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Nov 11 2015

K.J. McDaniels’s D-League Designation Doesn’t Mean The Sixers Were Right

So in case you don’t keep up on the daily goings on of the Houston Rockets or the Rio Grand Valley Vipers, you might have missed this:

You probably already know the backstory to how we landed here, so let’s keep it short: the Sixers landed K.J. McDaniels probablya few spots below his value in the second round of last year’s draft; the Sixers then offered K.J. a “Hinkie” special, which he understandably rejected; K.J. and his mom then hinted that he might not want to return to the Sixers in 2015-16; K.J. then destroyed everything to start the 2014-15 season, and was thought to expect a huge contract over the summer; the Sixers then dealt K.J. at the 2015 trade deadline for Isaiah Canaan and the pick that would become Richaun Holmes; K.J. tallies just 33 minutes over the remainder of the Rockets’ season, and ultimately signs a three-year, $10 million contract – significantly lower than most expected had he finished his rookie campaign in Philadelphia.

So K.J. gambled on himself, was traded instead, and probably earned the contract that his skill actually warrants while being not all that good right now. Win for the Sixers, right?

Well, it’s not that simple.

We often laud the “Hinkie Special” – typically a four-year, partially unguaranteed, and very cheap deal. And of course we do, because employing a player of Robert Covington’s caliber on a deal that doesn’t nearly equal his actual talent is a masterful basketball move. JaKarr Sampson, Jerami Grant, Hollis Thompson, Richaun Holmes, Christian Wood, T.J. McConnell, and Kendall Marshall are all currently operating under this ridiculously low-risk, ridiculously high-reward deals, and Marshall is an early candidate to be the next Covington of the bunch. Paying key rotational players a deal that grossly underestimates their overall talent can be a key foundation to building a contender, and such as certainly worked in the Spurs and Warriors favor in recent years.

And that’s because we know that those players aren’t being adequately paid, but that also leads to why we can’t be mad at dudes like K.J. McDaniels for rejecting such a deal. The contract he received this July is in no way an indictment on his future as a ballplayer, but more so an example of how the current value of players in the Sixers unique system can sometimes be overrated. K.J. posted his big numbers last season via the minutes granted to him out of necessity, not merit. The same goes for Hollis Thompson in Hinkie’s inaugural season, Jerami Grant last season and T.J. McConnell at the time of this writing, leaving Robert Covington as the anomaly – the lone player who may actually crack a championship rotation.

If the former trio of players were all working on one-year deals at the time of their mini-explosions, we likely would’ve discussed them in the same way we did McDaniels. Big numbers can equal big money in the NBA’s environment — hi, Enes Kanter — and being in the Sixers’ barren rotation can lead to big numbers (but not if your name is Isaiah Canaan). But we obviously know that none of the Thompson/Grant/McConnell group wouldn’t realistically garner minutes in the context of a championship contender like Houston, as was K.J.’s ultimate fate.

This obviously doesn’t also mean that these players will always be bad, it just means that, duh, they’re probably actually worth approximately $3 million per year — for now. But that doesn’t also mean that K.J. McDaniels wouldn’t eventually live up to say, a four-year, $28 million contract.

And whether K.J.’s production for the Sixers and eventual potential warranted such a hefty contract was up to the market to decide this summer. Uncertain was the notion that an NBA team would actually deliver K.J. such a deal in a booming market, and Sam Hinkie decided to trade that uncertainty for Isaiah Canaan and Richaun Holmes. The former certainly doesn’t make up for the potential of what K.J. could have been for this team, and the jury is of course still out on the latter — it’s also worth noting that had Hinkie wanted to, he could have selected Holmes two picks earlier rather than effectively trading the 35th pick away for future returns. But Hinkie was likely ducking out by dealing K.J. in order to avoid doing something he has yet to do: paying for what a player might be by overpaying what he’s worth right now.

K.J. might never be worth that hypothetical $28 million, but even despite his minimal burn in his tryout for Houston last spring, the Rockets figured he’s at least worth $10 million through 2018. But in a context where the salary cap should hit $108 million in 2017, the chances are quite high that the value of K.J.’s current deal will equal that of Robert Covington’s — essentially a drop in the bucket for a quality rotation player. And the fact that the Rockets want him to get some reps in the D-League may only reaffirm the sentiment that he’s worth the investment.

But at least for right now, Houston will pay him for what he’s worth. More importantly however, they bought low on the expectation that he’ll evolve to a quality NBA player. K.J. McDaniels did not lose by missing out on money that may not have been there in the first place, but Sam Hinkie did for not taking that chance.

  • Robby Bonfire

    Apart from contractual issues, and all the wheeling and dealing considerations as regards moving K.J, the bottom line on him, to me, is that K.J., in 1358 minutes of NBA career playing time, thus far, has not demonstrated any kind of “keeper” ability.

    Breaking it down per 40 minutes playing time you are looking at 4 DR’s; an abysmal 2 assists; 2 blocks; and a paltry scoring ledger of 489 points scored traded for 265 misses from the floor, for a sad sack PPX of 1.85. The benchmark of excellence I look to in this efficiency scoring category, is the 2.97 PPX posted by Anthony Davis in the regular season one year ago.

    So, for me, the bottom line on K.J. is that he is about 90 per cent “athletic” to 10 per cent “basketball player.” Glad we got rid of him for some value, and I would have settled for getting rid of him for a toothpick and a glass of tap water.

  • egoldwein

    I think this topic is interesting for a number of reasons .. primarily because it says a lot about Hinkie fandom. One minute, K.J. is a blue chip prospect, the next he’s a scrub that we’re better off without. (worth noting though that some people spotted the red flags before K.J. was dealt..)

    As Xylon mentions, KJ had every right to negotiate and reject the Hinkie special. I think it’s a case where all negotiating parties acted rationally. Even Houston, in signing him to a 3yr/$10M deal, is totally fair. If they wanted to, they could deal him tomorrow and get at least a 2nd rounder back. That’s a fair price.

    All that said (and this is an aside), I don’t think the Sixers would necessarily be better off with him, than Canaan and 2nd rounder (who happens to be Richaun Holmes). For 4 years and 4M, maybe… But margins are small, and consistently acting on those margins rationally — especially at a time when wins don’t matter — is what could end up setting Sixers apart when they’re going for a real impact player via trade or FA.

    ALso (and idk if i’m really disagreeing with anything) it’s easy to say in hindsight that the Sixers should’ve caved with K.J.’s agent at the initial negotiating stage. Say, 4 years, 6M. (idk what 2nd round rookie scale allows…). But you don’t end up getting Covington/Sampson/Hollis etc at their respective prices if you cave once. Not all 2nd rounders should be treated equally, but it’s apparent to me that they never really viewed KJ as a can’t miss prospect. Not that he should’ve been viewed that way .. he was, after all, a 2nd round pick.

    • Robby Bonfire

      To have seen K.J. as a “blue chip” prospect coming out of Clemson, one would have to be watching him physically and basing that judgment upon his “athleticism,” because the metrics record does not support that conclusion.

      Listed as a forward (that would be SF) in college, K.J. averaged just 2 assists/40, 5 1/2 DR’s/40, sort of a middling figure there, 3+ blocks, and a pedestrian 2.50 points scored for every miss from the floor. Also, he shot just .304 from that college chip-shot 3-point range.

      No one could logically conclude that these pedestrian numbers project to NBA stardom, although I like to forestall making that determination when a player is switched for SF in college to SG or PG in the NBA. Sometimes that can work. I would like to see how it would work in the NBA for Stanley Johnson, Ron Hollis, and Justise Winslow, for starters, all of whom are undersized by NBA SF standards.

      In the case of K.J., we can just about say that the jury is in and he has been found lacking at the NBA level, and if and when he gets back here from D-League he will be doing well just to get his five mop-up minutes per game in exchange for a few million dollars being flushed down the drain in his direction.

      • Xylon Dimoff

        The jury is never in based on a half-year of stats in a unique system.

        • Robby Bonfire

          True, that is why we look at college projection stats, with the understanding that while they help, they cannot perfectly project the development of every young player.

          Problem with K.J. is that there are many holes in his game, both with and off the ball. Must be better overall talent in the talent pool to evaluate, here.