As the NBA transitions to a positionless brand of basketball based on tempo, spacing and switching, no old standard has been marginalized more than power forward. Getting shooting from the four has gone from luxury towards necessity as teams are having more and more success by eschewing the back-to-the-basket types in favor of having an extra wing on the floor.
Jared Dudley had a career resurgence in Milwaukee last season by playing such a role for the upstart Bucks. The Wizards were at their best with Paul Pierce standing in at the four, easily sweeping away a Toronto Raptors team in the playoffs that stubbornly stuck to a more traditional lineup (the logical counter would've been James Johnson, who played all of 12 minutes in the series).
The Memphis Grizzlies are the glowing standard of modern traditionalism, but their plodding, bruising style reminiscent of old Eastern Conference slugfests has yielded only one Conference Finals appearance over the last five seasons. Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors turned small-ball into a science and rolled all the way to a 2015 championship.
The common counterlogic to small-ball is that it can work well in short doses, but eventually the bigger team will wear the smaller guys out. However, lately it seems that the bigger team is more often the one forced to adjust. For instance, the only non-LeBron matchup advantage that the Cleveland Cavaliers had over the Warriors in the 2015 Finals was the excellent interior play of Timofey Mozgov.
After the Warriors turned the series by all but benching Andrew Bogut, the Cavs were forced to follow suit and play Mozgov only 9 minutes in Game 5.
Of course, the Warriors have a very special collection of players that can run, shoot, and defend anyone from anywhere on the court. While small-ball can help other teams add a few extra wins and maybe turn a playoff series in their favor, the Warriors were uniquely equipped to turn in a 67-win season and a championship.
Obviously, other teams will not enjoy the same level of success.
But as we turn to our own Phoenix Suns, who are currently dealing with an enormous question mark at the power forward position thanks to Summer of Twinsanity, perhaps it's time to jump in with both feet and give P.J. Tucker heavy minutes alongside Tyson Chandler and Alex Len.
It might have been the best option all along.
Defending the four
No matter where you put him, P.J. will defend. It's what revived his career during the summer of 2012 and he has shown no signs of resting on laurels. In fact, Tucker probably wouldn't know a laurel if he saw one. He's mobile enough to step out on the perimeter to shut down smaller players, and his wide frame and fundamentally sound footwork often leaves the ballhandler few avenues of escape, as shown by his stellar work on a crucial Kemba Walker possession here:
In today's pick-and-roll heavy NBA, it is imperative to have a power forward and/or center that can defend the ballhandler on switches. This is a major reason why Draymond Green is so effective for the Warriors -- he can seamlessly switch onto any player on the court without giving up an advantage.
While Tucker doesn't have the length or versatility of Green, he can still serve in a similar role for the Suns. Even at a meager 6'5", his combination of strength and tenacity enables him to move from the perimeter to the low post when necessary, as this video from our own Sam Cooper demonstrates.
With Chandler holding down the paint, the Suns can afford to really set Tucker loose on defense. Since he provides just enough spacing on the other end, putting him at the four will maximize his impact and we might just see a career year from him.
Tucker's 7.6 rebounds per 36 minutes last season were more than Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Earl Barron and Anthony Tolliver -- this with him playing mostly on the perimeter.
Meanwhile, Chandler pulled down a beastly 13.6 boards per 36, with Alex Len grabbing a hearty 10.8 as well.
If there's a reason not to play Tucker at the four, it definitely is not rebounding.
Spacing, spacing, spacing
Assuming for the moment that Markieff Morris will not be present on the opening night roster, a combo of Tucker and Mirza Teletovic might actually allow the Suns' offense to breathe better. While Morris's ability to create from midrange was impressive, and vital at times, his style of play meant that he would usually do little else without the ball besides pick out his spot on the left block and wait for an entry pass.
This would often create a vacuum on one side of the floor, where there would be no driving lanes and no logical place for the ball to move other than the eager hands of Morris.
If the Suns are serious about getting some pick-and-roll action going again with their $140 million backcourt, they'll need all the space they can get. While Tucker's .345 3P% last season was quite underwhelming, it was partly a result of his attempt to expand his shooting beyond the corners, where he hit a respectable .359.
If the Suns can keep him at the corners more in 2015/16, his shooting should improve and as a bonus he can expend more energy on the defensive side of the floor, where his true talents lie.
It should be imperative for the Suns to create as much space as possible for Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight to operate with. Shooting is definitely an area of concern as we inch closer to training camp, with T.J. Warren expected to get regular minutes and Sonny Weems yet to prove he can hit the 3 consistently in the NBA.
Tucker's ability to hit the cornerball is nice as a small forward, but as a four it can be deadly, as it will give the backcourt one less paint defender to deal with.
The Suns thrived in 2013/14 behind a dual attack of Goran Dragic and Bledsoe, largely due to the supporting cast being perfectly tailored to the strengths of the backcourt. In 2014/15, we saw a more muddled system of too many scorers and not enough space on the court. The slashing attack gave way to halfhearted shot-chucking and the chemistry quickly evaporated.
According to NBA Stats, in 2013/14 Bledsoe scored an average of 5.7 points on 7.9 drives* per game, shooting 52.7%, which was good for sixth in the league (minimum 5 drives per game).
In 2014/15, with Morris often paired with Len, Miles Plumlee or Brandan Wright in the frontcourt, Bledsoe's numbers dropped to 5.2 points on 9.3 drives per game, while his FG% on drives dipped to 47.7%.
*Drives are defined as any touch that starts at least 20 feet from the rim and is dribbled within 10 feet, excluding fast breaks. Assists are factored.
Giving P.J. Tucker regular minutes at the four won't fix all of last year's problems by itself, but it could be a big part the team's playoff hopes. They have once again amassed a team that seems just good enough to be in the playoff discussion but is still missing a key ingredient. They also have once again built a roster that is tilted talent-wise towards the backcourt, and how they maximize those talents could make all the difference.
Head coach Jeff Hornacek shared some of his thoughts on P.J. at the four in a chat with BSOTS overlord Dave King.
"[The Warriors] had a unique group, with Curry. If other teams tried to copy that it wouldn't work as well. Between Curry and Thompson, those guys could really shoot the ball. And Draymond is kind of like P.J. in terms of his intensity and the things he can do. That is something that we've looked at because P.J. Tucker is similar. He can battle. We've used him in the past on fours. We've put him on DeMarcus Cousins. So that's certainly a situational thing."
"And I think Bogut is an underrated guy. He was healthy last year. He can cover a lot of area, that restricted area. I think that worked for them. I'm not sure if other teams tried to play a 6'7" four man how that would work out."
"But we have a lot of guys at those positions now (4 and 5), especially with our two bigs (Len and Chandler). We've got two bigs who can rotate, which makes it a little more difficult for Markieff to slide over to the 5 because then neither one of those guys (Len and Chandler) would play much. But, situationally, sure."
Unfortunately, Hornacek stopped short of guaranteeing 35 minutes of small-ball a night and 67 wins. Like last season, there will probably be an extended transitional period as the players settle into their roles and the coaches identify the best lineups.
There's no doubt that Tucker will see some time at the four this year -- again assuming that Markieff Morris will not be present and accounted for. How much time will obviously depend heavily on how effective he can be there over the course of an entire game, and even an entire season.
This is a roster that doesn't offer many sure things at the moment. They might have to get a little crazy if want to gain any ground out West.