According to The Athletic‘s Shams Charania, a veteran power forward who checks off many of the Sixers’ boxes is about to hit free agency:
Miami’s PJ Tucker will opt out of his $7.4 million player option for the 2022-23 season and enter free agency, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium. Several championship contending teams are expected to compete for Tucker, who was a key part of Milwaukee’s title run in 2021.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 20, 2022
There are both basketball and non-basketball reasons that the Sixers should have interest in the 37-year-old forward. He doesn’t need a ton of touches to be effective on offense, doing most of his damage on corner triples (41% on 173 attempts with the Heat in 2021-22) and acting some as connective tissue out of short rolls.
He also has as knack for finding empty spots near the basket to sneak in for offensive rebounds to generate additional plays on offense. The lasting memory of the Sixers’ second-round loss to the Heat, besides Jimmy Butler absolutely destroying them, was Tucker out-hustling and out-muscling the Sixers to loose balls and rebounds, making Philadelphia stick on defense for prolonged periods of time as punishment for failing to major in the game’s fundamentals.
Beyond those two basketball qualities, Tucker brings the appropriate level toughness needed from a glue guy; at 36 years old, Tucker played in 71 games for the Heat in 2021-22, averaging nearly 28 minutes per game. He’s made his fortune in the NBA by being a junkyard dog — he’s the first to the ground when the ball escapes its handler, and he’s not afraid to throw himself into the mix of bodies fighting to secure it. Beyond that, Tucker is more than willing to take on any assignment you throw his way on defense, beating theoretically quicker guards to spots to deny them driving lanes and then absorbing elbows and forearms from guys with a handful of inches on him in the post. Tucker’s toughness can occasionally backfire, resulting in cheap fouls as he tries to lay out a ball defender with a screen or sneakily shift his weight to deny them paths to recovering to the ball-handler.
As for whether or not the Sixers would be interested, one would think it’s a reasonably safe bet that they’d at least take their franchise-player’s words into consideration in constructing their free-agent board.
“For sure,” Embiid said after Game 6 when asked whether the Sixers need more physicality on their team.
“We had a few tough guys since I’ve been here. Whether it was Mike Scott; he didn’t play a lot of minutes, but when you have size and toughness, that goes a long way. You look at someone like PJ Tucker, great player but it’s not about him knocking down shots. It’s about what he does; whether it’s on the defensive end, rebounding the ball, you look at, obviously, defensively, plays with so much energy, believes that he can get from Point A to Point B. He believes that no one can beat him, and he’s tough. Like, he’s physical and he’s tough and they have a few of those guys, whether it’s Bam and all those guys. Since I’ve been here, I’d be lying if I said that we’ve had those type of guys. Nothing against what we have, it’s just the truth. We never had PJ Tucker, that’s really what I’m trying to say. So, I think physicality, especially once you get to the playoffs or the later rounds, you need those guys that are really tough.”
There was also this from President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey, in reflection on the Heat series during his exit interview: “They really went out there and took it, and we need some of that toughness. We need a lot of what we saw from them. And look, we can do it. We’ve got a lot of resources. We’ve got a lot of flexibility.”
So, that’s two high-ranking members of the Sixers organization saying, one directly and one indirectly, that they would like to lure a player of a certain archetype away from the Heat.
As far as non-basketball reasons, Morey and James Harden have history with Tucker. Morey traded for Tucker in early 2017, rostering him for the Rockets’ three consecutive finishes as a top-2 seed in the Western Conference. Tucker was also a critical supporting cast member during Harden’s most dominant years. Much of the success both significant figures to the now-Sixers’ operation have known in their NBA careers includes contributions from the free-agent forward. It would be quite surprising if there wasn’t some human and sweat equity there.
Those are two meaningful ties to the Sixers’ organization, and the best player — who is typically very clear in publicly stating he doesn’t want to have a say in roster construction — made it relatively clear he, too, would like to have ties to Tucker.
The better question is, how does it happen?
If we include all the non-guaranteed contracts on Miami’s roster, they only sit about $4 million and change above the cap. As noted by Forbes’ Bryan Toporek, Miami has Tucker’s non-Bird rights, so they can present him with a starting salary of approximately $8.4 million on a new deal. Alternatively, they could still very easily re-sign Tucker to the Non-taxpayer Mid-Level exception (MLE), which figures to be $10,349,000 for the 2022-23 season. If his goal is purely to take advantage of the non-Bird rights or the raised exception and both sides are interested in his returning to Miami, that could be all this is. In that case, the Sixers aren’t really even a player.
But, there’s also a scenario where the Heat, while appreciative of his contributions this past season, take a look down the roster and determine that more offensive firepower behind Jimmy Butler was the difference between them losing in the Eastern Conference Finals and getting back to the Finals. They may even look at Bam Adebayo’s lack of offensive versatility and conclude that they over-estimated the scoring production they have behind the aging Butler and Kyle Lowry.
In that case, perhaps Miami uses its Non-taxpayer MLE and Bi-Annual exception (BAE) elsewhere.
Then, the Sixers are very much in play. But, they have work to do. If we assume Harden picks up his $47,366,760 player option for 2022-23, the Sixers are right under the $155,668,195 tax apron for next season. That means, one way or another, all they have to work with is a portion of or the entire amount of the $6,392,000 Taxpayer MLE.
The problem is, if Tucker is opting out of his $7.4 million player option, he wouldn’t logically want the Taxpayer MLE.
So, they would need to salary-dump Furkan Korkmaz, without taking any salary back, just to create space for the full Taxpayer MLE if their goal is to stay under the apron.
They could still use the entire Taxpayer MLE on anyone willing to take it and go over the apron, but doing so would further restrict their means for the rest of the league year.
The Sixers could also waive Danny Green (instead of trading him) to avoid guaranteeing his $10,000,000. That decision would given them enough space under the apron to give Tucker the full Non-taxpayer MLE. If Miami has a ceiling on what it’s willing to give Tucker, the ability to give him the full Non-taxpayer MLE could be the difference between Philadelphia winning the bid for his services and not.
There are less than 2 weeks until the opening of free agency. There are going to be a lot of reports cycling around the NBA world. But, this one might fit the Sixers as well as any out there.