As recently as five years ago, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was once apt for P.J. Tucker’s value in the NBA.
Tucker struggled to find his niche early on in his career and even had to go overseas for five years following a disappointing rookie season in ‘06-’07. He eventually made his way back to the league and became a reliable reserve before the Houston Rockets ultimately unlocked his full potential after signing him in 2017.
Originally a tweener, Houston deployed the 32-year-old as an undersized stretch big man full-time where he thrived. The 6’5 forward was the perfect fit in Daryl Morey’s vision for a small ball Rockets line-up that fed off James Harden’s brilliance and shot as many threes as possible.
However, Tucker’s greatest contributions to those Houston teams were on the defensive end. He brought an invaluable toughness that could not be measured through the box score and proved capable of defending practically any frontcourt opponent. It was during this time that Tucker went from a Morey analytical darling into one of the most coveted role players in the league. In short, his beauty was now evident to everyone watching and no longer to a select few.
His adaptability allowed the Rockets to go toe-to-toe with the mighty Golden State Warriors, still with Kevin Durant on their roster, during the two playoff series where they met back in 2018 and 2019. While Houston fell short on both occasions, they caught everyone’s attention as they pushed Golden State harder than any other foe could.
When the Rockets were forced into a rebuild due to Harden’s discontent, they sent him to the Milwaukee Bucks in a midseason trade and they would go on to win the title that year. He proved to be their missing piece and often found himself covering the best player on the opposing team throughout their playoff run.
Most notably, Tucker went toe-to-toe with his old nemesis Durant and the Brooklyn Nets in the second round where his physicality wore him down over the course of their seven games series. The cash strapped Bucks were unable to retain his services following their championship season and the Miami Heat more than willingly availed of Tucker’s services.
Once again, Tucker played the same crucial role on his new team and completed a formidable front court alongside Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. He helped Miami secure the number one seed in the Eastern Conference in the regular season and they were a mere Jimmy Butler missed three away from advancing to the NBA Finals.
It was expected that Tucker would run it back with the Heat and either pick up his $7 million player option for this coming season or ink a new deal, but the Philadelphia 76ers swooped in and pried him away–much to the dismay of Butler.
For the second consecutive year, Tucker joined a team that he eliminated in the prior postseason as the Sixers gave him a three-year, $33 million contract that will pay him the highest annual salary of his career. It is not often that 37-year-old role players like Tucker sign the most lucrative deals of their career at this age, especially those with career averages of 7.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, and this only highlights how precious his intangibles have become around the league.
Tucker will be reunited with Harden and Morey at Philadelphia and should fit in perfectly alongside their franchise center Joel Embiid. Long criticized as a “soft” team lacking resilience and grit, he will immediately address these issues while still providing them with his usual floor spacing.
His arrival also makes forward Tobias Harris and the two years remaining on his five-year, $180 million deal much more expendable, though it may be a challenge to find willing takers given that he has generally fallen short of the expectations that come with his salary.
The hope around the Sixers is that Tucker is the answer to their problems and his magic touch finally helps them get past the second round of the playoffs. Although this new contract will pay him until he turns 40, the type of game that he plays should allow him to continue aging gracefully and makes this a rather low risk move.
The trio of Tucker, Harden, and Morey have unfinished business and with Embiid on their side, they have a prime opportunity to finally win a title in a league that is as wide open as it has ever been.