Finding The Perfect Frontcourt Partner: How Does Miami Replace P.J. Tucker?
What was the “P.J. Tucker Role”?
Last season, P.J. Tucker experienced a basketball renaissance at the ripe age of 36. Part of that renaissance occurred on the defensive end. Although he came to the Heat with a reputation for guarding multiple positions at a high level, per Dunks and Threes, Tucker posted his highest career EPM of +2.1 (his second-highest was a measly +0.9 posted in Phoenix in 2014) and highest career defensive EPM of +2.7 (nearly doubling his previous career high of +1.5 posted in 2017).
The key to this defensive rebirth was his versatility, which was utilized in unprecedented ways in Spoelstra’s switch-heavy defensive scheme. Tucker was often trusted to guard opponents’ best players on an island in high-leverage situations, whether it was Joel Embiid, James Harden, or Trae Young.
A combo of foot speed, flexibility, and strength allowed Tucker to keep players of all shapes and sizes in front of him. According to InStat, he held opponents to a respectable 0.96 points per possession (ppp) on isolations. He was even stingier with pick ‘n’ roll handlers, limiting them to 0.93 PPP.
Besides all that he contributed on the defensive end, Tucker was an important playmaking hub within the Heat’s motion offense. He would frequently find shooters in DHOs (and create separation for them with sturdy screens), flick a pass to the dunkers’ spot or out to a shooter from the short roll, and even find cutters out of the post from time to time.
Add Tucker’s superb 62.2% eFG% from 3 this season and a sizable 6% OREB rate and you get a good picture of the extent of his impact.
He was a jack-of-all-trades for the Heat, someone who could knock down a corner 3 when necessary, keep the ball flowing, give the team a fresh 14 with an opportune offensive rebound, and then size up our opponent’s best player on the other end. And this doesn’t even begin to measure his impact as an off-ball hammer screener and defensive rebounder. (Indeed, the addition of P.J. might explain why the Heat were a solid defensive rebounding team all season, finishing 9th in Dunks and Threes’ Defensive Rebound percentage rankings.)
While it would be foolish to underestimate what Tucker contributed, there were also ways in which he held the team back. The shot chart below depicts one way in which he limited the offense.
A vast majority of P.J.’s shots came from the corners, as has been the case his entire career. While Tucker was efficient from his sweet spots, he was also someone that needed others to create that shot for him, receiving an assist on 98.8 percent of his 3s. Perhaps this is why he was such a low-volume shooter, averaging a meager 3.7 3-point attempts per 75 possessions – a number that placed him in the 32nd percentile in the league and the 27th percentile among his fellow PFs.
In short, P.J. was hyper-efficient, but hyper-efficiency on a low volume of spoon-fed shots is not as helpful for offense as one might think. To illustrate why, we may recall how his combination of low volume and an inability to create 3s allowed Celtics defenders like Rob Williams to help off him and clog the paint.
Some thoughts about how the Heat fill the “P.J. Tucker Role”
There is no replacing P.J. Tucker. He has one of the most unique skill sets of any player in the league. However, there are ways in which the Heat can approximate his impact with a platoon of players on the current roster and (more speculatively) via the trade market.
On the defensive end, the Heat simply does not have an on-ball defender of his caliber. Nevertheless, Caleb Martin and Victor Oladipo have flashed the ability to blow up the pick ‘n’ roll alongside Adebayo and even take on some of the best offensive players in the league in ISO. Oladipo, for instance, locked opponents down in ISO – allowing just 0.83 ppp – and in the PnR – allowing handlers just 0.73 ppp.
Haywood Highsmith is also a prospect whose defensive skill intrigues me. Although the on-ball defense needs work, he fits right into the Heat’s switch-heavy, controlled-chaotic defensive scheme. And, most speculatively, Darius Days, who boasts an imposing 6-foot-7, 245 lb frame supplemented by a 7-foot wingspan, at the very least has the physical tools to clean up the glass and a rudimentary pick ‘n’ pop game. This patchwork of players can approximate P.J.’s defensive versatility on- and off-ball, as well as his tenacity on the boards.
I’m probably more excited than anyone about the potential of Haywood Highsmith. But I think his emergence relies on what he’ll be able to contribute defensively.
When I went back and watched him on D (thread below), my biggest + was his sense of where to be on the floor.
— optimistic Heat fan (@kellyoburner) August 29, 2022
And here he shows you that he can fit right into Miami’s switch heavy scheme. Occupies the middle of the court early on, ready to help where needed. Quickly and cleanly hops over to help Gabe in the post. Good rotations all around. pic.twitter.com/ekSEb3TPyM
— optimistic Heat fan (@kellyoburner) August 29, 2022
Caleb Martin and Haywood Highsmith seem primed to fill the P.J. role. Both crash the board with reckless abandon. In addition, Dunks and Threes projected that Highsmith shot 6.1 3pa/75 possessions and Martin a more modest 4.2 3pa/75. More importantly, each player actually shot above the break 3s, meaning that their presence on the floor can theoretically create space for the Heat that Tucker’s presence took away.
In the market, my favorite P.J. role filler is Jae Crowder. This is for several reasons. For one, Crowder is familiar with the Heat’s defensive scheme and has the tools to thrive in it. In fact, he compares quite favorably to P.J. when it comes to isolation and PnR defense.
And, fwiw, unsurprisingly Jae Crowder was far stingier vs PnR handlers (0.83ppp) and isos (0.84ppp). Even compares favorably to PJ’s 0.96 ppp defending ISOs and PJ’s 0.93 ppp defending the PnR handler.
— optimistic Heat fan (@kellyoburner) September 2, 2022
On top of that, Crowder is a less efficient but far more willing three-point shooter. His 7 3pa/75 placed him in the 85th percentile among power forwards, per Dunks and Threes. His efficiency might have been below league average, but the mere ability to spray above the break 3s in transition and off screens would create space for Jimmy Butler, Adebayo, and company to operate.
Whether the Heat fill the role in-house or make some phone calls, replacing P.J. Tucker is not something that one player can do. As I mentioned before, no other player in the league boasts a set of skills quite like Tucker’s. However, we can find some consolation in the fact that Spo’s system brought skills out of P.J. that we had seldom (in some cases never) seen from him.
This may suggest that Spo will be able to mine unforeseen talents out of the likes of Caleb Martin and Haywood Highsmith. At this point next year, we may be pondering, which players around the league can replicate the Highsmith role?
Despite the uncertainty surrounding who will fill the P.J. Tucker role, one thing is certain: Without him on the floor, the Heat will look remarkably different next season.