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Sixers free agency targets: PJ Tucker

The tough-minded, versatile wing is an archetype Philadelphia seemingly lacked last season.

NBA 2022 Playoffs - Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

As the 2021-22 NBA season progresses closer and closer toward a conclusion, avenues for the Philadelphia 76ers to enhance their roster draw near. Among those avenues is NBA Free Agency, which kicks off June 30 at 6 p.m. EST. As that date approaches, Liberty Ballers will be breaking down some free agents who might make sense in a Sixers uniform.

PJ Tucker

  • 2021-22 statistical profile: 71 games, 27.9 minutes, 7.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 59.3 percent true shooting (.484/.415/.738 split)
  • Playoff statistics: 18 games, 28.3 minutes, 7.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 61.2 percent true shooting (.495/.451/.688 split)
  • Advanced metrics: +2.1 Estimated Plus-Minus (66th overall), -0.6 O-EPM (194th), +2.7 D-EPM (12th)

In the immediate aftermath of the Sixers’ second-round defeat against the Miami Heat, superstar center Joel Embiid harped on his team’s perceived lack of toughness. Embiid was not the lone player to address this flaw. But his monologue deviated from teammates’ when he specifically mentioned Philadelphia not having someone like PJ Tucker, the very role player whose services helped send the Sixers packing minutes earlier.

Once Tucker declined his $7.4 million player option for 2022-23 this week, the Sixers were quickly linked as a team interested in acquiring his services this summer. Prior to landing De’Anthony Melton, a deal that saw them send out Danny Green and the No. 23 pick in Thursday’s draft, a path to opening the full, non-taxpayer mid-level exception (~$10 million) for Tucker existed. After that move, a path still exists, but it’s quite challenging to accomplish and unlikely. Thus, the chances of landing Tucker are much slimmer than they were on, say, Wednesday.

Nonetheless, Tucker remains a potential free agent signee and Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia reported there’s mutual interest between both parties. So, let’s assess the 37-year-old’s game and how he could enhance this club’s championship aspirations.

Broadly, Tucker’s two best defensive traits are his hands and the timing with which he commits to his decisions. Those assets often shine as a helper defender all across the court. He’s rather adept at stunt-and-recovers, possesses a remarkably stout center of gravity and lunges into help at a moment’s notice.

In Miami’s second-round win over Philadelphia, Tucker proved quite capable of preventing Embiid, albeit a physically compromised version, from asserting his preferred positioning. He excels at wrangling against bigger assignments and denying them the ball by winning the battle of superior leverage. His precision and swiftness in help to swipe the ball away from unsuspecting scorers is matched by few around the league.

He’s an excellently multifaceted off-ball defender whose knack for playing the nail, scaling up to post matchups and helping on drives would all invigorate the Sixers.

While my vantage point tells me Tucker found more prominence and utility as a helper during the regular season, his on-ball chops heightened in importance and impact throughout the Heat’s deep playoff run.

The gritty, veteran wing is astutely prompt and physical in executing switches. He affords ball-handlers not a fraction of airspace and ensures that switches will not breed a driving or passing window for the offense. So many of Philadelphia’s switches, when it did switch screens, felt lackadaisical and short on forceful purpose last season. That is not the case with Tucker.

He’s particularly adept at crowding the body and handle of assignments to frustrate any potential drive or gather for a jumper. While sometimes bested on the perimeter because of his size or not-quite-elite lateral mobility, he mirrors ball-handler’s movements well and is lively in his ground coverage. Generating comfortable room to operate is often taxing against him.

Tucker’s offensive niche is considerably more narrow, but does clearly exist. Last season, he buried a scorching 41 percent of his 173 corner triples (77th percentile among big men, per Cleaning The Glass), and expanded his interior scoring to flourish as a cutter and floater connoisseur. His 54 percent clip on twos was the second-highest of his career and he ranked in the 85th percentile on floaters, according to Synergy. For the first time since 2016-17, his three-point rate dipped below 65 percent.

While he’s not a short-roll or facilitating wizard, he is assuredly a tenable passer and ball mover whose playmaking can bolster an offense in the proper scenarios. He and Miami shrewdly diversified his offensive portfolio to avoid an over-reliance on the long ball and it panned out superbly.

So, the wide-ranging defensive intrigue and nuanced, yet existent offensive package both foster a compelling case for Philadelphia to prioritize Tucker this summer. I, however, holster some substantial hesitancies.

Generally speaking, Miami is a vastly more favorable context to accentuate his strengths and paper over his shortcomings. Defensively, he’s best in a switch-heavy scheme and the Heat’s roster is stocked with versatile on-ball stoppers, whereas the Sixers are not. Miami is also brilliant at playing the gaps to engulf oncoming drives. Philadelphia is not.

Tucker is a good and malleable point-of-attack defender, but ball-handlers were also timid to challenge him because of all the rangy reinforcements supplementing him. Embiid is a great singular reinforcement. Many of his fellow Sixers, though, do not cover ground like him or worry offenses as much as Miami’s personnel did. I’m not implying Tucker would struggle defensively; I’m merely acknowledging the grandly beneficial situation the Heat offer that would likely not be replicated in Philadelphia.

Offense is where most of my trepidations truly rest. Tucker shot 41 percent from deep in the regular season and 45 percent in the postseason. Over the prior five regular seasons, he drilled 36.5 percent of his threes and 39.9 percent of his playoff long balls during that span.

He’s also virtually a non-factor above the break from three, taking just 22 non-corner triples last season, looking hesitant to fire and having defenses ignore him when he held the ball there. His floor-spacing is confined to small, specialized regions of the hardwood.

Inside the arc, he shot 47 percent in the regular season and postseason between 2016-17 and 2020-21, stark declines from the 54 and 53 percent of 2021-22. Much of his interior scoring value resided in his floater, which he converted at a 54.8 percent mark. He was afforded many openings for the floater because of Miami’s bevy of stellar shooters with the gravity to function as viable DHO partners, which the Sixers do not offer.

Floaters are also typically such a fickle tool to depend on and regression might hit him hard. His true shooting had only been above league average once before last season. By most accounts, 2021-22 was the banner year for him offensively.

Also, the idea of offering 37-year-old Tucker a three-year deal that virtually saps all of Philadelphia’s financial flexibility for the offseason seems imprudent. By the end of the contract, he’d be 40 years old and the contract would be assuming he maintains this career-best output moving forward. That’s a tough sell.

If Tucker can emulate this past campaign for at least of couple of his seasons with the Sixers, then my concerns are irrelevant. But consider this: before 2021-22, the best EPM of his career came in 2013-14 at +0.9. Last season, it was +2.1. I don’t mean to boil this down to one metric. The goal is to emphasize how well Tucker played last year — and kudos to him for that, of course — in a nearly ideal context, compared to the majority of his NBA tenure.

Again, he’s a good player, one with an obvious role on title contenders. Yet there are simply too many caveats and issues that seem to arise with Philadelphia inking him at the rumored price point of three years, $30 million. The hypothetical signing is enticing and logical. The reality and a deeper look reveal troublesome hurdles, both financially and on-court. As such, Tucker seems like an incongruent fit with the Sixers.