The NBA was shook by another seismic trade late on Monday night, with the Philadelphia 76ers finally trading James Harden to the L.A. Clippers. A deal that was a long time in the making, and which many felt was going to come before the regular season got underway.
The addition of Harden to the Clippers – and the fact they didn’t even have to give up Russell Westbrook in the deal – should not be of too much concern to the Phoenix Suns. They are still the better team, and should be looking at the Denver Nuggets as the true pacesetters in the Western Conference.
There was one worrying development for the Suns in the Harden trade however, with Durant’s kryptonite also being moved to the Clippers in the deal.
That player is none other than P.J. Tucker, the 38-year-old walking annoyance who has made a career out of hounding bigger players in the league. So much so, that teams who employ Tucker generally feel better putting him on these forwards, as opposed to similarly sized, but quicker, guards who scurry around the perimeter.
Many Suns fans aren’t worried about Harden joining the Clippers, and that makes sense. Harden’s baggage at this point is well documented, and he has failed to work with Westbrook in the past. Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can play with just about anybody, but the catch there is that they have to be playing at all in order to get the best out of them.
Westbrook has also enjoyed a revival of sorts since joining the Clippers, and it remains to be seen if that can continue now that Harden has joined the party. He may say and do all of the right things initially – as we’ve seen with the 76ers and Brooklyn Nets before that – but when the going gets tough, the tough gets ball-dominant and statue like on the defensive end.
Tucker on the other hand represents a real problem for the Suns and their trio of stars. In a hypothetical playoff series, he wouldn’t spend any time on Bradley Beal. Then again, Beal hasn’t spent any time on the court so far this season either. He would annoy Devin Booker some, but just look what he did to Durant only two seasons ago.
To be clear, Tucker is unable to stop Durant getting any shot that he wants. But look at how hard he makes some of those shots for the now 35-year-old. Tucker is a nuisance, fighting around screens and getting in front of the much bigger Durant any chance that he gets.
Durant so far this season has been superb. He has carried the Suns in the absence of his two star teammates, and has even shown up on the defensive end in ways we haven’t seen in a few seasons under head coach Frank Vogel. He has been everything the organization have need, and then some.
But it is also fair to point out that Durant has looked mortal in these games as well. His shots don’t have that same “that’s going in” feel immediately after leaving his hands as they have in the past. Again, not really a problem for the Suns, as Durant is still potentially the greatest shot-maker in the history of the league.
But at his age, he is less automatic than he used to be. It has also felt like Durant has forced some shots in the three games played so far, and while he’s probably the first player in the entire NBA you’d be happy with forcing a shot, the reality is he’s settled some with his shot-making. Perhaps this is to save some energy for the defensive end, but Tucker can and will feed off that.
Tucker will join a Clippers team with plenty of top end talent, and immediately occupy the role that Josh Okogie and Eric Gordon have for the Suns. At times elite one-v-one defenders, who are also capable of making a 3-pointer or two over the course of a game as well. Like Gordon, Tucker has plenty of playoff experience, and this will be his third team playing alongside Harden.
The path to a championship is going to be difficult for the Suns, and while the jury is out on Harden to Los Angeles right now, Tucker represents a very real problem. He loves nothing more than mucking it up against superstars on the biggest stage. It is the reason contenders continue to seek out his services, and the Clippers will benefit in any potential matchup versus the Suns.