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Rockets restart player previews: P.J. Tucker

It must be the shoes.

LA Clippers v Houston Rockets
It must be the shoes.
Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

P.J. Tucker

History:

Anthony Leon (Pops Junior - P.J.) Tucker joined the Rockets for the 2017-18 season, and has been a mainstay ever since. Tucker, a former Texas Longhorn, had a circuitous path to the NBA, with professional stops in Ukraine, Israel, Greece, Italy and Germany, before cementing a role in the NBA.

What sort of person, given that resume, would believe that he would not only make an NBA team, not only would he get minutes on that team, but would in fact start, for a contender, and moreover, take on an unprecedented role in NBA history? The sort of person a real hoop head would want to see play for a favorite team.

Known for his overall intensity, toughness, reliability and corner three-point shooting, Tucker might be considered an unsung hero on the Rockets based on the sheer volume of attention other (two other, specifically) Rockets players receive. People who know and understand how the Rockets actually function tend to believe that P.J. Tucker is the third most important player on the team, and sing his praises unstintingly.

One rarely reads much about P.J. Tucker though, unless it is a story about his love, and high-level collecting of sneakers, or his affection for large breakfasts done right.

Tucker quietly goes about doing the dirtiest jobs on the court, and he (almost) always laces them up for the next game, no matter how many knocks he got in the last one. In fact, Tucker has played all 82 games in four of the past five season.

Outlook:

It’s perhaps funny to think that a crucial player on an NBA contender like P.J. Tucker would likely, again, go unselected if he was somehow 21 again and available in this season’s NBA draft. Somehow players like P.J. Tucker must survive a different sort of crucible, one that makes them the player, and perhaps, person, they are on the court.

Tucker doesn’t have the standout athleticism and other attributes that draftniks and (public) statistical models tend to love. What he does have is an unstoppable motor, an indomitable will, a deep understanding of the game, and high intelligence. Even at 35 years old, Tucker plays the third most minutes on the Rockets roster (more on this later), and is routinely in the NBA top 20 for minutes.

P.J. Tucker is, effectively, the Houston Rockets’ center. He’s 6’5”, 245. He also will switch onto the toughest cover on an opponent, or given the Rockets defensive scheme, switch onto any opposing player at all.

Certain NBA commentators, pundits and writers seem to think the Rockets decision to go to full-time smallball was akin to vilest religious heresy. They are not shy about condemning the innovation, the experiment, of one single team, that the team is the Rockets makes it even more delicious, it appears. SmallBall is probably What’s Wrong With Kids Today, responsible for Climate Change, and if we’re honest, the ultimate source of this terrible global pandemic.

It may be surprising to learn that the most vociferous critics of the PocketRockets, of SmallBall, of SixSevensOrLess, are retired NBA big men. All the three-point shooting and the decline of the post game was bad enough. Then the Rockets went and did away with the center position altogether. There ought to be a law.

Chris Webber, famously, spent an entire TNT game complaining about the PocketRockets, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Rocket went on to win that contest. Webber isn’t alone, of course, many weighed in at first that it simply couldn’t work. Then, when it did in fact appear to work, that it wasn’t sustainable, gleefully jumping on a tired/unmotivated Rockets losing some games to subpar teams.

What does this have to do with P.J. Tucker? He’s at the eye of the No Center hurricane. The man who largely makes this heterodoxy possible. Such criticisms almost feel like a slight on P.J. Tucker, who, after all, has been an underdog his whole career.

Tucker has what used to be called “character”. Tucker appears to be a player whose value is not revealed by statistics. A player who is defined by professional pride, and commitment, but not egoism.

If one knew how good he is, the work he does on the court, one might work back to some stat that reveals something important. On and off court numbers tell a tale. Most high minutes, high value, Rockets lineups have P.J. Tucker in them. (And also, often, Ben McLemore. Take that for data.)

The largest post-Clint Capela minutes sample we have, shows a lineup with James Harden, Russell Westbrook, P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington and Danuel House Jr. at 111.3 offensive rating, and 100.6 defensive rating for a very fine +10.7 total rating in 164 minutes . The lineup is worse on rebounding, naturally, but no worse on points surrendered than the highest minutes lineup with Capela. (A lineup that substitutes McLemore for Covington somehow obliterates opponents at 124.8 OFFRTG and 92.4 DEFRTG (+32.4!) in 47 minutes of play.)

Generally, if there’s a good lineup, Tucker is in it. That’s both a blessing, in that he almost always suits up, and a concern, in that Tucker is 35, and plays big minutes. The eye test seems to reveal a Tucker at his best at around 30 minutes a night. For the bizarre remainder of a season to come however, help perhaps arrived for Tucker in the form of Jeff Green, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Bruno Caboclo, and in theory, next season, David Nwaba.

And we haven’t even gotten to the shoes, and the fact that Tucker has brought, himself, and with others, over 100 rare pairs of kicks to the Orlando NBA Bubble.

Poll

How Great is P.J. Tucker?

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    Exceptionally great.
    (33 votes)
  • 40%
    The Best Non-Center Center in NBA History.
    (35 votes)
  • 15%
    The best with the kicks.
    (13 votes)
  • 5%
    Dallas just doesn’t get PJ.
    (5 votes)
86 votes total Vote Now