Sixers: How sustainable is P.J. Tucker’s role?

P.J. Tucker, Sixers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
P.J. Tucker, Sixers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

The Sixers signed P.J. Tucker to do exactly what he’s currently doing: spacing to the corners on offense and providing elite versatility on defense. Through two games, Tucker’s communication and energy level on the defensive end have already paid big dividends. While the team’s defense has underperformed collectively, it’s not because Tucker has come up short.

That being said, there is an important question of sustainability with Tucker. He is 37 years old at the front end of a three-year contract. The Sixers will be paying him guaranteed money when he’s 40. Can he last the entire season at his current workload, not to mention the next three seasons?

Tucker has averaged 36.0 minutes over the last two contests. On Thursday against Milwaukee, he played 39 minutes — most of which were spent guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, maybe the most physically abusive defensive assignment in the NBA. The Sixers mirroring Tucker’s minutes to Antetokounmpo’s makes basketball sense, but we’re talking about the second game of the regular season. In the playoffs, sure — but should Tucker be grinding out 39 minutes of hardcore defense in October?

The Sixers need to be conscious of P.J. Tucker’s workload

Without question, P.J. Tucker is central to what Philadelphia hopes to accomplish this season. His toughness and leadership has already changed the energy around the locker room and his relentless hustle has unsurprisingly made him a fast fan favorite. Tucker can handle the toughest defensive assignment on any given night, at practically any position. That kind of four or five-position versatility is rare, and it’s something the Sixers sorely missed without Ben Simmons last season.

But age is an unavoidable factor here. Tucker has been something of an iron man during his NBA career, but nicks and bruises are inevitable when you play the physical brand of basketball Tucker does. The older you get, the more noticeable and impactful those nicks and bruises become — no matter how physically and mentally tough the player.

The Sixers need to remain aware of Tucker’s age and the longevity of his contract. Also the simple fact that Philly’s aspirations lie in June, not October. Tucker needs to be fresh as can be for the playoffs, and the odds of that happening are unreasonably slim if he’s playing 40 minutes of high-stakes defense every other night.

My expectation would be that Tucker gets a handful of scheduled rest days throughout the season, as will Joel Embiid and James Harden. Tucker isn’t the kind of person to acknowledge the fallibility of his body, but the Sixers will have to sit him whether he wants to or not. There should also be easier games coming up on the schedule. If Tucker is playing 39 minutes against San Antonio, then we might have another issue at hand.

There’s also the simple matter of Philadelphia’s improved bench. De’Anthony Melton and Danuel House Jr. are players who can eat up minutes on the wing. Both are quality defenders and both can shoot 3s at high volume. The Sixers have the personnel to afford Tucker extra rest and they should take advantage of that.

In the end, the Sixers will lean on Tucker because he’s a brilliant, one-of-a-kind defender who can also provide excellent connective tissue on offense. He is going to play an outsized role for any team he’s on. But Philly has to be careful. Tucker is more important for the last 16 games than he is for the first 82.

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