P.J. Tucker had modest numbers last season (6.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg), he almost never made a highlight reel, and he played alongside two Hall of Famers. But Tucker stood out anyway, in part because anyone who tuned in to watch Chris Paul and James Harden couldn't help but fall in love with the small forward next to them. Tucker helped the Rockets thrive with a switching defense that surprised the NBA all year long, and he led the team in drawn charges and recovered loose balls. He spent half of his time moonlighting at center, and spent the entire game throwing his body all over the floor.
All told, Tucker finished the year with a +10.8 net rating through the regular season and playoffs. On an $8 million deal after stints in Phoenix and Toronto, he was among the best signings in the entire league. At Rockets media day Monday, Mike D'Antoni said, "To me, P.J. Tucker is one of the best players in the league. He was (ranked) like 80-something. I don't know what it was. You're kidding me. This guy plays maybe the best defense in the league. That's half the game right there. He might be the best. If not, he's one of the top five. Now you got a guy that shot since he started 42% from 3s, 47% in the playoffs. Really? I don't know how we judge people. What is the criteria for being a great player? That is a great player."
Rankings aside, recognition is coming. Tucker is one of the first names mentioned when it's time to talk about best role players in the league. A few weeks ago Sports Illustrated caught up with him to talk through his journey to the Rockets, sacrifices in Houston, last year's Warriors series, and lots more.
Andrew Sharp: How are you, man? How has the offseason been?
P.J. Tucker: It's been good, it's been good. It's been short. But cool.
AS: Doesn't it seem like the break lasted about three weeks this year?
PJ: For sure. This was my first time going that deep in the playoffs. It's crazy how fast we go from the conference finals to now back in training camp. It's like as soon as you finish, you're right back at it.
AS: I saw you guys were just down in the Bahamas, getting everyone back together. I have to ask, as someone who's with him behind the scenes, does Carmelo ever take that hoodie off?
PJ: No, man. He never takes the hoodie off. He FaceTimed me today in another hoodie. Like, I wear hoodies a lot. But I've never seen somebody wear a hoodie that often. He'll wear it all morning, then show up a few hours later and you're like, "Is that the same one [from before] or is that a different one?" The man has so many hoodies.
AS: In general, is a Bahamas trip like that more about fun, or more about work?
PJ: Um, it's both. We worked out in the morning, got up, lifted and did some conditioning stuff. And then the afternoons, we played. We like to work and push each other, get back in shape. But also, we've got some new guys, and they get used to the group. We're all just hanging together. So that part of it is fun. It's pretty organic. Everybody just comes out and has fun, and then it gets pretty competitive once we start playing pickup.
AS: I'm sure it's been wild going from all those years in Phoenix to now living life on a contender here. How different has it been?
PJ: It's like being in two separate leagues. It's not even the same league. It makes you fall in love with basketball again. And even the organization, the way they handle everything, it's just A1. Here, we feel like every night, honestly, we feel like we should win every night we go out and play. That's special when you feel that every night. And you know, I had a lot of fun in Phoenix. Playing with some of those guys, they're still some of my best friends. It was great. But we weren't playing for anything.
AS: So Sports Illustrated released its top 100 rankings this past week. ESPN and Bleacher Report have their lists, too. You're 85 on SI's list. Do you ever pay attention to those rankings?
PJ: No, I could care less. Some guys care about that crap. But man, they could have me dead last. I really don't care. What does it mean? If you're 12, if you're 15... It doesn't change how many wins you're gonna get, what you mean to your team. I'm sure somebody on Golden State isn't even on the list, but he's got a lot of rings. So, it doesn't matter to me.
AS: I want to go back to free agency last summer. I read that the Raptors offered you slightly more money to stay in Toronto. So how did Houston happen instead?
PJ: For me, it started with a list. Every free agency I like to do a list of places that I think I fit, and places I want to be. And for me, I wanted to go to Houston. Houston was number one on my list. James [Harden] contacted me and we talked. I thought the direction of the team was a great fit. You know, the Raptors offered more money, but I felt like I wanted to go to a place where I could thrive and I could win.
AS: Plus, you've been friends with Chris Paul since you guys were kids.
PJ: Yeah, me and Chris have known each other since I was 9 or 10 years old. We always worked out together, so we'd always talked about playing together.
AS: I have to say, it's been great seeing you guys reunited out there, but I'm also a UNC fan, and it's still really upsetting that Carolina didn't recruit both of you harder.
PJ: Man, that was always my dream. To be able to go to UNC. I grew up [in Raleigh, North Carolina] as a huge UNC fan. And you know, that dream didn't come true. But that's pretty funny, because I always wondered why Chris didn't go either.
AS: Once Chris wound up in Houston, how much did he help recruit you?
PJ: It was kind of like a fairy tale the way it happened, Because I was thinking Houston even before that. Then that [Paul trade] was one of those things that just put them even further over the top. Like, this is it. Hands down, this is the move. The money was still a big thing, but after that, I knew no matter what we were going to to make it work.
AS: It was fate at that point.
PJ: Definitely. And like I said, we turned down other offers. A few. Like everybody talks about the Toronto one, but we had two or three other offers besides the Toronto one that were bigger and more lucrative. But for me, I just wanted to make a decision that I knew I'd be happy with.
AS: As last season unfolded, were you aware of any of the Raptors fans who were mad that Masai Ujiri paid Serge Ibaka instead of you?
PJ: (laughs) Nah, I never heard anything like that or paid any attention to it. Honestly, I was just so excited to be here. We had such a good thing going that I didn't even pay attention.
AS: Do you feel like you've gotten more recognition the past few years? You were always really solid in Phoenix, but it seems like lately you're near the top of the list when people talk about the best role players in the league.
PJ: Yeah, and that just comes with winning. I've always felt like I was a guy that understood my role. I thrive because I love it. There are certain things any team needs to win. You have your stars, your bigs, all the pieces... But me, [the role is doing] the things that win games, those extra possesions, the hustle plays, the dirty work. That's stuff that can push teams over the top. I'm a player that loves to make that difference on a team. Whether I'm scoring the ball that night or not, whether I'm rebounding or not. No matter what, just making those plays.
AS: Last year Chris was talking about the Rockets, and he said that chemistry-wise, the group was the most fun he's had since those early Pelicans teams. Do you feel that same energy?
PJ: Definitely. I've never been in an environment like this. From the front office down to the locker room, everybody's just kind of on the same page. It's a credit to Mike D'Antoni and how he runs the team, and how he lets us kind of decide what we're going to do collectively. Also, having so many veterans on our team—last year, we didn't even have a rookie. I think Clint was the youngest, and he was in his fourth or fifth year. So when you've got a bunch of guys who have been around the block, they've all done it, and then they get together, it makes it special. You don't find that a lot in the NBA.
AS: What is it about that extra experience that changes the way older players prioritize things?
PJ: Um, I can only speak for myself. Everybody's situation is a little different. Guys in this league, it depends on the stage you're at in your career, where you've played, situations you've been in—that kind of molds your idea of how you want to play, and where you want to be in this league.
It's easy to say, and a lot of people pay lip service, saying, "I want to win." But, well, everybody wants to win. What are you willing to sacrifice to be able to win? Are you going to sacrifice money? Are you going to sacrifice playing time? You gotta sacrifice something. I feel like everybody on our team sacrifices something. Everybody gives up a little something to be able to get a lot of something else.
AS: When you get to Houston, do they sit you down and have a conversation about shooting threes? Is there any kind of initiation?
PJ: (Laughs) It's special, man. We get up 60 threes, coach will be like, "Why didn't you get 70?" Or if I get up five or six threes, Coach will say, "Why didn't you get 10?" When you get to Houston, that's the first thing [D'Antoni] tells you: "If you're open, shoot the ball." That's the only thing. It's a real short conversation. He doesn't care if you miss 10 in a row. He wants you to shoot that 11th one. That's just how we play. No matter who it is, if you're on the floor, you gotta let it go.
AS: Is there anything about the Rockets behind the scenes that might surprise people?
PJ: How close we all run off the court. I don't think people understand how hard that is in the NBA, to get a team that's really like that. Like, we're really friends. We hang out in the offseason, we're on vacations together. I think that helps with guys willing to sacrifice and be there for teammates, because we're all really friends. Our families hang together. I think people would be surprised by how much we talk, and how much this really means to us.
AS: Chris and James are both Hall of Famers at the center of everything, but from a distance, they seem so different. Chris is super vocal, James seems more laid back.
PJ: Totally, totally.
AS: So how do they make that partnership work as leaders?
PJ: It's so funny. All you writers... And I say you writers not meaning you, in particular, but the writers last year, they wrote it off: "Harden needs the ball in his hands, Chris needs the ball in his hands." We all just sat back and laughed because we were working out and playing with them. And it goes back to sacrifice—they both sacrificed a little to make it work. And in the beginning it was, "They can't figure it out, they can't make it work." But by the end of the season it was like they'd been doing it for years. It wasn't a story anymore. It was, "Are they the best backcourt [in the NBA]?"
AS: But they are very different, right?
PJ: Oh, night and day. Night and day. Totally different. But it's funny, with them being so different, you'll always see those clips—like on Instagram or whatever—of them arguing at each other. But the best part, which they don't show afterwards, is that as soon as we go back out, they're the first ones chest bumping each other and getting us going. So it's that competitive spirit that makes it [work]. Two guys who are ultra, ultra competitive.
AS: So now that you've had some time to process things, what do you take away from the Warriors series?
PJ: I don't take anything away from it. I mean, I don't know what you're supposed to take from losing that. The way it happened. For me, it's more about getting back in that situation to be able to do it again. Run it back. We were right there. A bunch of things happened, life happens, no excuses. So you know what? Let's run it back and let's see what happens. It's not a whole lot to talk about. Our team's a little different this year, with some subtractions and some additions. But we feel like our core is still intact, and we feel like we can get back at it.
AS: Yeah, it's obviously disappointing to lose, but you guys also played them closer and tougher than a lot of people expected. Did you feel like that validated some of what you'd been doing all year?
PJ: I don't know if it validates anything if we don't win. If we would've won, then yeah, it validates it. But it's funny, I really don't think about it like that. For us, all year, we felt like we were the best team in the NBA. A lot of teams say that, but we really thought that. And we played that way all season long. It was just doing what we do. It wasn't trying to prove we're better than them. It was just playing to win and be the best team, like we thought we were.
AS: Watching you in that series, it was like watching a middle linebacker out there, flying all over the place and getting physical with that whole team. Did you make it a point to set that tone for everyone?
PJ: That's just how I play. I like to get into people and make people are uncomfortable. That's how I play and what I do. And in a series like that, [there were] such good shooters. Guys who, if they get to their spots, they'll kill you all day. I was just trying to make them uncomfortable and make them do things they don't want to do. But that goes for every series and every game. Every night you go out there, especially for me, that's just what you do. That series was no different.
AS: I have to say, in Game 7 it looked like you committed about 25 fouls. But you were going so hard, the refs decided to just give you the benefit of the doubt.
PJ: Yeah, that's the thing. You kinda zone out. Western Conference finals, that's the stuff you dream about. Having the chance, down on the ropes, trying to come back, it's a different feeling. You just go out and give everything you got.
AS: Looking ahead this year, you lose Trevor Ariza, but you gain Carmelo Anthony. How will that work?
PJ: We'll definitely miss Trevor. Trevor brought so many different things to our team. He was big time for us all season. But Carmelo is a seasoned vet. He's been doing it for a long time. He's one of the best scorers in NBA history. He can do a lot of different things.
As a team, we've got our core intact, and he'll be able to fall in place and just kinda build on that. I don't think it'll be doing what Trevor did, but he'll do what Carmelo does and it'll make our team different. We feel like we're still right there. We've got, if not the best, than one of the best teams in the league. And he'll kinda just find his way.
AS: You mentioned sacrifice earlier. Do you have any thoughts on whether Carmelo will start?
PJ: I don't. Our lineup changed so much last year, and it was rarely the same lineup from game to game. So it's one of those things that Coach D'Antoni will have to figure out. Whatever works, works. Whatever he thinks works, obviously. But we're going to go out and play. No matter who [D'Antoni] puts out there, we'll figure it out, make our tweaks, and do what we need to do.
PJ: Ummm, when I was in... middle school? (laughs) I've always been like that. It's one of those things, like you said, what I did in Phoenix was one thing, and now I come Houston and people notice it. Same thing. I've always been me with the style and the shoes. I've done this my whole career. It's just a question of not being on that center stage, and not in the spotlight, because your team wins 20 games.
SI: You were in Milan and Paris with James Harden this summer. Between the two of you, who's winning a fashion battle?
PJ: (laughs) We're one and the same. We both like to have fun with our fashion. We both enjoy it. So I'd say we're the same.
SI: OK, what about Daryl Morey vs. Mike D'Antoni?
PJ: Now that's more of a battle there! They both... Man, they both could care less. Neither one of them cares at all. Both of them would probably try to let the other one win.
SI: If you could give them one piece of advice to help them upgrade their look, what would it be?
PJ: I just... Ahhhhh. I don't know what I would tell them. Daryl doesn't care and Mike doesn't care. I guess I'd try to get their shoe game up. That's all. They're going to wear those suits, but I can at least try to help get their shoe game up.
SI: OK, last question, speaking of shoes: Did you see that the NBA changed the shoe rules? Now it sounds like players can wear any colorways they want. What do you think about that?
PJ: Those [rules] never really applied to me. I'm the same no matter what. I've always worn whatever, and kinda pushed the envelope. I've never really cared [what the league thinks]. So I mean, I appreciate being able to do it without having to hear anything. But that rule has never really bothered me. That, to me, is like an announcement for everybody else.