Oh what could have been
The arrival of P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka a year ago felt like the start of the next step for the Toronto Raptors.
More experience, more toughness and more three-point shooting to a team that was already among the elite in the East certainly sounded like a can’t-miss combination.
And maybe it would have been had a key injury at the worst possible time to Kyle Lowry not got in the way of those new pieces meshing with the likes of DeMar DeRozan and Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas.
But the fact of the matter is that next step never really took place with Lowry missing 20 of the 24 games Tucker and Ibaka had to get prepared for the playoffs with a new team. And the Houston Rockets made sure it never would, at least not with Tucker’s involvement, when they came contract in hand at the veteran 3-and-D guy signing the 32-year-old forward to a fouryear $32-million deal.
The Raptors, according to reports, offered Tucker three years, $33-million but Tucker chose returning home to Texas and playing with his good friend Chris Paul in Houston over that despite Toronto’s offer being more lucrative.
Tucker played 24 regular season games and 10 playoff games in Toronto, the first playoff experience of his NBA career. He fit in well with the Raptors with his physicality and three-point game (he shot 40 per cent from distance in the 24 regular season games and 32 per cent from three in the playoffs) that were both welcome additions to a team in need of both.
Had he stayed he likely would have flourished even more with the new ball-moving Raptors who chuck up threes with as much regularity as any team in the NBA not named Houston.
Instead he lined up opposite his old teammates Tuesday night in the first of two meetings between the Rockets and Raptors this season.
Tucker has brought to Houston exactly what he did to Toronto, a versatile defender who can score from the outside. He, along with Luc Mbah a Moute have taken Houston’s second unit to new heights according to Raptors head coach Dwane Casey.
“The second unit consists of a defensive, switching team that they’ve put together that is very tough-minded,” Casey said. “They are tough-minded defensive guys, they have the ability to switch, they’re two-way guys that also have the ability to shoot the three. They’ve kind of bolstered their second unit with defensive players and tough-minded guys.”
Casey, while reluctant to see Tucker on the other side, sees the potential to develop another Tucker of their own, and maybe one who can be even a little bit better than Tucker with some seasoning.
“We feel like OG is going to be that guy in time, no question about it, a better version of P.J. in time but right now P.J. has the experience factor over OG,” Casey said. “It’s tough, we lost a lot of experience last year but our young guys are getting it now, they’re learning on the fly and they’re doing a good job. They’re putting us in a position to win, we just got to get over the hump and play through some of their mistakes, which we knew going into the season they were going to make.”
Anunoby, a raw rookie, already has a lot of the same traits that Casey loved so much in Tucker.
“The toughness factor, the size factor, he’s the same size, he’s maybe a little bit bigger than P.J. but the physicality part of it, he’s just like P.J. from that standpoint,” Casey said. “And he has no fear, the young fella has no fear and that’s what we love about him, that he has no fear.”
DeMar DeRozan knew exactly what the Raptors were getting when Masai Ujiri dealt Jared Sullinger and two second round picks to Phoenix to get Tucker last February. The Tucker he recalled hounding him on every possession and physically man-handling him was the same Tucker he got to play with for those 34 games of regularseason and post-season play a year ago. DeRozan loved every minute of that, but he’s also looking forward to locking horns with one of the most respected defenders in the game.
“It’s gonna be fun, going against a competitor like that,” DeRozan said.
Left unsaid was how much fun it would have been playing with him for another year, or two or three.
But like his coach, DeRozan says he believes the Raptors are in the process of developing people who can eventually do for them what Tucker did.
“It’s definitely a work in progress but, you know, we got the pieces that’s capable of being a P.J. but it’s hard when you get an established guy like P.J., being in the league so long, he gained that reputation over time,” DeRozan said. “It’s hard to just pick up and find another P.J. so quick but I definitely think we’ve got players in position to be a P.J.-type of player.
Then-Toronto Raptor P.J. Tucker watches from the bench during the final minutes of game 2 of the Raptors’ Eastern Conference semifinal against the Cleveland Cavaliers on May 3.