The Philadelphia 76ers wasted little time addressing key concerns from last season. To shore up a light rotation, the Sixers nabbed Danuel House and traded for De’Anthony Melton. To give the team a bona fide bruiser, or as Joel Embiid put it, an “enforcer,” the team went out and added free agent PJ Tucker.
And while most of the Sixers’ starting five is pre-assumed (Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, James Harden), there is one that might be a little shakier than others. By and large, the expectation is that Tucker will fill out the starting five.
But Tucker is entering his age-37 season, with defensive assignments in the Eastern Conference not getting any easier. That’s why, according to Sam DiGiovanni of ClutchPoints, the likeliest candidate to lose their starting spot is the veteran Tucker.
“So, what would it take for Tucker to come off the bench?,” asked DiGiovanni for ClutchPoints on September 3. “He would have to look slower in training camp and Rivers would have to seriously consider going back to his three-guard lineup or using the less experienced House. Tucker’s name speaks for himself but all players get worn down eventually. He is approaching 40 years of age and has played on teams that made deep playoff runs in the past two seasons.”
Yet Tucker was brought in to guard opposing teams’ worst players, which is a difficult task when one comes off the bench. That’s why DiGiovanni made kept from going all in on the notion of a Tucker bench spot.
Tucker Is ‘an Ideal Fifth Starter’
It’s not only his age that could throw doubt on Tucker’s starting status. The decision could also boil down to money. Embiid, Harris, and Harden are all on the books for over $30 million this season, so bringing them off the bench is a no-go.
Well, that and the fact that Harden and Embiid are two of the league’s top fifteen players. And while Maxey is still on a rookie deal, his ascendance last season should guarantee him a starting spot in the backcourt.
But after that? Tucker almost makes too much sense to start.
“There are plenty of factors that suggest Tucker will start for Philly,” DiGiovanni wrote. “His familiarity with Harden, endorsement from Embiid, vast experience in the NBA and multi-year deal from the Sixers all point to him being the top choice. Add in the uncertainty of Philadelphia’s other options and the fact that his shooting would make him an ideal fifth starter the case is clear.”
Doc Rivers’ History of Three-Guard Lineups
There is one small nibble of history that might lend credence to the idea that the Sixers could start someone other than Tucker. And it all has to do with head coach Doc Rivers.
“Doc Rivers has used a three-guard lineup for an extended period of time before,” recalled DiGiovanni. “In his second-to-last season with the LA Clippers, he ran a lineup with Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. With a frontcourt of Danilo Gallinari and Ivica Zubac, that lineup won 15 of the 17 games it started and took the Golden State Warriors to six games in the playoffs. Could Rivers decide to try it again?”
If the Sixers did indeed go back to Rivers’ roots, that could mean elevating Melton to a starting spot. But over the course of his career, Melton has excelled predominately as a backup. Last season, he played quality minutes behind Memphis’ Ja Morant-Tyus Jones tandem. Forcing him into a starting role like this might threaten to undo what Melton is known for and experienced.
Nonetheless, the Sixers will need to get creative in order to preserve Tucker’s legs for yet another quest to get past the Eastern Conference Semifinals.