Way back on media day, 37-year-old P.J. Tucker was asked about resting during the regular season to preserve his body for the playoffs.
His response was very P.J. Tucker.
“I don’t know what that is,” he said back in September. “I just play. It’s not a process or thought of, ‘I may not need to play.’ You know what I’m saying? Players play.”
Tucker said this while addressing the Philly media for the first time and after we were informed earlier that morning that the veteran had a knee procedure done six weeks ago. With that information, it was not surprising to see Tucker get off to a slow start.
But with injuries crushing the Sixers during the early part of the season, Tucker is the only player on the team to play in all 33 games — and that’s with Tucker dealing with injuries of his own.
With the rest of the team seemingly getting healthier and Tucker dealing with what seems like a difficult injury, now is the time for the Sixers to give him a break — whether he likes it or not.
Tucker was the marquee signing of Daryl Morey’s toughness movement after the Sixers lost in six games to the rugged forward’s Miami Heat squad. Joel Embiid basically begged the organization to sign Tucker after an embarrassing Game 6 loss. James Harden had been trying to reunite with his former teammate since they both left Houston. And Tucker’s combination of grit, sneaky skill and team-first approach looked to be a perfect fit for a Sixers team that fell short in those categories in recent years.
For years Tucker has been an NBA ironman. He’d played at least 71 games in nine of the last 10 seasons, including three seasons where he played all 82 games and two others where he played 81. This is a player that simply does not miss time — injuries or not — and clearly takes a lot of pride in that fact.
But it’s evident too much has been asked of Tucker to start the season. He’s guarding the opponent’s best player every night and consistently plays a physical brand of basketball. He’s played over 37 minutes in four games already this season.
While he’s stepped up playing big minutes while the team has dealt with numerous injuries, Tucker has been far from 100 percent. In early November, he was dealing with a hip contusion after the Sixers’ win over the Suns. A few weeks laters, he left a win over the Magic with an ankle sprain. He came up on the injury report both times and was listed as questionable, but didn’t miss a game.
Now, Tucker has been dealing with a “pinched nerve” in his hand for the past few weeks. This per SI’s Justin Grasso:
“I got a pinched nerve that I’ve been battling,” Tucker revealed. “A dead [right] hand. Pretty much the last few weeks, so I’ve been battling.”
I’m no medical doctor and never played basketball above the high school level, but I imagine it’s rather difficult to shoot a basketball with a “dead” shooting hand. Tucker was unable to close games in New York or D.C. in part because of it.
P.J. Tucker clearly frustrated with his right hand issue — has been shaking it out a bunch on the bench. Georges Niang came in for Tucker a little over two minutes into the third. pic.twitter.com/FYgzMFW73T— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) December 28, 2022
And it’s clear these nagging injuries have hurt Tucker’s effectiveness — mostly offensively. If you expected Tucker to come in here and average double-digits, you were always going to be disappointed. That’s not why he’s here.
But it was fair to expect some scoring. As we saw with Miami last year, Tucker isn’t just brawn. He does have a bit of skill. His shooting from the corners has always been his offensive strong suit, but he also flashed plenty of good connective passing, a little something off the dribble and a floater game.
How many times did it feel like Tucker connected on a floater or made a a well-time cut for a layup in a big spot in the playoffs? In the postseason, Tucker hit 62.1 percent of his shots within five feet of the rim (63 percent in the restricted area), per NBA.com. This season, he’s hit just 41.7 (35 percent in the restricted area). Small sample size, but that’s a significant drop off.
Our Jackson Frank had his concerns about a potential Tucker free agency signing — most notably regression in his two-point shooting and, yes, his floater. But as smart as Jackson is (don’t tell him I said that) even he couldn’t have predicted Tucker’s offensive production from within the arc totally cratering.
It feels like health is a major factor here. With Tyrese Maxey returning to the lineup as early as Friday, it’s the perfect time to get Tucker some much-needed rest. Doc has talked about using more three-guard lineups. All of Harden, De’Anthony Melton and Shake Milton have the ability to guard up (with varying degrees of efficacy). With the inconsistencies of Danuel House, Jr. and Matisse Thybulle on the wing, it could also be a pathway to better lineups when Tucker returns. What better time to get a deeper look?
Rivers was asked about Tucker’s usage back in September too. If he listens to media day Doc, maybe they can preserve the best of Tucker for when it matters most.
“Our team will tell me more than I will tell him,” Rivers said then. “Obviously my eyes will be a part of it, as well. But he’s important to us, not only on the floor but (also) off the floor. I think his leadership is definitely needed. So, not concerned with it. And P.J. will tell you every second that he’s not concerned with it. So we’ll do the right thing.”
Let’s hope so.