LAS VEGAS — After the Houston Rockets’ rumor-filled offseason culminated in a blockbuster trade, P.J. Tucker’s first instinct was to play defense. Naturally.
The veteran forward rose to prominence in recent years, excelling as a bruising, defensive-minded complement to franchise player James Harden. His versatility and knack for well-timed hustle plays were key drivers of Houston’s past two playoff runs, which both ended in heartbreaking losses to the Golden State Warriors.
Within weeks of Houston’s second-round elimination in May, reports surfaced that Harden was eyeing a split with Chris Paul. Despite denials from all parties, including General Manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets shipped Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook in July.
The deal prompted questions about Harden’s deteriorating relationship with Paul and his basketball fit with Westbrook. It also left Tucker in an awkward spot: Paul was his childhood friend and former AAU teammate in North Carolina, while Harden and Westbrook will direct the Rockets for the foreseeable future. Stuck in the middle, Tucker launched passionate defenses of all parties.
Harden and Westbrook are being unfairly maligned by critics who believe their ball-dominant styles will clash, Tucker insisted, before adding that the former Thunder teammates will enter the 2019-20 season motivated and on the same page.
“I hate when people talk about certain guys and say they can’t work together,” Tucker said. “It may not work with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard [on the Los Angeles Clippers]. It may not work with Anthony Davis and LeBron James [on the Los Angeles Lakers]. It may not work with anybody.
“[Westbrook] is another super aggressive guy who can attack the rim and score the ball. That opens everything up for everyone else. [Harden and Westbrook] know each other’s games. They’ve played together when they were young, and they’re excited to play together again. If they’re excited, I’m excited.”
The 34-year-old Tucker, a consummate team player on and off the court, was the oldest person invited to Team USA’s FIBA World Cup training camp. The national team’s brass sought his intensity, spot-up shooting and well-timed hustle plays but also his elder statesman perspective and firsthand experience with the international game.
More than a decade older than many of his higher-profile U.S. teammates, Tucker has arrived at this point — playing for a perennial title contender and potentially competing for a gold medal — after an unconventional basketball journey saw him spend five full seasons playing abroad. The 2006 second-round pick bounced among Israel, the Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany during his mid-20s before finally reestablishing himself as an NBA player with the Phoenix Suns in 2012.
That trek left him appreciating what Houston accomplished with Harden and Paul rather than dwelling on the partnership’s abrupt ending.
“We were a hamstring away from having a championship,” Tucker said, referring to Paul’s ill-timed injury in the 2018 Western Conference finals against Golden State. “You can rate it how you want and say what you want, but it was a great run. We won a franchise-record [65 games in 2017-18]. The [decision to trade Paul] is something that’s over my pay grade. I just play.”
Despite the major shake-up and a summer in which numerous NBA superstars changed cities, Tucker said that the Rockets remain “one of the top three or four teams in the league,” with the Warriors, Clippers, Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers also deserving consideration.
“We’re right there, right where we’ve always been since I’ve been on the Rockets,” Tucker said. “We have a chance to compete for a championship. It’s up to us to put it together again. It’s wide open this year. We’ve got a shot.”
Before Tucker returns to Houston, he will savor the chance to represent Team USA. His effective play during high-profile postseason matchups with the Warriors helped land him on USA Basketball’s radar, and his skill set aligned closely with Coach Gregg Popovich’s roster selection criteria.
“It’s about how the group fits together,” Popovich said Monday, when camp opened. “Twelve all-stars aren’t going to work great unless you have the right mix of point guards, defenders and big men who can spread the court and shoot it. It’s about being competitive, who are the most team-oriented guys, the most competitive guys. This is a long journey, and it takes a hell of a commitment.”
USA Basketball’s rising stars will dominate the media coverage and garner the YouTube views, but the no-nonsense Tucker is expected to join them at the FIBA World Cup in China as the designated glue guy.
During a Thursday scrimmage, Donovan Mitchell soared for an alley-oop and De’Aaron Fox sliced through the paint for a double-clutch layup. Meanwhile, Tucker stuck to his game, calling out defensive coverages, bumping cutters and racing out to contest shots.
“He’s given us fits the last couple of years with his offensive rebounding and his defense,” said Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, a U.S. assistant. “It’s much more fun to play with P.J. than against him. He’s physical, smart and a good leader and teammate. There’s always a place on any team for a guy like P.J. He’s been around the world, literally.”