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TOPIC: P.J. Tucker / Wall Street Journal

P.J. Tucker / Wall Street Journal 2 weeks 3 days ago #258884

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How a One-Time Washout Explains the Modern NBA

The Rockets signing P.J. Tucker—yes, P.J. Tucker— was the most revealing move of the league’s crazy summer

By Ben Cohen

July 31, 2017

P.J. Tucker came into the NBA more than a decade ago and crashed out almost immediately. He was a 6-foot-6 player stuck between positions—too small to be a forward but too big to be a guard. The league had no place for him. After playing only 83 minutes in the NBA, he disappeared to another continent.

“P.J. was in, out, and to a large degree forgotten about by a lot of people,” said Andre Buck, his agent.

Then something funny happened. The strategic revolution in basketball over the last decade made teams reconsider their old prototypes and resulted in what Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens recently called the NBA’s three positions: ball-handler, wing and big. There is a premium on players who can be all three. Tucker is now one of those players.

That’s how someone who literally couldn’t play in the league has become one of the league’s most useful players. It’s also why the Houston Rockets signed Tucker to a four-year, $32 million deal in early July—the longest and richest contract of his career. In the first year of his new deal, he will make about 43% more than he was paid last year and nearly 1,000% more than five years ago. There may be no one in the NBA whose value has increased so much in such a short amount of time.

Tucker wasn’t the most expensive Rockets signing (James Harden) or the splashiest addition to their roster (Chris Paul) and may not even be their biggest small forward when the season begins (Carmelo Anthony remains a trade possibility).


But the pursuit of Tucker was the most revealing move from the NBA’s most aggressive team. It’s his incredibly unlikely career that best explains the evolution of basketball. He is a role player with a role that’s more important than ever.

“It’s just how the game has changed,” said the 32-year-old Tucker, “and I’ve been lucky enough to play long enough to see it change.”

The only way he could benefit from the game changing, though, was by changing his own game.

Tucker was a second-round draft pick in 2006 and played in just 17 NBA games before he spent the next five years bouncing around leagues in Ukraine, Israel, Greece, Italy and Germany. The odds of him being in the NBA again were as long as his exile. In the decade prior, according to Stats LLC, Anthony Parker was the only player who had done what Tucker was trying to do: begin his career in the NBA, leave for more than five seasons and then return on a prolonged deal.

But he realized something while maturing overseas that eventually brought him back. It’s a lesson that he imparts to younger players who want to be like him. “Figure out your niche,” he says, “and maximize it.”

It was obvious what Tucker’s niche had to be: playing defense and shooting 3-pointers. As it happens, those skills are coveted in today’s NBA.


Tucker is able to defend every player on the court, point guard through center, because of his peculiar build. The very thing that had been a disadvantage—that he was an oversized guard but undersized forward—had become his advantage. “He’s a bear that’s as quick as a cat,” Buck said.

It was harder to imagine Tucker as an outside shooter. He didn’t take any threes in his first NBA stint. He attempted a total of four in his three years of college.

But he knew he couldn’t play if he couldn’t shoot. NBA teams didn’t need Tucker to score. They needed him to create space for the rest of the offense. He could help a team simply by standing in the corner and taking selfies with fans as long as he dragged a defender with him. By his last season in Germany, Tucker was hitting 48% of his threes. He was ready to come back to the NBA at the exact moment the league was ready to embrace him.

The best teams in the NBA understood that frontcourt versatility was increasingly valuable. And suddenly Tucker found himself in demand. He was no longer a tweener. He was now positionless.

“He turned himself into this player who’s super useful to all these NBA teams,” said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

The Phoenix Suns offered him a contract in 2012 for the league minimum with no guarantees he’d make the roster that year. Tucker was there for the next five years. He then re-signed with the Suns in 2014 to his first multi-year, million-dollar deal.

He proved himself as a rugged defender and reliable 3-point shooter, and he only left Phoenix when the Toronto Raptors traded for him this season for the same reason the Rockets chased him in the off-season: Tucker’s ability to guard multiple positions is essential on defense, and the spacing he brings is necessary in the modern NBA offense.

Tucker is dependable enough as a shooter—he made 41% of his open threes and 39% of his corner threes last year—that other teams have to defend him all the way out to the arc. But he only attempted 2.4 threes per game last year. He didn’t take more than six in any game.

In his pitch meeting with the Rockets, the pioneering coach Mike D’Antoni said he expects Tucker to average six per game. The attention on Harden and Paul will make room for the other Rockets, and it will be easier for Tucker to find good looks in Houston than good barbecue. “It’s crazy, just crazy, to hear,” Tucker said. “I’ve never been on a team like that.”

But they really signed him for his defense. When free agency opened, the Rockets asked themselves: What else do we need?

They had ball-handlers, wings and bigs, but Houston wanted players who could be all three. Only those types of players able to guard multiple positions on the same possession would help them beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and especially the Golden State Warriors.

“Probably one of the very few ways to guard Golden State is to have guys who can switch on different guys,” Morey said, “and P.J.’s ability to do that was a huge priority for us.”

How teams spend during free agency is a window into what they value. This summer, when the salary cap was lower than anticipated, they were forced to be unexpectedly frugal. They could only splurge on key players.

That’s what made this Houston move so illuminating. The Rockets made a rational conclusion that, not too long ago, would have been completely ridiculous: They decided they needed someone like P.J. Tucker.

“Someone with his skillset,” Morey said, “is almost required.”
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P.J. Tucker / Wall Street Journal 2 weeks 3 days ago #258888

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DJ Kennedy hopefully next.
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P.J. Tucker / Wall Street Journal 2 weeks 3 days ago #258890

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L J S A wrote:
DJ Kennedy hopefully next.

Agreed. I am not sure why the league is missing DJ. Feel like I have seen many lesser players get more of a shot. I guess there is some luck and timing involved.

He's 27 now. Hopefully he can catch a break soon.
Last Edit: 2 weeks 3 days ago by JohnnyFan.
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P.J. Tucker / Wall Street Journal 2 weeks 3 days ago #258892

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JohnnyFan wrote:
L J S A wrote:
DJ Kennedy hopefully next.

Agreed. I am not sure why the league is missing DJ. Feel like I have seen many lesser players get more of a shot. I guess there is some luck and timing involved.

He's 27 now. Hopefully he can catch a break soon.
Vast right, left or neutral wing conspiracy.
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P.J. Tucker / Wall Street Journal 2 weeks 2 days ago #258914

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bamafan wrote:
JohnnyFan wrote:
L J S A wrote:
DJ Kennedy hopefully next.

Agreed. I am not sure why the league is missing DJ. Feel like I have seen many lesser players get more of a shot. I guess there is some luck and timing involved.

He's 27 now. Hopefully he can catch a break soon.
Vast right, left or neutral wing conspiracy.

You sound like bobre 45.
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P.J. Tucker / Wall Street Journal 2 weeks 2 days ago #258915

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SJU85 wrote:
bamafan wrote:
JohnnyFan wrote:
L J S A wrote:
DJ Kennedy hopefully next.

Agreed. I am not sure why the league is missing DJ. Feel like I have seen many lesser players get more of a shot. I guess there is some luck and timing involved.

He's 27 now. Hopefully he can catch a break soon.
Vast right, left or neutral wing conspiracy.

You sound like bobre 45.
Thought he was the big Sean Evans fan.
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P.J. Tucker / Wall Street Journal 2 weeks 2 days ago #258919

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bamafan wrote:
SJU85 wrote:
bamafan wrote:
JohnnyFan wrote:
L J S A wrote:
DJ Kennedy hopefully next.

Agreed. I am not sure why the league is missing DJ. Feel like I have seen many lesser players get more of a shot. I guess there is some luck and timing involved.

He's 27 now. Hopefully he can catch a break soon.
Vast right, left or neutral wing conspiracy.

You sound like bobre 45.
Thought he was the big Sean Evans fan.

He was but was first on the conspiracy trip regarding why Omar Cook wasn't still in the NBA and why teams weren't given him a chance. The Sean Evans conspiracy came later.
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