The Houston Rockets have struggled badly over the past six weeks. They managed to keep their heads above water for their first few games without James Harden, but once Christian Wood went down with an ankle sprain, the team fell into a tailspin. They have now lost 13 games in a row, and with their playoff hopes likely dashed, it’s time for Houston to start considering the possibility of dealing its veterans to contending teams. Unsurprisingly, one is attracting interest from around the league: P.J. Tucker.
Reports linked the Milwaukee Bucks to Houston’s stalwart defender earlier this week. The Athletic’s Kelly Iko was the next to report a group of suitors, listing the Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz as possible destinations for the veterans. The Athletic’s Shams Charania threw two more teams into the mix, both of whom reached the 2020 NBA Finals: the Miami Heat and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Charania is reporting that the Rockets want a young player back in a Tucker deal.
The Lakers have Talen Horton-Tucker to offer, but given their financial constraints, are unlikely to include him in a deal. The Lakers are also hard-capped at the $138.9 million apron, and at the moment, have only $1.6 million beneath that line with which to operate. From a practical standpoint, that means that the Lakers would likely have to include Montrezl Harrell and his $9.3 million salary just to make a deal work financially. That in itself appears unlikely, so including Horton-Tucker with him would probably be too much for the Lakers. Unlike last season, the Lakers do have a tradeable first-round pick in 2027. If they could figure out a way to make the finances work, perhaps that would entice a Rockets team that has prioritized draft capital in other recent deals.
The Heat have more flexibility underneath the hard cap. They aren’t even at the luxury tax line and have plenty of mid-tier salaries to offer in exchange for Tucker. The question for them becomes which young player they would be willing to give up. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson are likely non-starters, but would the Rockets consider Kendrick Nunn or Precious Achiuwa? Would the Heat? If either are agreeable to both parties, the Heat would be a viable destination.
Brooklyn, at least theoretically, had a chance to trade for Tucker earlier in the season. They already executed one blockbuster deal with the Rockets this season when they acquired James Harden. There is little reason to believe that the Nets did not at least ask for Tucker at that point, but given the rushed nature of those negotiations, it is possible that Brooklyn simply didn’t press the issue. It’s worth noting, though, that the Rockets already control Brooklyn’s first-round picks for the next seven years. If the Nets had anything else that Houston wanted, it likely would have extracted it in the Harden deal.
Denver is an obvious fit for Tucker. Though they have improved significantly on that end of the floor in recent weeks, defense is always going to be a concern for the Nuggets, and injuries have depleted much of their depth. The departure of Jerami Grant at Tucker’s position didn’t help matters in the offseason. Tucker is not remotely the scorer Grant has turned out to be, but he could fill a similar role on defense for a lower price. Tucker makes only around $8 million this season. That salary would fit into the trade exception Denver got in the Grant sign-and-trade with Detroit, though it would take the Nuggets beyond the luxury tax. Denver is hard-capped at the apron, though, so it would have to be careful about managing the rest of its roster.
Utah would have a far harder time trading for Tucker. They are already over the tax line, and like the Nuggets, they are hard-capped. At present, they have a bit of wiggle room beneath that line, but they lack an adequate trade exception to simply absorb Tucker. They would have to send out matching salary, and with the way that their roster is constructed, they just don’t have much of it available. The Jazz have eight players on their roster making more than $2 million. Those eight players, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, Derrick Favors and Royce O’Neale, happen to be Utah’s eight leaders in minutes played. All of their meaningful salaries happen to be key parts of their rotation, so they do not have an obvious method of acquiring Tucker without compromising the success of their current group.
More contenders are bound to enter the fray if Tucker truly becomes available. Despite his age (36) and declining 3-point shooting (he has made only 31.4 percent of his attempts this season), his track record as a small-ball five in the postseason will appeal to any team with serious championship aspirations.
Courtesy: CBS Sports