For our 2017-18 NBA Season Preview, we're doing deep dives on five teams who can beat the Warriors in the next five years—and the players who can push them over the top.
P.J. Tucker was partying in Atlanta the first time he seriously considered joining the Houston Rockets.
It was the middle of June, a few weeks before the arrival of free agency, and James Harden, Houston's franchise supernova, was also in attendance. The two are friendly and regularly see each other out during the summer. Tucker approached Harden and they embraced. The five-time All-Star leaned in: I'm coming to get you.
"I was like 'What?,'" Tucker told VICE Sports. Harden persisted: You're coming to Houston.
Interactions like this aren't uncommon among NBA players who know each other well, particularly when the on-court relationship is what Tucker and Harden's promises to be. Stars know, respect, and long for the blunt qualities someone like Tucker has to offer. This specific encounter rattled in and out of Tucker's brain for the next few weeks.
As a 32-year-old, Tucker had never enjoyed unrestricted free agency. He was drafted way back in 2006 by the Toronto Raptors, and then spent five years overseas—in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy, and Germany—before signing with the Phoenix Suns. But the NBA caught up to him. Tucker has tools that perfectly align with the modern game and a style of play one might liken with persistent grime. Heading into this summer, he held the right cards at the right time.
"I sit back and look at it: This is kind of my all-in moment," Tucker says. "I'm putting a little bit more into this year because it was my decision. I wanted to go and fight for a championship. I wanted to pick a team where I can add what I do and be able to put them over the top a little bit. I haven't been this excited in years about an NBA season."
This year, the Rockets might be the only team able to go punch for punch on both sides of the ball with the Golden State Warriors. They had the NBA's second-best offense last season (nobody was more efficient in the half-court, per Synergy Sports), and launched over 500 more threes than any team in league history. The relationship between Mike D'Antoni's relentless offensive system and Daryl Morey's analytically-obsessed approach to roster construction (and shot distribution) was harmonious from the start.
Now they have Chris Paul, a troop of interchangeable wings, and complementary depth in the frontcourt. Tucker doesn't turn opponents into ash or make audiences delirious. He hardly ever dunks and rarely goes off script. But what he gives Houston is a bite they noticeably lacked last season. He can beef up their defense and unlock the kinds of versatile units that will be required to overthrow the Warriors as soon as, well, now.
According to a league source, before he signed with Houston, Tucker flirted with a return to the Raptors, seriously considered an offer around two years and $28 million from the Sacramento Kings, and said thanks but no thanks to a budget-rate proposal from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Now, locked into a four-year, $32 million deal (that's non-guaranteed in the final season) with the Rockets, Tucker assumes culture-shifting responsibilities on a genuine championship contender. It's the most important role of his NBA career, on the best team he's ever played for. The stakes have never been higher, and his fit has never made more sense.
"The thing was maybe taking a little bit more and going to a team where I probably wasn't going to win and I'd be more of a veteran leader and doing that whole deal like I'd done with the Suns the past few years," Tucker says. "Or I'd probably take a little less and have a legitimate chance to fight for a championship, which every player wants to have, especially, this is my 12th year, so 12 years in that's the kind of thing you look for."
Before they signed him, Houston's front office and coaching staff didn't need to pepper Tucker with details about how he'd fit in, or what his responsibilities will be over the next few seasons.
"Coach D'Antoni just said from the beginning, he wants me to do what I do and bring a toughness, some leadership, [and] that fierce ability I bring to the game," Tucker says. "We didn't talk much about it. It was just a special understanding."
The Rockets wasted no time utilizing Tucker's one-size-fits-all value in their very first preseason game. With 5:20 left in the first quarter, the 6'6", 245-pound Swiss-Army knife subbed in for Clint Capela and was suddenly asked to wrestle Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams, a comically immovable boulder of a man. Houston's backup center Nene was out, but the decision by Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni to use Tucker in that role foreshadows five-man units he'll deploy all year long.
Early in the second quarter, Tucker found himself in a different position, shuffling his feet to stay in front of Carmelo Anthony. On one play where Anthony called for Adams to set a high ball screen, Tucker crowded him, fought over the pick, and nearly wedged himself inside Anthony's jersey, disallowing a pocket pass and dictating what came next. It was textbook. When Anthony rose to shoot, Tucker ripped the ball away and dribbled the length of the floor for a layup.
"In my early years they called you a tweener. Nobody liked tweeners," Tucker says. "It's so funny, when I first came out that was my biggest knock. I didn't have a position. 'Is he a two, is he a three, is he a four?' It's so funny now, it's like the thing you get the most praise about is not having a real position, being able to play a bunch of different positions. So now it's become a gift, being able to do that."
After he was traded to Toronto last season, the Raptors allowed 98.9 points per 100 possessions with Tucker on the court and 105.8 points per 100 possessions (highest on the team) when he sat. That trend continued in the playoffs, when their defensive rating shot up from 103.4 to 112.7 (which, again, ranked highest on the team).
In Houston, he's good enough to start and close games as a primary wing stopper, and that domino effect makes life easier for Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Harden, Paul, and everybody else. "[Houston] finished 10th in the NBA all-time last year on offense, so scoring is not a problem," he says.
But Tucker could win Defensive Player of the Year and Golden State still wouldn't bat an eyelash if they're able to ignore him on the other end. Tucker realizes this, and spent all summer familiarizing himself with different ways he can contribute when the Rockets have the ball.
"With James, you look at the way Houston plays, he gets it out make or miss. He throws the ball up and he finds people all over the court," Tucker said. "This summer I was getting a ton of shots up all over. Wing, top of the key, corners, because the shots here are coming from everywhere."
About 45 seconds after Tucker entered Houston's initial preseason game, he set a screen for Harden, popped to the top of the arc, caught a behind-the-back bounce pass, and drained a wide open three—his first shot in a Rockets jersey. In this day, in this system, and with two of the smartest pick-and-roll playmakers in the league on his side, Tucker's ability to knock down this exact shot is paramount.
Over the past few years he's developed into a respectable threat from the corner, with only two players (Ariza and Klay Thompson) taking advantage of the analytical sweet spot more often in 2016-17. But he only shot 23.8 percent above the break, an area where he needs to be more comfortable now that he's in an environment where early offense is a passport to success.
His evolution over the past decade was necessary for his survival as a useful player. Not only did Tucker stabilize his outside shot and prove he could defend multiple positions, but just as critical was his subtle transformation into a tertiary playmaker. Adding three points to Houston's side of the scoreboard while widening driving lanes for Paul and Harden is helpful, but Tucker's intelligence allows his responsibilities to expand when the game calls upon them. He's a junkyard dog who occasionally eats dinner with a fork and knife.
"[Knowing] that Chris and James are gonna draw so much attention, you get those opportunities like Draymond gets where, Klay and Steph get so much attention, and he's playing at odds so many times," Tucker says. "Three on two in the middle, being able to be the trigger man, making plays, attacking the rim, kick outs to three, and just being able to make the right decision—that's something that I obviously relish and definitely wanted."
In addition to making plays as a roll man, Tucker is also savvy enough to create positive action off the bounce, whether it be in transition or after he attacks a hard closeout.
Of course, comparing someone five years older than Draymond Green to Draymond Green isn't fair. Tucker isn't a rim protector and doesn't possess the same length and off-ball awareness as one of the NBA's most transcendent figures. But there are obviously some similarities in how they'll be used. Not only is Tucker strong enough to snuff out small-ball fours and fives, and quick enough to glue himself onto most guards, but his aforementioned offensive toolbox should allow him to be effective in meaningful situations on the sport's biggest stage.
P.J Tucker may not be the most high-profile signing of the offseason. But he is the exact commodity the Rockets needed. And this season, he can be the difference between Houston merely playing against the Warriors in a postseason series, and actually beating them.