There have slowly been more and more calls for T.J. Warren to enter the starting lineup since the final months of last season.
Whereas Alex Len's progress remains slow and steady, Warren has rapidly built himself a major role within the Suns' rotation, leading many to believe that the sophomore small forward will be General Manager Ryan McDonough's greatest draft success to date.
However, P.J. Tucker remains a consistent presence in the team's starting rotation. This is Tucker's fourth season with Phoenix, and although his offensive production has decreased significantly as a result of a reduced usage rate his defense has always been considered his primary strength. What will it take for Tucker to lose his starting spot to the emerging fan favorite Warren?
Here's a little bit more about how each player is performing this season.
Let's start with Tucker, the incumbent starter.
P.J. is currently averaging just 5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steal per game. He's shooting 43 percent and 33 percent from deep to go along with a career-low true shooting percentage of 51.2 percent. His PER is also a career-low 9.0, but Tucker's PER has always been below the league-average 15. That is likely because PER is a stat that heavily favors offensive over defensive production in the box score.
Despite sticking with the starting lineup, Tucker is gradually losing playing time. After playing just over 30 MPG in each of the past two seasons, Tucker's playing time has been reduced to 24.6 MPG. That is only slightly more than what T.J. Warren (21.2 MPG) is receiving.
Additionally, P.J.'s scoring can not be expected to match what it was in years prior when his usage rate is so much lower than what it used to be. Tucker's usage rate is now at a career-low 9.5 percent, and he is attempting just 6.5 shots per 36 minutes as opposed to 8.9 in 2013-14 and 9.0 in 2014-15.
But despite the reduced shooting rate, Tucker is still taking just as many threes. The main difference then is that 53 percent of Tucker's field-goal attempts this season are threes, as opposed to 42 percent last season.
Overall, what we're seeing is a P.J. Tucker that is more content than ever before to wait in the corner for his shot opportunities. His role has been reduced to a corner three shooter who rarely drives or attempts layups. And when he does attempt layups, he's significantly less efficient right underneath the basket than Warren is. P.J. is shooting 9-16 (56.3 percent) on shot attempts five feet away or less, whereas Warren is shooting 21-32 (65.6 percent).
But when did anyone ever say that Tucker is a more talented offensive player than Warren? Usually the argument remains that Tucker's defensive prowess is what is most important to a starting lineup that already has plenty of offensive firepower.
That argument is still very valid. According to NBA.com/stats, Tucker holds opposing players to a shooting percentage that is 5.1 percent less than what they normally shoot on average. To be specific, players going up against Tucker are shooting 37.9 percent this season as opposed to 43.1 percent on average. Tucker is especially effective at guarding jumpers, as he holds opponents to a shooting percentage of just 28.6 percent on shots that are at least 15 feet from the rim.
Warren is on the other end of the spectrum. Although he is making strides, his one-on-one defense is still below-average. That can be demonstrated by the fact that players shoot 3.2 percent better than average against Warren, converting 47.3 percent of their shots as opposed to 44.1 percent on a typical day. That does not bode well for Warren's ability to guard stars such as Harden or Durant in the opening and closing minutes of a game.
Overall, Tucker appears to be the same player that we've always known him as. He's making even less of an effort than before to go inside, but as long as he can knock down threes somewhat efficiently that spacing carries a certain value. And because his defense remains top-notch, it will be difficult to dethrone him.
I said difficult to dethrone, but not impossible. T.J. Warren is making a compelling case.
Through the first nine games, T.J. is averaging 10.9 points and 3.7 rebounds per game on 50 percent shooting from the field. Those rates translate to 18.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, further evidence that Warren in his prime has the potential to be a major scoring option.
Before I continue, enjoy watching a few videos of Warren's scoring performances this season to see why so many fans are praising his upside. The videos are all courtesy of DownToBuck.
For a 22-year-old, Warren's offensive basketball IQ is tremendous. He knows where to place himself on offense seemingly every possession. In addition to dazzling fans with contact layups and backdoor cuts like he did last year, his mid-range jumper is now much better and his three-pointer is coming along as well.
Warren is currently shooting 10-27 on shots at least 16 feet from the basket, which is a 37 percent clip. In all of last season he took only 38 such shots in over triple the minutes, converting only 12 (for a rate of 32 percent).
Still, his defense is a work in progress. So while Warren is already a much better offensive player than Tucker, is that truly what the starting lineup needs?
And if Warren transitions to the starting five, how will the second unit fare? Because Tucker's offensive production is so limited, the bench may struggle to score unless paired with either Bledsoe or Knight running the point. Len is not known for his scoring, and players such as Teletovic, Goodwin, Booker and Weems are still wildly inconsistent. Warren at least appears to be the most consistent prospect to provide a scoring punch in the second quarter while the starters earn some rest.
There are many reasons to be excited about the progress of T.J. Warren. All signs point to him being a key starter for the Suns in the future so long as he is not traded. But while his playing time should continue to increase, perhaps he is best-suited to continue playing with his fellow prospects on the bench.
If it Ain't Broke, Why Fix It?
We are only nine games through the season, so any stats involving team lineups need to come with a disclaimer due to the small sample size.
However, the Suns' starting lineup of Bledsoe, Knight, Tucker, Chandler and Morris has played 127 minutes together and boasts an offensive rating of 110.5 and a defensive rating of 95.5. That net rating of +15.0 is among the best in the NBA.
Replace Tucker with Warren and you get a much different result. The four starters plus Warren have logged just 23 minutes together through six games, but that makes them the 3rd-most commonly used Phoenix lineup. And the results so far have been disastrous, as that unit has a net rating of -28.6 and an effective field-goal percentage of just 40.2 percent.
As long as the Suns continue to have such an effective starting lineup, there's no reason for a change. I think most would agree that T.J. Warren is playing better than P.J. Tucker and that he has a very promising future. But due to match up reasons it simply makes more sense to keep Tucker in the starting lineup until it stops being an effective strategy. In the meantime, coach Hornacek can continue to reward Warren with more minutes, perhaps getting to the point where Warren's playing time will actually eclipse Tucker's. Warren can also be given more of a taste of playing time in clutch situations, but Tucker should still be the go-to option at small forward in key moments.