As the 18-39 Phoenix Suns, last in the Western Conference, enter the All-Star Break and yet another chance to fuel the rebuild of the franchise at the NBA’s Trade Deadline, all rumors around the Suns appear to have fizzled out.
Brandon Knight has likely played himself off all the trade boards (one Western Conference Scout told me recently “no one wants that guy” and that “the Suns GM must be crazy” for demanding a good asset back).
The most likely player left to be traded in the next week is P.J. Tucker.
Rumors popped up in December and January on Tucker (one rumor had Minny offering Shabazz Muhammad while the Suns want a future #1...or something better than Bazz), but nothing has come up since then.
Will Tucker be traded for a future asset/younger player, or will he be kept around to help this rebuild in Phoenix?
Suns head coach Earl Watson loves the guy and can’t seem to keep him off the court. Tucker is averaging 28.7 minutes per game coming off the bench behind starter T.J. Warren, which is probably the only thing holding him back from leading the team in minutes played. He’s posting Suns-career-norm averages of 7 points (33% three-point shooting), 6 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.3 assists per game, and is clearly their only reliable perimeter defender.
Tucker’s first head coach in Phoenix, Alvin Gentry, described what makes Tucker so special.
“He’s one of those guys,” Gentry said before the Suns-Pelicans game on Monday. “Where you’re always going, ‘eh I gotta get him back on the court’ and I think P.J.’s been that way since he’s been in the league.”
Tucker signed with the Suns in the summer of 2012 and hasn’t been out of the lineup since. He’s bounced between starting and coming off the bench, but Tucker’s contributions have been consistent and much-needed.
“The one thing that he asked me,” Gentry said. “He says ‘I don’t ever want to go back [overseas], how do I stay up here?’ I said you just got to be able to guard your position and be the toughest guy on the floor. Well, he’s done pretty good in both those areas.”
Tucker is now considered one of the best one-on-one defenders in the NBA. Tucker takes turns defending the likes of C DeMarcus Cousins, PF Anthony Davis, PG James Harden, and everyone in between.
“If you go through the NBA and you were to ask every player about P.J. Tucker,” current Suns coach Earl Watson says. “I guarantee you everyone would say he’s one of the top defenders in the league. Players have this unwritten and unspoken respect that we have for each other, and you know who can really play and who can’t. P.J.’s been magnificent for us. He plays with his heart.”
But he’s a 31-year old on a rebuilding team that won’t sniff the playoffs before he approaches retirement. If the Suns trade him now, they might get a valuable player or pick for the future.
Tucker’s skills are eminently transferable to any team in the league. He can start or come off the bench and will always bring the same game. He’s also a very demanding and spirited teammate.
So if Tucker is so great, why would the Suns trade him away?
If Watson has any say in it, there would be no trade. Watson believes it’s vitally important to teach the Suns young guys how to play tough in the NBA.
“You look at our team and what we need to build upon,’’ Watson said. “We know we need toughness. We know we need defensive-minded players. We already have one, so we want to continue to build around (Tucker’s) personality on defense.”
Even with Tucker, the Suns are still one of the worst defenses in the NBA. But that doesn’t mean it’s Tucker’s fault. Could be that he's often playing with 19 and 20 year olds who don’t make the right decisions in the heat of the game.
“I get so worked up sometimes I have to bring myself down because I have to remember how young (Chriss) is,’’ Tucker said. “It’s the same with (fellow rookie) Dragan (Bender). They don’t know yet, so I’m constantly talking, constantly trying to let them know how we’re going to play things. What you want to do against specific people.”
“P.J.’s very passionate so he’s going to always read every situation, every possession for what it is and be really honest with his teammates about it,’’ Watson said. “I like that P.J.’s going to go to Marquese and talk to him, yell at him, get into him, motivate him because he’s going to create an impression on Marquese that’s going to stay with him forever.’’
Tucker has also helped build up young Devin Booker’s ability to fight through the physicality in the NBA. Several veteran players said early in the year the book on any slim young guy is to be physical and make them play through it.
Booker started slow, but has responded very well the past 2 months, and some of that can be attributed to Tucker’s defense on him in practice.
“P.J. Tucker without referees,’’ Watson said. “Imagine that. We don’t call fouls in practice. And the thing is, we let Devin play through it because he has to grow up. He has to be toughened up. He has to understand how to hit the ground and get back up. He has to understand that P.J. Tucker – some plays P.J. Tucker’s not even looking at the ball. He’s in his chest, in his face.”
The Suns need Tucker and Tucker likes playing in Phoenix.
"I gotta keep playing for my team,” he says of the rumors. “I’m a Phoenix Sun right now. This is my last year of my contract with the Phoenix Suns. I’m gonna keep playing here until somebody tells me otherwise.”
Tucker is a four (soon to be five) time winner of the Dan Majerle Hustle Award. He said last spring he wished someone else would win it, meaning the Suns would have more than one all-out hustler on the team.
But this is the NBA, and it’s a business. Tucker alone is clearly not raising the Suns’ level of play - they are dead last in the West - so why not swap him for an asset?
Here’s another scenario: since Tucker’s a free agent this summer, he could potentially garner an asset for the Suns, get traded to a playoff team to sniff that atmosphere, and then come back to the Suns on a free agent deal if they look like there will be a turnaround in 2017-18.
“Phoenix has been great to me the last five years and it’s somewhere I would love to be for a long time,” Tucker said of what teams interest him in free agency this summer. “So places like this where I fit, and they understand me and let me be myself. That’s a big factor for me.”
No matter what happens, Tucker will always be a Phoenix Sun.
The Phoenix Suns have a lot of potential moves to make
A quick primer on the Suns options (and our recommendations!) for the NBA trade deadline.Posted by Bright Side of the Sun on Thursday, January 12, 2017