PJ Tucker, Unleashed
The Heat's defensive dynamo is providing a boost on both sides of the ball
PJ Tucker is known for three things: shoes, corner threes, and defense.
You can’t talk about Tucker without mentioning the kicks; it’s a legal obligation. He has more than 5,000 pairs, and he often switches shoes mid-game. He reportedly spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on hunting rarities. He owns Jordans that Michael Jordan doesn’t have and Durants that Kevin Durant specifically commissioned only for his own family. Tucker is universally regarded as the NBA’s sneaker king, an impressive distinction - like being the NASCAR driver with the fastest road car.
Race car drivers, however, only deal with curves at their job. Tucker has made a career out of corners.
This is a man who shot more corner threes as a percentage of shots taken than anyone in the league from 2017 to 2021. More than half of his shots came from the corners during that time frame, per Cleaning the Glass, and he led the league in both attempts and makes from the corners in three straight seasons from 2017 to 2020.
But Tucker has a deeper bag than anyone realized, and at 37 years old, he’s shown a revitalized offensive game that’s unlocked new options for the Heat.
Don’t get me wrong: the man still lives in right angles. 39% of his shots have come from the corners this season, still in the 99th percentile for big men. But he’s up to 26% of his shots coming at the rim and 27% from floater range, and he’s even (gasp) dribbled at times!
PJ uses a glacial hesitation dribble to gain a half-step on unsuspecting defenders who haven’t updated their scouting report:
He’s never been much of a leaper, so he’s developed an array of straight-armed floaters to shoot over the trees sitting in the paint:
And Tucker can even whip out a surprisingly effective post-up game (1.07 points per possession, in the 81st percentile in the league, per Synergy Sports, albeit on a very small sample size). After the Heat lost to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs, PJ Tucker told coach Erik Spoelstra he wanted the opportunity to post up the diminutive Trae Young. It worked:
Tucker crashes the offensive boards hard, looking for tip-outs and putback opportunities. He often has a weaker player (like Young) stationed on him, and it can give him a physical advantage in the brawl for the ball. He averaged the fourth-most offensive rebounds in the league for players 6’6” and under, even though the corners are often a disadvantageous rebounding spot and, again, Tucker can’t jump.
But for all that, Tucker’s greatest offensive value remains his three-point production, and he’s having the best shooting season of his career.
Tucker is hitting 42% from three on 2.7 attempts per game, by far a career-high for marksmanship. The volume isn’t much, but the threat of Tucker shooting is enough to crack open some space in the Heat’s sometimes-moribund halfcourt offense. Adorably, he does a distinctive series of hops almost every time he launches from deep, bouncing on his toes impatiently like a little kid who can’t wait to see if his shot goes in or not:
But Tucker hasn’t stuck in the NBA this long because of his offense. He’s had an unusual NBA career. The Raptors drafted PJ in the second round of the 2006 NBA draft, but he didn’t even finish the season before being waived.
That was before the league started valuing defensive flexibility over size. Nobody wanted a 6’5” forward without much athleticism, playmaking, or shooting ability, so Tucker took his talents to Israel. He played all over Europe, winning MVPs and championships in a variety of places. A friend in the Phoenix Suns front office convinced him to try out for their team five years later. He rejoined the NBA for the 2012-2013 season and has never looked back.
However, Tucker really shined after going to Houston and pairing with James Harden in 2017. Like most ball-dominant stars, Harden prefers a switch-everything defensive scheme (which is generally lower-effort), and Tucker was the perfect fit for that. He’s strong enough to play center but quick enough to cover point guards. He was also the rare NBA player content to sit in the corner and go minutes without touching the ball, making him the ideal running mate for Harden.
Tucker spent three years in Houston before leaving after Harden bolted for Brooklyn. He eventually landed with Milwaukee, and he was a crucial part of their run to a title last year.
Add it all up, and PJ has only played in 11 NBA seasons despite turning 37 years old yesterday (he’s one day older than Chris Paul, his childhood friend). It’s no secret that Tucker prides himself on his defense. Despite being the sixth-oldest player in the NBA, he is always given the most demanding assignments on the Heat (he has the highest matchup difficulty of anyone on the team).
Tucker’s flexibility is top-notch. He guarded tiny point dynamo Trae Young the second-most minutes of anyone on the Heat in Round 1, and now he’s drawn the James Harden assignment. Before the series began, he talked to Andscape’s Marc Spears and had this to say:
“I got to guard James. There’s no two ways around it. He’s important to the team. He is who he is. They look for him to do what he does, and they want him to be him. And to win, we have to stop him. So that’s what I do.”
PJ has spent much of the current playoff series harassing former teammate Harden the entire length of the court, trying to wear Harden down and prevent him from easily getting to his spots (much like Tucker did to Durant in last year’s epic Bucks-Nets duel).
He’s spent more time guarding Harden in two games than he spent defending any player on the Hawks in five games, and it’s working: in 78.5 partial possessions, Harden has only attempted four shots!1
When you watch the film, it makes sense. Harden isn’t quick enough to burst by Tucker or strong enough to knock him off his spot, and Tucker relishes the chance to dog Harden for 94 feet:
It’s exhausting to have to do this all game for both men, and it’s a testament to Tucker’s incredible will and fitness that he’s able to bring so much defensive energy at his size and age. Tucker has played significant chunks of his career at center; you don’t see other centers (or power forwards, for that matter) pressing opposing ballhandlers.
In some ways, Tucker’s past in a switch-heavy, small-ball scheme in Houston set the stage for new-age perimeter-stopping giants like Bam Adebayo. The fact that the Heat can roll out not one but two of the elite switching big men of the NBA makes them a nightmare for opposing ballhandlers to face.
Tucker has snake-like hands that are always waving and a wide base that, combined with above-average lateral quickness, makes him challenging to dribble or pass around. He is very physical and might be even more of a pain when he’s denying players off-ball. Watch as he immediately recognizes the dribble hand-off coming, switches out onto the Knicks’ RJ Barrett, pushes Barrett off his spot, and wedges himself between the big and Barrett for an unusual steal:
The combination of intelligence and strength required for that play is exceedingly rare.
Tucker has been underappreciated his entire career. Almost every team he’s been on has passed on the chance to sign him to a fair longer-term deal, perhaps underwhelmed by his paltry box-score numbers and advanced age.
But Tucker is always on the floor when it matters. Coaches and players know that he’s made for winning time. His graceful aging and newly reinvigorated offensive game have made him a larger-than-expected part of Miami’s season. If the Heat can pull off a championship, it’ll be partially due to an old dog learning some new tricks.
For context, that’s pretty close to how many possessions Harden would normally play in a full game.