P.J. Tucker trade finally gives Bucks their small-ball 5, but is the timing right for Milwaukee?

How fitting it is that the Milwaukee Bucks included D.J. Wilson in their reported trade for P.J. Tucker. Among very online Bucks fans, Wilson, a 25-year-old big man who has since 2017 logged just 124 more minutes for Milwaukee than Khris Middleton has this year, is a symbol of everything that was wrong with the team’s approach for two full seasons. Wilson’s mere presence on the roster was a reminder that the Bucks didn’t experiment with different defensive coverages on their way to the 2019 and 2020 playoffs and they didn’t have enough countermoves when they got there. 

It was never clear that Wilson was the answer, but his supporters argued that he hadn’t been given enough playing time to conclude he was not. Wilson is mobile enough to switch onto smaller defenders, and the same could not be said about Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova or Robin Lopez. After the 2019 trade deadline, the Bucks signed Pau Gasol to play in front of Wilson, and after the 2020 deadline, they went back to the buyout market for Marvin Williams. The Williams signing felt like a course correction, as he had been an effective small-ball 5 for the Charlotte Hornets, but in Milwaukee, he played most of his minutes next to a traditional center and dropped against pick-and-rolls in the playoffs.  

By sending him to the Houston Rockets in this particular deal, Wilson has in a way fulfilled his destiny. The Bucks have been tinkering with their formula all season and switching much more than ever before. Wilson remained at the end of the bench, but his expiring contract allowed them to acquire one of the defining supporting characters of the modern era.

Tucker signed a four-year, $31.9 million contract with the Rockets in the summer of 2017. Only $2.6 million of the final year’s salary was guaranteed. That it wasn’t more lucrative is evidence that the league collectively misunderstood where the game was going, or at minimum how fast it would get there. Built like a linebacker, Tucker had established a reputation for defending star wings, but his brand of versatility meant being able to credibly shift up to the power forward spot. Nobody anticipated that, at 6-foot-5, he’d be playing center, matched up with Steven Adams, the following preseason. Nobody anticipated that, at 32 years old, his best years were ahead of him. 

When James Harden, Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni were running the show, the Rockets went to extremes. They didn’t just prefer 3s and layups; they refused to settle for anything less. They didn’t just value spacing; they stationed shooters several feet behind the 3-point line and told Tucker to stand in the corner on every offensive possession. They switched by default, believed in skill over size and, eventually, made Tucker a full-time center. You are surely aware that they took aim at the Golden State Warriors and would never have taken them to seven games in 2018 without Tucker doing yeoman’s work. You might have forgotten that, hours before he logged 45 minutes in Game 7, he had three root canals. D’Antoni is the one who revealed this to the media. Tucker didn’t even tell his teammates.  

That version of Tucker was irreplaceable in Houston and would be transformative in Milwaukee. He wouldn’t necessarily solve all of the Bucks’ problems, but he’d immediately unlock the ability to defend in different ways. They have long needed more shooters who can stay on the floor in the playoffs, and they’ve specifically needed a switchable big with range. The question is what version of Tucker they are getting. 

Milwaukee has taken a step back defensively this season — it ranks 10th, per Cleaning The Glass — and its adventures in switching and defending pick-and-rolls higher up haven’t always been pretty. The idea though is that it will pay off later. The Bucks are now counting on a soon-to-be 36-year-old, in the midst of his least productive season in years, to ensure that it does. This trade is nothing like scooping up Gasol and Williams after buyouts. 

It is easy to explain away Tucker’s 31-percent 3-point shooting, 7.7-percent usage rate and unimpressive on/off stats. The 2020-21 Rockets started the season dealing with the Harden drama, lost Christian Wood just as they were building momentum and have now lost 17 straight games. Tucker would hardly be the first veteran to leave a situation like this and prosper. Just as it would be disrespectful to Tucker to assume that he’s cooked, though, it would be disrespectful to underestimate the demands of the role he’ll be asked to play. The Bucks are not acquiring Tucker to be simply a helpful bench player; they’re betting that he can still make things tough on the best scorers in the NBA. They’re betting that he can still close playoff games. They’re betting that he’s the missing piece. 

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