PHOENIX — Winning teams need a perimeter defensive stopper. The position is essential to any team with NBA championship aspirations. Just look at a few of the swingman from the eight teams still playing. LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are all offensive juggernauts that need to be contained, but they’re also defensive stoppers themselves.
It is extremely tough to shut those guys down. Heck, it might be lucky to slow them down at all. But a team needs a player that isn’t afraid to compete with the NBA’s elite offensive players, and they need someone who’s willing to take on a position where numbers — even advanced stats — are skewed because of the talent they play against on a nightly basis.
P.J. Tucker was just that for the Phoenix Suns in the past two seasons. It’s to the point that he’s an instigator, where other players know they’ll have a battle on their hands when they play the Suns.
“It’s more just being competitive,” Tucker said, tossing aside the question of whether teams hate to play against him. “Every night going out and fighting. It’s more of shutting down that guy and making them take tough shots to win the game.
“It’s not a personal thing, it is more about the team. It’s pretty cool, but about playing hard.”
Opp. Isolation FG%
Opp. PNR ball-handler FG%
Opp. spot-up FG%
Opp. overall FG%
Opponents shot just 32 percents off Tucker in isolation situations last season, according to Synergy Sports. To compare, Washington Wizards small forward Trevor Ariza allowed opponents to shoot 42 percent and Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala gave up 37 percent on isolation plays.
Tucker does so much more than just play defense though. In practice, he was credited by Goran Dragic for pushing the team after hitting walls as the long NBA season wore on. Tucker is durable, tough and is a great chemistry guy. More importantly, he is the teammate that did the little things that helped the Suns win basketball games.
“It’s just the way I play,” Tucker said. “You got to have somebody to make the little plays, the plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet, to be a great team, to be a team to get better, to be a team to really take it to another level.
“I think from last year, not being such a great year, so that stuff kind of didn’t matter because we were losing so much. A lot of those extra possessions, those hustle plays, those extra rebounds, wins games.”
The third year player out of Texas started in all 81 games he played— he was suspended after earning two flopping violations in consecutive games — and provided the tough points on offense, as well as being a strong three-point threat from the corner by making 41 percent of those shots. He is just 6-for-23 from elsewhere behind the arch.
Comparing his three-point shooting to last year, Tucker increased his overall shooting percentage from 31 percent to 38 percent this season, making him less of an offensive liability. Suns coach Jeff Hornacek even trusted Tucker to handle the ball on the break, or work out of the post, though those sequences might have been a bit nerve-racking for Suns fans.
Tucker has also turned himself into one of the better rebounders for a forward his size. At 6’5”, Tucker was able to average 6.5 rebounds per game, which was good for second most on the Suns. His rebounding percentage of 11.9 and especially his 7.3 percent of offensive rebounds corralled made a difference for a team without much size — the offensive boards especially won the Suns a game or two.
Tucker’s rebounding average is higher than Dirk Nowitzki, Thad Young and Rudy Gay to name a few, and he had 14 games of getting double digits in rebounds, including a career high of 15, which he got twice this season.
It truly is amazing what Tucker has been able to accomplish since he came to the Suns prior to the 2012-13 season. He was a second round selection by the Toronto Raptors in the 2006 draft but only managed to play 17 games for the Raptors before going on an overseas adventure that kept him out of the NBA for six seasons.
“It has been crazy,” Tucker reminisced. “If I just think back when I first walked in the doors here, being the 14th, 15th man, having to really work hard to try to make my way back into the league, really make my way on the team, to now being an 81-game starter and be a part of this team, is amazing. I can’t thank the organization enough and hopefully I can stick around and keep it going.”
Tucker enters the offseason as a restricted free agent. He finishes off a two-year contract that paid him a base of just $884,293 in 2013-14, according to ShamSports. Forbes.com called him one of the most underpaid players in the league.
With that said, it’s doubtful that Tucker would be willing to take a hometown discount after being paid less than what he has been worth the past couple years.
“I love Phoenix,” Tucker said. “Like I said, they gave me an opportunity to get back in the league and establish myself. I hope that I will be back.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The Suns could be in a tricky spot with Tucker if another team offers him a number that does not make sense for the team. The forward could reasonable earn somewhere between $3 and $5 million a year.
“We place a value on him. The market will place a value on him,” said Suns president of basketball ops Lon Babby. “If there’s a disconnect, it’s something we have to address at the time. But we have those (restricted free agent) rights and we’d be foolhardy not to utilize them … we recognize that in many ways he’s the heart and soul of our team and beloved by his teammates and an important part of this organization.”
Though Tucker provides so many intangibles that are needed to have a successful team, his position is one that the Suns are trying to upgrade, which would force Tucker to the bench. Whatever his future lies, there is no questioning Tucker’s important to this year’s team.
“As far as P.J.’s negotiation,” McDonough said, “certainly it would be similar to what I said about Eric. We have every intention of getting a deal done. One way or another, we would like to have P.J. back. We feel like he was a big part of the team on the court and also off the court. His emotion and spirit and energy was really infectious and helped us out this year.”