After two years as the Rockets’ stopper, P.J. Tucker is looking to secure the bag. Tucker has two seasons and $16.3 million left on his current contract, at the end of which he will be 36 years old. Tucker’s motivation in seeking a contract extension is entirely sensible; his market value is high, meaning he is deserving of a raise. Signing an extension now would also guarantee his income into the final phase of his career. Asking for an extension is the smart move for Tucker, but what should the Rockets do?
In the last four seasons, P.J. Tucker has compiled 17.3 Wins, an average of 4.3 per season. 14.4 of those wins (83.2%) have come on the defensive end, and Tucker is known by reputation around the league as a defensive specialist.
The table above shows Tucker’s recent performance. His production rate (Wins per 48 Minutes) is slightly below league average, though certainly respectable for his role. Tucker’s Total Efficiency has fallen in his two seasons in Houston, and the reason why is exceedingly simple. Tucker’s involvement on the offensive end in Houston has been very small, as he has been able to primarily wait in the corner for open 3-pointers. While he has performed very well in that role, most other players with usage rates as low as his are rim-running bigs. Compared with players who mostly shoot within two or three feet of the basket, Tucker is significantly less efficient. Tucker’s Defensive Efficiency has been superb, as we would expect.
The question at hand is, given P.J. Tucker’s role and performance on both ends of the floor, is it a good investment for the Houston Rockets to offer him a contract extension? My model for assigning an appropriate salary to NBA players based on their performance suggests that across the last four years, Tucker was worth $8.1 million per year. If we narrow our focus to his two years in Houston, his annual value rises to $8.6 million. Tucker’s value, then, is in line with his current contract. Continuing to pay P.J. Tucker at his current pay rate for a longer period of time would be a sensible move for the Rockets. Since his extension would likely be a fixed amount rather than a percentage of the salary cap, the expected decline in Tucker’s performance near the end of the extension would be offset by inflation.
If P.J. Tucker wants a raise, however, the question grows more thorny. Should Houston pay Tucker more than his current value? We can only answer this question in the affirmative if there is good reason to expect improvement from a player or if the player’s contribution cannot be replaced with the given dollar amount. At age 34, P.J. Tucker is obviously too old to expect great improvement. Whether or not Houston could replicate his value with the same amount of money if they did not extend his contract, however, is a different matter entirely.
Last season P.J. Tucker earned a spot on my All-Defensive First Team, contributing the 12th most non-rebounding Defensive Wins in the league and the 7th-most Points Saved. In 2017-18, his first campaign with the Rockets, Tucker ranked 44th in the league in non-rebounding Defensive Wins. Thus, there are very few players who could replicate his impact on the defensive end of the floor. If Houston does not give Tucker an extension, they will be hard pressed to replace him in 2021 when his contract expires. At present, there are only a small handful of players capable of equaling his defensive impact, and most of them will likely be unavailable in the summer of 2021.
If the Rockets are unlikely to replace Tucker’s value with one player, perhaps they could use the money they would have paid him to sign two players that together would compensate for the loss of Tucker. To examine whether or not this is so, I filtered last season’s data to look for players who 1) matched or exceeded P.J. Tucker’s production rate of .083 Wins per 48 Minutes, 2) made less than half of his salary, and 3) provided at least half of their value on defense. The results, sorted by ascending 2018-19 salary, appear in the table below.
It is immediately obvious that most of the results are not true options to replace P.J. Tucker. The entries coded in red are players who lack the defensive versatility to fill Tucker’s role. The players in yellow are capable of filling Tucker’s role but are on their rookie contracts. As a result, their current contract does not reflect what it would actually cost the Rockets to sign a player of their caliber on the open market.
Eliminating these two groups, we are left with four names: Michael Carter Williams (cut by the Rockets in midseason last year), Tim Frazier, Devin Harris, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. As Devin Harris is older than Tucker, it makes no sense to include him as a potential replacement for Tucker in two years’ time. As such, there are only three legitimate options. None of the three came anywhere near Tucker’s workload on defense, so replacing Tucker with two of the three would still be no guarantee that the Rockets would get equal value. Carter-Williams, Frazier, and Hollis-Jefferson had similar production rates to Tucker, but in far less central roles. Placing the weight of being the team’s primary stopper on any of these players would likely limit their effectiveness.
It is safe to conclude that the Rockets cannot replace P.J. Tucker with the money they would save by not offering him an extension. While the team has the leverage and could choose to play out the string, the Houston front office would certainly be wise to at least engage P.J. Tucker’s camp in talks, if only to lay the foundation for further negotiations next summer.