It’s no secret that many Philadelphia 76ers fans are questioning PJ Tucker’s role on this team. While the 37-year-old veteran forward has never been known for his offensive prowess, he’s averaging just 3.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 34 games, both among the lowest of his career. And with his recent injury – a pinched nerve in his right hand – concerns over his potential to contribute to this team pursuing a championship are greater than ever.
But despite this, it may not be time to count PJ Tucker out just yet. Tucker has a very niche, on-ball defense-first role that’s much less common in today’s shooting-dominant NBA. He was critical in the team’s wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets, spending most of his minutes shutting down Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant, respectively. That signature toughness will be a difference-maker come playoff time – which is precisely why the team signed him in the first place.
That said, his contributions in the playoffs will depend heavily on how healthy and rested he is. At 37 years old, Tucker’s ability to keep up with younger, bigger guys is no small feat as it is. But that’s not going to last if PJ Tucker is worn down in the regular season, and it’s concerning that he’s started in all of the team’s first 34 games and averaged over 28 minutes apiece. Tucker sat Saturday night against the Thunder — the second night of a back-to-back — so hopefully the team has learned their lesson, but it’s too early to tell.
At the beginning of the season, the team was largely expected to stagger their starting players, having PJ Tucker finish more games than he starts and potentially toy with different lineup combinations, including De’Anthony Melton, Matisse Thybulle, and Paul Reed. Obviously, that hasn’t happened, but it would allow for the team to make the most of Tucker’s minutes while also ensuring he’s ready to go in the playoffs.
What’s more, having PJ Tucker come off the bench would allow the team to capitalize on his strengths rather than minimize his weaknesses. With De’Anthony Melton taking the starting spot in place of an injured Tyrese Maxey, the team has largely run an off-ball defense.
For example, James Harden has done a great job manipulating opposing offenses into making bad passes, allowing either Embiid or Melton to attempt a steal (Melton has the third-most steals thus far this season, behind just OG Anunoby and Anthony Edwards). Tucker, on the other hand, is a much more in-your-face kind of guy, making his fit with the starters a bit more clunky than most people expected. Having Tucker as a sixth man allows him to run more on-ball defense while also potentially giving him more opportunities to take open corner threes – something he hasn’t done nearly as much as he’s capable of.
While PJ Tucker’s contributions have been far from ideal this season, all is far from lost. His real contributions will be seen come playoff time, and the team should prepare him for that role by limiting his minutes and giving him more opportunities to succeed off the bench.