Creative shot makers and flashy passers are the easiest players to appreciate as fans. Less obvious are the role players who contribute to winning even when they don’t have the ball — and few such role players have had a bigger impact than Houston’s PJ Tucker.
There isn’t a formal definition for what constitutes a role player, but role players do have some defining characteristics. For instance, think of the relationship between a player’s minutes per game and his usage rate, which is the share of a team’s plays used by a player while he is on the court. Star players — your LeBron Jameses and Steph Currys of the league — log heavy minutes and have high usage rates. Role players may also log heavy minutes but tend to be comparatively less involved on offense.
Below is a scatter chart that shows the relationship between usage rate and minutes played per game. The relationship is flat for players who see fewer than 20 minutes per game, but there is a strong, positive relationship among starter- and rotation-level players. After all, if you weren’t producing on the offensive end, you wouldn’t be worth playing for long stretches of time. Unless you’re Tucker.
No one in the NBA this season logged more minutes while doing less on offense. Tucker is the first player since Shane Battier in 2008-09 to post a usage rate of less than 10 percent while also playing at least 30 minutes a game. In Game 1 of the Rockets’ series against Golden State, the Rockets were +9 in net points with Tucker on the court even though he scored no points and took only four shots while logging 39 minutes — the same time spent on the floor as James Harden.
Tucker ranks near the bottom in passes made per game and touches per game, and on average he had the ball in his hand for the shortest amount of time per possession of anyone who played at least 30 minutes per game this season. On offense, Tucker’s role is to stand in the corner and wait for a teammate to pass him the ball so that he can shoot an open three, which is the point of Houston’s spread-out, isolation-heavy offense.
So why can Tucker stay on the court for as long he does without doing much on offense? Two reasons.
First, Harden had the highest usage rate in the NBA during the regular season, and Harden and Tucker are on the court together more than any other two-man combination for the Rockets.3 Since usage rate is a zero-sum game among the five players on the floor, any increase in Tucker’s usage would come at the expense of Harden’s.
Second, Tucker’s defense is vital to the Rockets. While he might not be widely known as an elite defensive stopper, he has the profile of one. Five of the seven players he guarded most often during the regular season were Paul George, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nobody matches up with those guys that often unless he’s built for it.
Only nine players since the 1977-78 season have played at least 30 minutes a game while using less than 10 percent of their teams’ plays. The list is a who’s who of the best defensive specialists in NBA history, including Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, Mark Eaton, Bruce Bowen and the aforementioned Battier. Most of those guys went on to win defensive player of the year, earn All-NBA honors or play a critical role on a championship team. Meanwhile, Tucker has never made so much as an All-Defensive team.
Even though the casual fan might not recognize Tucker for his defensive prowess, his peers do. Earlier this year, DeMar DeRozan praised Tucker’s defensive intensity. “PJ is one of the most intense individual defenders on the defensive end,” he told The Athletic. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.”
The good news for Tucker is that he has the chance to raise his profile during the Rockets’ second-round matchup against the Warriors. The bad news is that he has to prove his mettle by trying to guard Durant.
During the regular season, Tucker matched up with Durant on 111 possessions and held him to shooting 48 percent from the field, a tick below Durant’s 52 percent season average. Durant scored 35 points during the Warriors’ Game 1 victory on Sunday, though only 13 of those points were scored while Tucker was guarding him. In reality, the only person that can stop Durant is Durant. But as long as Tucker doesn’t allow him to shoot over 60 percent from the field like he did when he was guarded by Patrick Beverley during the Warriors’ first-round series, the Rockets will have a chance to pull off the upset.
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