With P.J. Tucker being out for at least 6-8 weeks as he recovers from a small procedure on his lower back, the Phoenix Suns youth movement will be even more pronounced.
Tucker, 31 years old, was one of the sage veterans meant to mentor the young players this season. Until he returns, T.J. Warren, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Devin Booker appear to have the most to gain from Tucker’s absence.
Lingering back injury
The Suns announced Tucker’s microdiscectomy procedure on Thursday. A little super-sleuthing - okay, five minutes on google - tells me that the procedure is minimally invasive and meant to relieve pressure from a herniated lumbar disc in the lower back. The surgeon removes portions of the herniated disc to ease pressure on the spinal nerve column, generally presenting itself as sciatica pain down one’s side. The procedure has a 95% effectiveness rate.
The same source, healthline.com, notes that patients with sciatica generally heal naturally, without surgery, within a few weeks to a few months, and that the surgery is generally recommended only when the pain persists for more than 12 weeks. Tucker played through back pain late last season, and may have been rehabbing - or hoping the intermittent pain would subside - for most of the summer, but that’s just me spit-balling here. All I know is that Tucker’s name never came up this summer, though he was reportedly one of the players scrimmaging and working out with the guys in recent weeks.
After the procedure, patients are instructed not to move much, sit much, or lift anything more than five pounds for the first few weeks after surgery. Tucker likely won’t even begin running for four weeks, and won’t be in basketball shape for more than 6-8 week timeline. Because you know as well as I do that NBA basketball shape is not the same as “full recovery” for us regular humans.
Tucker might indeed be superman, able to leap tall pieces of paper within a few weeks, but he won’t be basketball ready until well after the season tips off.
Impact on T.J. Warren
On the same day Tucker was laying face down on an operating table, 23-year old T.J. Warren was running in his first 5-on-5 action in nine months.
He’d been fully cleared with no restrictions on Wednesday after playing some 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 for the past week since his return to the valley. Before that, he was working out on his own in North Carolina, most recently under the supervision of Suns assistant coach Tyrone Corbin.
Now Tucker is the lone pure small forward on the roster, especially with Jared Dudley already the de-facto starting power forward.
While Dudley, Booker and even rookie Dragan Bender will slide into that role on occasion, the small forward position is really T.J. Warren’s to lose now.
The gifted midrange scorer played sparingly in his rookie season, but burst into the regular playing rotation last year out of the gate. As Tucker’s backup, he played 23.5 minutes per game in November, tallying 13.6 points on 57% shooting (50% on threes) and 3.8 rebounds.
Scoring was never a problem for Warren. It’s been the lack of consistent rebounding and defense that have held him back from a bigger role.
His role did not increase last year when players started dropping like flies and the losses began to pile up. Center Tyson Chandler was out for few weeks in December, power forward Markieff Morris began losing his spot about that time, and then of course guards Eric Bledsoe and then Brandon Knight caved.
Sure, Warren isn’t a center, or power forward or guard, but it’s worth noting that the coach didn’t make any creative moves to get Warren on the floor more as the roster shrunk. Is that coach’s fault? Yes, but not entirely. What that tells me is that at least the prior coaching staff saw Warren as strictly a small forward, and didn’t think it valuable to spot him much at shooting guard - as the Jazz have done with Rodney Hood - or power forward, as they did with Tucker occasionally and plan to do with Jared Dudley.
Maybe Watson would have used him differently last spring if Warren had been healthy, but now the guessing games are over with Warren’s primary roadblock - Tucker - out of the picture for two months.
Impact on Dragan Bender
No matter what you think of his future, Suns head coach Earl Watson still firmly believes in the 7’1” Bender’s potential as a super-long small forward. Now that Tucker is out of the picture for a couple months, Watson has all the runway he needs to experiment with Bender on the wing in spot minutes behind Warren.
The Suns have plenty of big man options with Jared Dudley, Marquese Chriss, Alan Williams, Tyson Chandler, Dragan Bender and Alex Len needing time, so Tucker’s absence allows Watson to keep three of them on the floor more often. Dudley and Bender are the most likely to see the small forward minutes among that crowd.
Bender is super-talented in many facets, but none of those talents are stand-out at the moment. Whether he’s the only big man on the floor, or the second big man, or even the third big man, he’s not going to dominate the game. He just doesn’t have the alpha mentality to take over, at least at 18 years old anyway.
Impact on Marquese Chriss
Watson also sees a big future with Chriss and Bender on the floor together, with and without a center like Len or Chandler between them to gobble up rebounds and putbacks.
In Tucker’s absence, Watson has even more chance to play the Teen Towers a lot in preseason, plenty of time to decide if it’s worth it this year in the regular season.
Chriss might now become the primary backup power forward for a few weeks, if Watson experiments with Bender on the wing. This gives Chriss a chance to show if his rebounding will more resemble his Washington days (worst in the country) or his Summer League (impressive), and if his offensive repertoire is translatable against NBA competition.
Impact on wins vs. development
This here is an unknown, but without Tucker around for a couple months, Watson has a clearer path to pure rebuilding this season without the nuisance of trying to come out of the gate grabbing wins.
A healthy Suns team could conceivably start a very veteran group with Bledsoe (27), Knight (24) or even Leandro Barbosa (33) at guard with a front line of Tucker (31), Chandler (34) and Dudley (31). I would be highly disappointed to see this group get 30 minutes of run together each night, but I can understand why Watson might want to. Every coach, every player, wants to win games and that group is the most likely - on paper - to help this team win.
Setting the Booker/Knight issue aside, now that Tucker is injured Watson is certain to include some form of youth movement in the starting lineup. Warren (23) looks like the sure-fire starter at small forward now, unless one of Chriss (19) or Bender (18) just wows the team in preseason and shoves Dudley down to the small forward position out of the gate. Either way, it’s a win-win for youth.
Impact on Booker
As I mentioned before (ie. all summer long), the shooting guard position should almost certainly be Devin Booker’s for the next decade-plus.
Now with Tucker out, the Suns are most likely to roll with a Warren/Booker wing combo out of the gate. If that’s the case, the youth movement can only be enhanced because it’s very unlikely these two will bring enough defense on the wing to outscore their opponents on the regular, creating more losses which will feed the rebuild mode.
Another way Booker might be affected by Tucker’s absence is that we could see a lot more of Booker at small forward in three-guard lineups to get Knight and Bledsoe more floor time.
But that’s also, in my opinion, a recipe for a lot of 10-point losses. A three-guard lineup of 6’0” Bledsoe, 6’2” Knight and 6’6” Booker makes me think of the old Doug Moe Nuggets teams in the 80s, with nightly scores of 130-120. There’s no way those guys can hold the opponent down, and it will take herculean offensive efforts to be the 130 team every once in a while.
It’s not like the Suns have defensive chops sitting on the bench, either. The backups to those guys at guard are Tyler Ulis, Archie Goodwin, Leandro Barbosa and John Jenkins. Not a strong, thick or tall defender in the bunch.
You can throw out the 2013-14 Suns and 2015-16 Blazers small back courts all you want, but those teams employed a defense-oriented small forward - Tucker, Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless - to support the undersized guards.
Impact on Goodwin, Jenkins, Barbosa
Any time that Booker spends at small forward means more time for the bevy of backup shooting guards during preseason.
None of the three are signed to full guarantees beyond this season. Archie Goodwin is a restricted free agent next summer, John Jenkins is unrestricted and Barbosa only has $500,000 guaranteed in 2017-18. They all need a chance to earn a regular spot, so a few more preseason minutes can only help their cause. Jenkins used a 19-point per game preseason to keep his roster spot with Dallas last year and entice the Suns to trade for him this spring before Dallas released him.
All we know for sure with Tucker’s injury is that a bloated roster just got a little more breathing room during preseason.
The kids get a chance to play for the next two months and either (a) prove their worth for regular season minutes or (b) give us a chance to ask ‘When the heck is Tucker coming back?!’.
Heal well, P.J. But don’t hurry back. Get 100% healthy first.