Former Longhorn P.J. Tucker is the X-factor to Houston’s title hopes

Aneesh Namburi

With its team facing stagnation, the Houston Rockets shook things up at the NBA trade deadline by dealing center Clint Capela, a staple of the team’s last few playoff runs, for Robert Covington, an elite “three and D” wing. In doing so, the Rockets went all in on a pipe dream set by head coach Mike D’Antoni: all out small ball. In an NBA where the “elite teams” have the biggest lineups (Lakers, Bucks, 76ers), Houston has decided to zig while the rest of the NBA zags. 

Four games after the trade, Houston has been rolling out a rotation where no player is taller than 6 feet, 7 inches. However, it cannot have just any five players on the court. These players need to have the ability to switch as well as the brute strength to hold up defensively against post players. While the Rockets do have a couple of these players, none is more important than Texas’ own P.J. Tucker, their new makeshift center. 

Standing at 6 feet, 5 inches, Tucker might seem to be a small forward, but his 245-pound frame makes him look more fit for the NFL than the NBA. Tucker spent three years at the Forty Acres (2004-2006), where he averaged 13.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game and earned second-team All-American honors as well as Big 12 Player of the Year. He was then drafted in the second round by the Toronto Raptors in 2006. After falling out of the league quickly and playing overseas, Tucker returned to the NBA in 2012 with the Phoenix Suns. With the league putting more of an emphasis on switchable defenders, Tucker has played integral roles in the success of the Suns, Raptors and Rockets for the last three seasons. 

When he joined Houston, he gained notoriety for his invaluable role-playing abilities. Not only does he provide All-NBA-caliber defense and rebounding, but Tucker has consistently been among the best corner 3-point shooters in the NBA, as evidenced by this graphic by Kirk Goldsberry, a UT lecturer and ESPN analyst. 

Kirk Goldsberry on Twitter

Leading Scorers By Zone

While Tucker’s two-way prowess helped the Rockets almost dethrone the Golden State Warriors multiple times, his role for the rest of the season might be his most important yet. The Rockets’ game against the Boston Celtics from earlier this month served as the perfect example for how well he has filled the small ball center role for the Rockets.

Tucker’s importance to Houston’s defense showed up early on Boston’s second offensive possession of the game. Tucker blew up this Jayson Tatum/Daniel Theis pick and roll by anticipating Tatum’s over-the-top pass and deflecting it. Tucker saw that Covington was going to be behind Theis, and most likely realized that the paint was free due to Boston’s spacing and shooting. After that, he uses his 7-foot wingspan to bat the ball to teammate point guard James Harden. While the transition opportunity ended in a turnover, more often than not it will turn into points for a Rockets team that is ranked fifth in transition efficiency. 

Later in the quarter, he cut off Tatum’s baseline drive, using his strength to jostle Tatum off balance and force a high pass to the corner. While he clearly does not have the height to affect shots at the rim like normal center — 1% block percentage this season according to Basketball Reference — he used his other physical gifts to deter shots at the hoop. 

The advantage Tucker brings over Capela, or pretty much any other traditionally sized center, came when he was switched onto Kemba Walker, one of the quickest and shiftiest players in the NBA. Tucker had the advantage of being able to stay tight on Walker without a fear of being beaten off dribble, taking away an open jumper. Due to smart help defense by the Rockets, Walker couldn’t really drive to the hoop as he had Russell Westbrook waiting to receive him. With the shot clock running down, Walker had no choice but to try to dance his way into a midrange shot. Tucker used his aforementioned wingspan to make the shot even tougher than it should have been, forcing a miss and leading to another transition opportunity for Houston.

One question that has not been answered: how will Tucker fare in the post against centers? Well, we found out midway through the first quarter, when Brad Stevens tried to force the ball to the 6-foot-10 and 250-pound “post scoring specialist” Enes Kanter, who shoots close to 80% of his shots at the rim. Usually able to dislodge defenders, Tucker stayed rooted in position while Kanter tried to run through him like a Spanish bull when it sees the red cape. Tucker ended up drawing an offensive foul. 

It happened one more time shortly after, once again leading to poor results for the Celtics. Kanter had to throw up an off balance, fading hook shot as Tucker held his ground against the bevy of post fakes. Even someone who has never played basketball could probably see it was not an ideal result. Tucker also made his presence felt on the glass. When Jaylen Brown’s shot was tipped by Covington, Tucker fended off Kanter, one of the league’s better offensive rebounders. 

While it cannot be expected that Tucker’s defense in the post will be successful every game, it seems likely to work more often than not. The only question left — Can this last for the rest of the season and the postseason? 

The Rockets had already been deploying this scheme since Capela’s injury at the end of January, and Tucker had been closing games at center more often than not. On the other hand, D’Antoni previously mentioned giving Tucker a bit of a breather in workload before the trade. Tucker is averaging a career-high 34.9 minutes per game, and is the only player on the roster to play in every game thus far. He also suffered a shoulder injury Jan. 11 against Minnesota, and has been playing through the injury since. 

Tucker should be able to handle the workload, due to the well-timed All-Star break and the presence of other interchangeable defenders that should be able to handle Tucker’s role for shorter spurts.

Only time will determine the final answer, but while that happens, it is sure to be an entertaining last few months of the season for Tucker and Houston.