Sunday, it was announced that the Houston Rockets fully guaranteed P.J. Tucker’s final contract year.
Tucker, 34, is set to return to Houston for at least one more season through 2020-2021. The announcement isn’t necessarily a surprise either. The Rockets traded away their only rotational big man, Clint Capela, last week, leaving Tucker as the obvious choice at center.
What is shocking, however, is that Houston had gone more than halfway through this with P.J. wondering about his future with the team. That should have never been the case.
As early as the beginning of this season, Tucker has not minced words with how he wanted this season to go for him: he believes he’d earned his contract extension. He’s more than made his case for some security too. Since the deep playoff run the Rockets had in 2018 until just their past game against the Celtics, it’s been evident that Tucker is the lifeblood of this defense.
Not only is the undersized forward asked to be the best defender on the court every night, he’s now asked to body up big men well beyond his height and weight every single night — that includes having to outwork them for rebounds and putting his body on the line to clog up the paint. Tucker’s stout frame and quickness have made him a rare commodity, able to guard the opposition’s big men and switch off to stay in front of their wings. What James Harden has been to the team’s offense, Tucker has been that to the defense.
To sum up Tucker’s true value, Mike D’Antoni felt he had to publicly state that he’d put the forward on a minutes restriction in January because it had become glaring how long Tucker was out on the floor, especially during close games. The goal was to keep him around 30 minutes per contest. Since that announcement, Tucker has played only one of the previous 14 games under 30 minutes, nine of them being at least 34 minutes or longer. The Rockets simply can’t risk pulling Tucker off the floor.
Then there’s the simple fact that Houston doesn’t go ultra small if they didn’t have P.J. His strength, defensive prowess, and three-point shooting is what makes the scheme viable. If Tucker goes down, then they’d have no choice but to go to an actual big, like Isaiah Hartenstein, because there truly isn’t a lot of guys who can do what Tucker does.
In other words, it’s ridiculous that Houston didn’t give Tucker an extension the day they traded Capela. It’s hard to imagine telling a 6’6” forward he is guaranteed to guard the likes of Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert the rest of the season, and he doesn’t even know if he’ll be here next year (at that point in time). It’s even harder to imagine that there is a legitimate investment in small ball without an investment in Tucker.
To add insult to injury, when 36-year-old Andre Iguodala was traded to the Miami Heat, the team immediately signed him to a two-year extension worth $30 million. Tucker is making $8.35 million this year and a little under $8 million next year. What valuable starter is making that little in today’s NBA?
Tucker has earned his pay and earned a commitment beyond that of next year. Let’s just hope Houston makes it right.