As a Sun, he has played more games than Charles Barkley. He has logged more minutes than Gar Heard. He has grabbed more rebounds than Robin Lopez and Alex Len combined. Not too shabby for P.J. Tucker, the player who scrapped his way from the Summer League to being the longest-tenured Phoenix Suns player on the current roster.
Amid all the upheaval of the past few seasons, Tucker has been the organization's Rock of Gibraltar. Since joining the Suns in 2012-13, Tucker is top five in every major statistical category for the team, leading all players in games, minutes, offensive rebounds, total rebounds, and steals. This season has been no different, as he leads the team in games, minutes, and steals and is third in offensive rebounds, total rebounds, and assists.
Nothing Tucker does on a basketball court is flashy. He's the wrong player to turn to for a shot with the game on the line, but if there's an important rebound or loose ball to secure, Tucker's nose is guaranteed to be in the fray. He is the epitome of a dirt worker, as the late Cotton Fitzsimmons used to say. He's a guy who straps on his hard hat and goes to work every day, doing the little, unglamorous things that make a team go. It is a testament to that yeoman-like attitude that the three-time Majerle Hustle Award winner has been asked to guard all manner of players over his Suns tenure, from James Harden to Kevin Durant to Blake Griffin to DeMarcus Cousins, and done so far more effectively than most 6'6'' players could.
"P.J. is a guy after my own heart," said former Sun and ex-assistant coach Dan Majerle back in 2012 when he was coaching Tucker in the Summer League. "He's just tough as nails, does whatever you ask and plays extremely hard."
Considering the toll that style of play takes on a body, it is impressive that Tucker has been able to remain as steady a presence as he has for the team. He has only missed eight games over his three-plus seasons with Phoenix — with only two of those games missed due to injury — and is the only Sun to appear in every game this season, which is a remarkable feat considering the substantial nausea this season's first 58 games has induced in the fanbase alone.
But Tucker's value to the team extends beyond being a versatile, tenacious iron man. As interim head coach Earl Watson works to instill winning attributes in his young team, Tucker is a player he can point to in the locker room as an example. Even with his personal statistics down this season, due to his own declining game, lower usage rate, or some combination thereof, he goes out and gives the team whatever he can. That includes logging the three highest minute totals of any Sun this year despite closing in on his 31st birthday.
Considering the fallout from the Morris drama and the corresponding effect on the franchise's likeability, the Suns are in need of players who will help engender positive feelings from the fans. And even though Tucker was close with Markieff, he is a Morrii antithesis. He always works hard on the court, which fans appreciate seeing from their players, and has an oversized personality fans can connect with. And that's on top of Tucker actually wanting to be here.
"I love being in Phoenix," Tucker told azcentral before the trade deadline. "It's been my longest stop of my career and hopefully it continues."
And when asked how he would feel if he were traded by the Feb. 18 deadline?
"It would suck," he said. "I'm not going to lie. I was here when it was down. We came up, and now we're having a tough year this year. Seeing it full circle and not obtaining the goal of making the playoffs since I've been here, that wouldn't be the top of my list of things that I like."
Possibly just as important, if not more so of late, he has shown the ability to rectify past mistakes. Last season for Tucker was marred by his league suspension for super extreme DUI and two incidents where he missed the team bus. This season, his name has been associated with none of that, hopefully indicating that Tucker has learned from his past indiscretions — a valuable lesson for a team with seven players under the age of 25.
The Suns were wise to hold onto Tucker past the trade deadline (especially since Phoenix doesn't have another healthy small forward on its roster). Now the question is whether Tucker will return for a fifth season in the desert. He has a partial guarantee of $1.5 million for 2016-17 which becomes a fully guaranteed $5.3 million if he is not waived by June 30. The Suns could decide to part ways with Tucker in the offseason and save the $3.8 million in cap space, but there would be no point in it. Even if T.J. Warren supplants Tucker in the starting lineup next season, having a player like Tucker available off the bench is more valuable than saving a paltry amount of cap space that wouldn't go towards signing anyone of significance anyway.
Tucker has been Mr. Dependable for Phoenix since he was plucked from the rough almost four years ago and has given his heart and soul to the Suns on the basketball court ever since. Barring something unforeseen, the Suns should keep Tucker in the fold for season No. 5.