PJ Tucker gets prepared to defend in Sixers-Hawks game, Nov 28, 2022; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

James Harden has played 331 minutes this season. The Sixers, as a team, have played 1,008 minutes.

In other words, the Sixers have clawed to a 12-9 record despite their starting point guard playing less than 33 percent of the total minutes.

On one hand, some of the Sixers’ depth has risen to the top in a stretch during which the team figured to be most vulnerable, the likes of Shake Milton and De’Anthony Melton stepping up in their own rights since both members of Philadelphia’s starting backcourt went down. On the other hand, one role player in particular has really struggled to find his rhythm on offense since Harden went down with a foot injury, the team’s supporters increasingly frustrated with his lack of box score production every night.

They point out that PJ Tucker’s $10 million salary should render him capable of more than donuts in the points column on a nightly basis. There is an element of that assertion that is fair. An NBA player bungling relatively easy shots at the rim is not easily explainable. There is also a part of that proclamation that requires dialogue beyond the tip of the iceberg. 

Any conversation regarding Tucker’s offense must come with an understanding of what he is now, always has been, and always will be. That is, a marginal offensive player who needs to play off of a team’s primary options, who will bend defenses to create open shots for the supporting cast.

In fact, here’s a passage from my preview of the Sixers’ offense from late September:

“But, I’m more sold on House being able to fit seamlessly next to a multitude of players than I am on Tucker being able to do so because House can be effective in both uptempo and slower styles of offense while Tucker needs specific players around him to be a passable offensive player. A floor general of Harden’s caliber and a scorer with Embiid’s gravity will help keep Tucker open for catch-and-shoot threes. Tucker’s role on offense is going to be to peel his defender back to whichever corner he lingers in order to make life easier for the core and grind out extra possessions by stealing long rebounds and loose balls away from the opposition.”

Tucker’s career high for field goal attempts per game is 7.6. He’s met that volume twice. He’s never once averaged 10 points per game in his 11 full NBA seasons. The veteran forward has never, ever been a high-volume or high-usage player. Tucker’s lack of offensive production is not a failure of the front office, coaching staff, or the player. In fact, it’s not a fault charged to anyone. Rather, any notion that Tucker would suddenly become a scorer worth even honorable mention was a fallacy perpetuated by those who set such an expectation.

Given that Tucker’s offensive aptitude has always been buoyed to playing next to a space-creator and high-level facilitator, we’re seeing his output suffer from his teammates’ injuries more than those of any other player on the Sixers. Such is especially the case when you dig deeper into his on-court relationship with Harden.

  Tucker’s eFG% and Usage, with and without certain players on the floor 
  effective Field Goal with effective Field Goal without Usage with Usage without
Harden 75% 27% 9% 4.8%
Embiid 65% 47% 6.2% 6.8%
Maxey 67% 31% 7.2% 5.3%
Harris 62% 0% 7% 4.3%
Melton 46% 67% 6.3% 6.7%
Milton 10% 69% 5% 7.3%

The table, whose date is courtesy of pbpstats.com, shows how efficient of a shooter Tucker is and how often he has the ball in his hands when playing next to the team’s most common ball-handlers.

In an effort to avoid bogging you down with the data, the steepest linear difference comes when you apply Tucker’s output as a function of Harden’s presence.

In other words, Tucker touches the ball much more when Harden is on the floor than he does when Harden is off the floor. Tucker is also a significantly more efficient shooter when Harden is on the floor than he is when Harden is not on the floor. Logic says that’s not a coincidence.

The problem, therefore, might not actually be a problem. Rather, it’s a product of the team’s best playmaker being sidelined. 

Now, that doesn’t explain the situation in its entirety. Tucker is shooting 50 percent at the rim with Harden on the floor. He’s making just 16.7 percent of his shots at the rim without Harden on the floor. The teammate that makes Tucker his best self on offense not being on the floor doesn’t explain happenings like this:

But, plays like the one above, and the ensuing body language, reflect a player who is quite aware of the fact that he’s struggling on offense. You rush shots at the rim because you think the defense is converging on you more quickly than it really is and you want to sneak an easy look before they get there.

Why are you trying to sneak around the defense? Because you aren’t confident in your ability to make shots under duress.

Losing confidence can happen when you barely touch the ball over a 12-game stretch. It can happen when you haven’t scored in seven of the last eight games.

Now, that isn’t to accuse Tucker’s teammates of intentionally excluding him. Rather, he just might not be visible on the radars of his teammates, none of whom are high-volume point guards, as they toggle through playmaking decisions at game speed. The likes of Milton and Melton have probably played above their heads a bit as the team scratches together ball-handling depth with Harden and Maxey out. The former has emerged as the one more capable of being a true point guard. But, no one else on the team is a playmaker at the level that Harden is, capable of consistently seeing everyone and delivering precise, timely passes.

Even with Milton averaging 7.6 assists over the team’s last five games, he’s missed an open Tucker from time to time:

You might make the argument that Kevin Durant’s position in help would’ve made passing across the court to Tucker too risky to even attempt. But, Milton also could’ve hit Tucker on a much less risky pass from the point of attack instead of driving baseline.

Melton hasn’t raised his own playmaking expectations to the degree Milton has in this stretch without the two primary ball-handlers. But, this is an egregious lack of vision:

Pretty hard to score or get shots up when you don’t touch the ball, especially when you’re wide open. And I don’t know how much more basic it can get than a pass to the strong-side corner as you drive downhill.

Neither of these clips from recent film should serve to say that the Sixers’ current ball-handlers are incapable of finding Tucker or making sensible reads on the court. Rather, they should serve as signs that the collective court vision lacks consistency in a way that it doesn’t when Harden is on the floor.

The ball-handlers are making passes based on central vision and primary instincts, and the team’s ball movement has been excellent. This isn’t a dispute about passing, individually or as a team. But, the playmaking — the ability of any individual to bend defenses with pressure and toggle through reads rapidly to find the best decision — leans scarce. And Tucker’s volume of touches has suffered as a result.

The Sixers’ playmaking depth might just be what it is at this point, Maxey being the only player both young and skilled enough to have significant playmaking upside to still tap into. Unless the Sixers make significant personnel changes to their bench, Tucker’s offensive production seems likely to be tied to Harden’s availability.

That isn’t to say Tucker is no longer effective on one or both ends. If his activity on the defensive end is any indicator, his body is well-conditioned to contribute on offense, regardless of age, when the surrounding ecosystem is appropriate:

The first sign that your days in the NBA are numbered is when the legs go because you just can’t move or hold ground like you used to. Tucker, as you can see, has no problem wrestling with perhaps the most dominant physical specimen the NBA has to offer. As long as the legs are good, Tucker’s corner threes should have the lift they need to drop. It’s just about touching the ball a little more often than he is right now.

Until Harden returns, the best thing Tucker can do on offense is continue to quickly and decisively flow into DHOs and pick-and-rolls with nearby ball-handlers when he catches with little time and space to comfortably hoist shots, himself:

Doc Rivers likes to stress to his players that they can catch and choose not to shoot as long as they quickly pass, drive, or do something else with the ball. Plays like the one above, with Tucker no sooner lateraling the ball back to Tyrese Maxey than catching it, put bigger perimeter defenders at a disadvantage against smaller ball-handlers in a switch scheme. These plays also create open threes when Tucker is the de facto center against a drop coverage because the new ball-handler has space after clearing Tucker’s screen. If the shot or matchup isn’t there, the veteran forward can always open out of the screen and linger at a distance in case the short roll play presents itself. 

“He’s gonna find his shot. One of the things, and we showed it on film, it would help if we threw him the ball more when he’s open. He’s sitting there in the corner, there’s times, I mean, he looks like the guy trying to park a plane. Like, ‘I’m over here!’,” Rivers said after the team’s victory over the Nets last week.

“And then, he’ll get one in the fourth quarter. So, I think anybody that doesn’t touch the ball and then has to shoot, that’s a tough shot. So, he’ll get more shots, and they’ll start going in. I believe that.”

Regardless of how you might feel about the head coach, the film and data back his sentiments.

He’s rightfully not concerned about Tucker’s offensive presence lately. And unless the current trends persist once Harden is back in the lineup, you shouldn’t be, either.

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