful rotation player. Somewhere between $8-10 million per season makes sense on a new deal.
“Try to get McConnell and McDermott re-signed if we can do that,” new Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said when discussing some of the Pacers priorities this summer.
So, McConnell is talented and has the public backing of his new coach. He also plays a position that the Pacers lack depth at currently. Given these facts, it makes all the sense in the world that the McConnell-Indiana partnership would be prolonged this offseason.
It might be that simple, when it’s all said and done. But rarely is anything in the NBA ever that simple.
The biggest factor that complicates things is the luxury tax. The Pacers project to be roughly $13.1 million below the tax when free agency starts, though that number could be slightly larger if the team decides to move on from Kelan Martin in the coming days. Regardless of what happens with Martin, the Pacers don’t have a ton of flexibility this summer thanks to luxury tax considerations (unless they are willing to spend beyond the tax line, though that seems unlikely for a team fresh off a 34-38 season).
If McConnell commands somewhere from $8-10 million per year in free agency, then he would use up a majority of Indiana’s spending power this offseason. With Doug McDermott also on the free agent market and potentially other free agents needing to be re-signed by the Pacers, budgetary constraints could make seemingly easy decisions (like keeping McConnell) harder for the blue and gold.
The Pacers have Early Bird rights on McConnell in free agency, which puts some restrictions on the contract he is able to sign with the team. Assuming Indiana uses Early Bird rights to sign McConnell, the maximum amount they can offer him on the first year of any contract is 105% of the league average salary, which equates to roughly $10.5 million this offseason. Any deal signed using Early Bird rights can be between two to four years in length and comes with a maximum 8% raise over the first season dollar amount each year.
Early Bird rights allow the Pacers, who are over the salary cap for next season already, to re-sign McConnell without using any salary cap exceptions. When put all together, the largest possible contract the 29-year old could sign with Indiana is a four year, roughly $47 million deal.
That would almost certainly be an overpay for McConnell, but even if he commands such a deal with the team in the Circle City, the Pacers could still fit it in under the luxury tax since his first year salary is limited. While the front office in Indiana does have some budgetary constrains this summer, McConnell should still be within their price range — though the more expensive he gets, the less likely it is that the Pacers can keep McDermott or add another solid contributor with salary cap exceptions.
McDermott, a sharpshooting wing who is also coming off of a career-best season, could command as much as $10-15 million per year in free agency this summer. Keeping both McConnell and McDermott will be hard for Indiana without making other cost-cutting trades, so it is possible that the team has to choose between the two. And given that McConnell plays a position that the team needs depth at right now, and he might end up being the cheaper of the two players, he could have an advantage when it comes to re-signing with Indiana.
“I would love to be back here. I absolutely love it here. Love the organization, love the fans. Love the front office, teammates,” McConnell said when asked about returning to Indiana after the season. “Like I said, I don’t have a bad word to say about anything or anyone. Just a first class organization. Love being a part of it and hope to be a part of it in the future.”
From the Pacers side, one consideration in their favor is that there are a ton of reserve point guards on the free agent market right now. Ish Smith, Cory Joseph, Austin Rivers, Reggie Jackson, Raul Neto, Cameron Payne, Elfrid Payton, and Jeff Teague are all available this offseason, so teams in need of a bench ball handler have a plethora of options. That could prevent a bidding war for McConnell’s services, though he would be near the top of this list of players in terms of talent. He will still be in somewhat high demand.
When it comes down to it, though, this seems like a match made in heaven. The Pacers, more than they did even three days ago, need a reserve point guard. T.J. McConnell likes playing for Indiana. And the team has the salary cap wiggle room and capabilities to make a deal happen. Outside of a monster offer coming in from a team with cap space, it seems like both the player and team are a perfect fit for one another.
“They’ve given all indication that they want to be back. And we will have those discussions. They played so well that they’re going to have suitors. There’s no doubt,” Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard said after the season ended when discussing McDermott and McConnell. “In a summer when the free agency is not as good this year, they’re going to have some value. It will be our job to have conversations with them and there agents. Both of them feel great about being here,” he added. “We’re hopeful that they will be back.”
McConnell has improved in each of his six seasons in the NBA. Near the end of the last campaign, he started to add a three-point shot to his arsenal while simultaneously improving his off-ball defense during his limited minutes with the starting five. That constant year-to-year growth bodes well for McConnell’s future and should give the Pacers more confidence in offering him a longer deal.
“I feel like I have so much more to give each year and so much room for improvement,” the 6’1 guard said this season.
Ultimately, only T.J. McConnell knows what he wants in free agency. Between total money, contract length, city location, and basketball aspirations, there is a lot to consider. But the veteran has publicly stated that he loves the Pacers, and he would fill a hole on the team’s roster. McConnell may decide to move on from Indiana this offseason, but given all of the factors at play, he is set up well for a return to his most recent team.