NBA free agency: Backup center remains vital for Sixers, who know P.J. Tucker well

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Backup center still vital question for Sixers, who know Tucker's game very well originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers know from experience that four years and $97 million guaranteed is too much to invest in the backup center spot.

That’s true even if the player is as well-credentialed as Al Horford.

For the vast majority of Joel Embiid’s career, the team has failed to find satisfying answers behind him. Perhaps a 37-year-old who’s seven inches shorter than Embiid will become a significant piece of the picture.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and The Philadelphia’s Inquirer Keith Pompey reported Tuesday that the Sixers are interested in P.J. Tucker, who’s reportedly set to decline his $7.4 million player option with the Heat. Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes reported Wednesday that Tucker is “expected to have interest from multiple contending teams willing to offer” the full mid-level exception (approximately $10.3 million) in free agency.

On Sunday, Marc Stein reported that "numerous rival teams ... say with even more conviction" that they expect Tucker to sign a three-year, $30 million contract with the Sixers in free agency.

It’s fair to focus on the intangibles with Tucker, a player who concedes height in almost every matchup. Embiid praised his toughness, physicality and energy after Miami knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs, and no one in the NBA is going to dispute that view.

But the on-court logistics would also matter if the Sixers added Tucker. The positive outlook goes along with a sentiment Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey expressed on the night of the 2020 NBA draft. Morey emphasized that he prefers flexibility at backup center.

“I do think you like to have optionality in how you play behind Joel,” Morey said. “I think (head coach Doc Rivers) and his staff could get very creative with unique lineups where Ben (Simmons) is featured and we sort of build a system around him like I’ve done in the past and Doc’s done in the past. There’s a chance to play really unique, up-tempo, spacing, shooting lineups. But I also like adding a big just so Doc has all the tools to basically attack who we’re playing in different ways.

“I think the main thing is never force anything. Actually having a perceived opening of a big often allows Doc to go to work and use his amazing recruiting skills, which I think is the best I’ve ever seen at the coach position, to get top players to consider here because they see a path and an opportunity.”

Since that evening, Morey has signed Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. It would be a stretch to say any of those players enhanced the Sixers’ optionality at center. Drummond was the closest, though brief cameos of the “King Kong-Godzilla” lineup with Embiid and Drummond would obviously have been a shaky playoff proposition. Assistant coach Dave Joerger expressed optimism about Simmons playing the five, but the 25-year-old never served as Embiid’s regular backup.

Meanwhile, Tucker is an up-for-any-challenge defender who savors guarding stars. Over the last three postseasons, he’s spent time on Anthony Davis, Steven Adams, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Jayson Tatum. That assignment versatility elevates his team’s defense, as does the Texas product’s determination to contest every jumper, nail every off-ball rotation, and prevent the opponent from having anything easy.

While the physical differences between himself and Tucker are stark, Paul Reed is comparable in terms of being switchable and relentless. However, Reed is wilder (and much less experienced), which evidently gave Rivers reason to hesitate before he handed the 23-year-old consistent minutes in the playoffs.

At his exit interview, Reed was asked what he’d been told he’d need to do to earn a steady place in next season’s rotation.

“There’s mental things,” he said. “Knowing when to cut; knowing when to flash; knowing when to set screens; knowing when to stay spaced, re-space. It’s a lot of little details that go into what Doc wants. And that’s something I’ve been working on all season.”

Tucker is limited offensively, but he’s an enthusiastic screener, capable short-roller passer and willing corner three-point shooter who made a career-best 41.5 percent of his long-range tries last year.

Tucker also cedes to the stars, and Reed indicated the Sixers want him to focus more on that than embracing a “stretch five” mindset.

“(Outside shooting is) definitely a part of my game already, but that’s not what the team was asking from me,” Reed said. “We have guys out there that are three-point shooters, and one thing that the coaches and my teammates were emphasizing to me was don’t focus on shooting threes; focus on rebounding and getting guys like Georges Niang more shots or Tyrese Maxey more shots. So that’s something that I was focusing on this season. If I get an open shot, though … I work on my shot enough and I’m confident — I’m going to take the shot. I’m not going to go out there and force it, though.

“I understand it’s common for big men, guys who are tall, they fall in love with the three-ball and always end up staying out there on the three-point line and shooting way too many threes. And I’m not trying to end up like that. I had experience doing that before and it kind of made me not win a championship when I was in the G (League), so I learned from that and I’m not trying to be one of those dudes that’s just trying to live at the three-point line. I like banging in the paint. And that’s what I plan to do.”

Just like Reed, Charles Bassey was drafted late in the second round and impressive in the G League as a rookie.

As a more traditional, rim-protecting center, he’s also worth including in this discussion.

“Charles, I love that kid,” Rivers said at his end-of-season press conference with Morey. “I don’t know if he’s ready yet. I would say staff-wise, he needs to get stronger — gets pushed around pretty easy. Offensively, he’s raw, but not as raw as as you think.

“I think of the guys, he’s got the chance to have a huge summer. And as far as development, we need him to. And we’re going to push him. Got to get him stronger. That’s the No. 1 thing.”

The Sixers will play in both the Utah and Las Vegas summer leagues next month. That should be a chance to watch Bassey, who sat out summer league last year because he had yet to sign his Sixers contract.

By the time games tip off in Vegas, it should be clear exactly how Morey now thinks “optionality” behind Embiid should look, as well as what price is appropriate. A reunion with Tucker might be part of his answer.