“There used to be more role players” sounds like something Jeff Van Gundy would say before a rant about how players should get suspended for kicked ball violations. But ultimately, it’s a statement that certainly feels factually correct. Indeed, gone are the days when Eric Snow could simply exist in the role of being on the court and handing the ball to Allen Iverson.
The individual levels of talent in the NBA are so much higher today than 20 years ago. Of course, there are players in 2021 whose statistical averages don’t suggest they are stars, and they definitely are playing a specific role that is decided by their coach in a way that isn’t true of their better teammates. But for some of those players, the term “role player” just feels inaccurate, because we can see plainly how talented they are. Josh Richardson and Ricky Rubio, for example, are decidedly not run-of-the-mill basketball players and would probably impress us just fine in a league that didn’t include so many players undeniably better than them. LeBron James, as de-facto GM, has preferred stacking the teams in the second half of his career with players capable of doing more elsewhere but asking them “But to what end?” Turning Rajon Rondo into a glorified Derek Fisher is more about understanding that, in 2002, Fisher was at whatever tier of player-ranking that Rondo has been for the past six years, regardless of how many more cool things Rondo seems capable of doing on the court. That’s more or less my understanding of how inflation works.
Obviously today’s league isn’t full of only All-Stars and poor man’s All-Stars. There are still actual role players. There are three-point specialists, who are usually more widely recognized as essential and irreplaceable if they’re white (a lot more is made of J.J. Redick’s obsessive work ethic than Wayne Ellington’s). There are still veterans on rosters who are simply good at having been in the NBA for enough years to mean something intangible. And finally, when we’re usually talking about players who belong in the NBA but will never be a version of the best players at their positions, we’re often talking about players who provide some sort of toughness. Those players can be talked about in cringingly coded ways as well; lazy assumptions and metaphors get thrown around to explain what they provide.
And then there’s P.J. Tucker, whose basketball career and skill set has led him to provide all three of those roles at once, and he’s become exactly what a contending team needs. At 35 years old, he’s the rare NBA player who suits up at that age, not as a lesser version of his prime self, but as a player who over those years has broadened the impact of his role and sharpened his ability to execute it.
Tucker was drafted in 2006, and by the next year he was in Europe, playing in Israel, Germany, and Greece until 2012. When got his second chance in the NBA, he spent five years in Phoenix proving that he could shoot if he was open, he could guard if you put someone in front of him, and that the Suns would get more rebounds when he was on the floor.
Mike D’Antoni, who enables players to be their most confident selves, unlocked what Tucker could be as a finished product in his thirties: a 6’5 center who shoots corner threes. He is both a confirmation of elements of traditional basketball and a disregarding of its rules. Defensively, he’s proof that literal strength can win out in a head to head matchup.
In the early 2000s, there were countless “Shaq Stoppers” who couldn’t keep Shaq under 28 points. But there is no Shaq in today’s game, and most great bigs use extreme skill (and their own athleticism) to counter the athleticism of the person guarding them. It’s just sort of presumed that Anthony Davis or Kristaps Porzingis could score easily on a player six or seven inches shorter than them. Tucker makes them prove it. They almost always find it more difficult or awkward than what they would prefer to do. And running an offense through this rigid “matchup exploitation” leaves LeBron James and Luka Doncic standing around. Tucker will simply keep showing up for more.
Tucker enabled a style of play for James Harden’s Rockets in a way a lot of All-Stars could not. And now, with the Rockets entertaining trade offers for him, he can fit on plenty of teams, help them do what they want to do on offense, and throw a wrench in the opponent’s offense. He could go to either Los Angeles team and be a Super Morris Twin. He could play with Doncic in Dallas alongside or backing up Porzingis. He could go to the Heat in an obvious culture fit. You could even throw him on a team like San Antonio where Popovich would utilize him with his array of young athletes and shooters as they make a playoff push.
Tucker is a role player in the sense that the only way to truly unlock everything he provides is to put him next to supremely talented players. Fortunately for him, there are tons of those in the NBA in 2021. A lot more than there are P.J. Tuckers.