Sixers free agency targets: PJ Tucker
As the 2021-22 NBA season moves ever closer to a conclusion, avenues for the Philadelphia 76ers to expand their approach roster. Among these tracks is NBA Free Agency, which will begin on June 30 at 6 p.m. EST. As that date approaches, Liberty Ballers will break down some free agents who might make sense in a Sixers uniform.
- 2021-22 Statistical Profile: 71 games, 27.9 minutes, 7.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 59.3% real shots (0.484/0.415/0.738 split)
- Playoff stats: 18 games, 28.3 minutes, 7.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 61.2% true shooting (.495/.451/.688 split)
- Advanced Metrics: +2.1 Plus-Minus Estimate (66th overall), -0.6 O-EPM (194th), +2.7 D-EPM (12th)
Immediately following the Sixers’ second-round loss to the Miami Heat, superstar center Joel Embiid insisted on his team’s perceived lack of toughness. Embiid wasn’t the only player to fix this flaw. But his monologue strayed from that of his teammates when he specifically mentioned that Philadelphia didn’t have someone like PJ Tucker, the very player whose services helped send the Sixers packing just minutes earlier.
Once Tucker turned down his $7.4 million player option for 2022-23 this week, the Sixers were quickly linked as a team interested in acquiring his services this summer. Before landing De’Anthony Melton, a deal that saw them dispatch Danny Green and the No. 23 pick in Thursday’s draft, a path to opening the non-taxpayer mid-level full exception (~10 million dollars) for Tucker existed. After this move, a path still exists, but it is quite difficult to accomplish and unlikely. So the odds of landing Tucker are much slimmer than they were, say, Wednesday.
Nonetheless, Tucker remains a potential free agent signee and The Philadelphia’s Keith Pompey has signaled that there is mutual interest between the two parties. So, let’s assess the 37-year-old’s play and how he could improve this club’s league aspirations.
Basically, Tucker’s two best defensive traits are his hands and the timing with which he engages in his decisions. These assets often shine as an auxiliary defender all over the pitch. He’s quite adept at stunts and digs, has a remarkably strong center of gravity, and rushes to help at all times.
In Miami’s second-round victory over Philadelphia, Tucker proved quite capable of preventing Embiid, albeit a physically compromised version, from asserting his preferred positioning. He excels at battling larger missions and denying them the ball by winning the battle for higher leverage. His accuracy and quickness in helping to clear the ball away from unsuspecting scorers is matched by few players in the league.
He’s a multi-faceted off-ball defender whose knack for playing the nail, developing post-games and assisting in practices would invigorate the Sixers.
While my perspective tells me that Tucker found more importance and utility as an assistant during the regular season, his chops on the ball grew in importance and impact throughout the the Heat’s deep playoffs.
The brave and veteran wing is shrewdly quick and physical in executing changes. It does not offer ball handlers a fraction of the airspace and ensures that the switches will not create a driving or passing window for the offense. So many Philadelphia switches, when they switched screens, felt listless and short of energetic goals last season. This is not the case with Tucker.
He’s particularly adept at cluttering up the body and handling missions to frustrate any potential reader or collect for a jumper. Although he is sometimes better on the perimeter due to his size or not-quite-elite lateral mobility, he mirrors the movements of the ball handler well and is snappy in his ground coverage. Generating a comfortable space to operate is often challenging for him.
Tucker’s offensive niche is considerably narrower, but clearly exists. Last season, he buried 41% of his 173 corner triples (77th percentile among big men, according to Cleaning The Glass), and expanded his inside scoring to flourish as a cut-and-float connoisseur. His clip of 54% out of two was the second highest of his career and he ranked in the 85th percentile on floaters, according to Synergy. For the first time since 2016-17, his three-point rate fell below 65%.
While not a short-term magician or facilitator, he is definitely a tenable passer and ball mover whose play can bolster an offense in the appropriate scenarios. He and Miami shrewdly diversified their offensive portfolio to avoid over-reliance on the long ball and it worked out beautifully.
So the far-reaching defensive intrigue and nuanced, yet existing offensive package, both make a compelling case for Philadelphia to prioritize Tucker this summer. I have, however, some substantial hesitations.
Generally speaking, Miami is a much more favorable context for emphasizing one’s strengths and hiding one’s shortcomings. Defensively, he’s the best in a switch-heavy scheme and the Heat’s roster is filled with versatile stoppers on the ball, unlike the Sixers. Miami is also brilliant at playing the spreads to gobble up oncoming drives. Philadelphia is not.
Tucker is a good and malleable attacking point defender, but running backs were also shy to challenge him because of all the extensive reinforcements complementing him. Embiid is an excellent singular reinforcement. Many of his fellow Sixers, however, don’t cover the ground like him or worry about offenses as much as the Miami staff. I don’t mean Tucker would struggle defensively; I just recognize the greatly beneficial Heat offer situation that probably wouldn’t be replicated in Philadelphia.
The offense is where most of my trepidations really rest. Tucker shot 41% from deep in the regular season and 45% in the playoffs. In the previous five regular seasons, he drilled 36.5% of his threes and 39.9% of his long balls in the playoffs during that stretch.
He’s also virtually a non-factor above the three-break, taking just 22 cornerless triples last season, looking hesitant to shoot and defenses ignore him when he’s got the ball up there. Its ground spacing is confined to small, specialized regions of the hardwood.
Inside the arc, he shot 47% in the regular season and playoffs between 2016-17 and 2020-21, sharp drops from 54 and 53% in 2021-22. Much of his inside scoring value was in his floater, which he converted at 54.8%. He’s had plenty of openings for the floater due to Miami’s slew of stellar shooters with the gravity to function as viable DHO partners, which the Sixers don’t offer.
Floats are also usually such an unstable tool to rely on and regression could hit it hard. His true shooting had only been above league average once before last season. By most accounts, 2021-22 was the record year for him offensively.
Plus, the idea of offering the 37-year-old Tucker a three-year deal that eats up virtually all of Philadelphia’s financial flexibility for the offseason seems reckless. At the end of the contract, he would be 40 years old and the contract would assume that he maintains this career best result in the future. It’s a hard sell.
If Tucker can emulate that past campaign for at least two of his seasons with the Sixers, then my concerns are irrelevant. But consider this: before 2021-22, his career best EPM came in 2013-14 at +0.9. Last season it was +2.1. I don’t want to boil this down to a single metric. The point is to highlight how well Tucker played last year — and kudos to him, of course — in near ideal circumstances, compared to the majority of his NBA tenure.
Again, he’s a good player, with an obvious role in title contenders. Still, there are just too many caveats and problems that seem to arise with Philadelphia inking it for the supposed price of three years, $30 million. The hypothetical signature is enticing and logical. Reality and closer examination reveal troublesome obstacles, both financially and on the ground. As such, Tucker seems like an incongruous fit with the Sixers.