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Numbers Game: P.J. Tucker is an Impact Player

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Let’s take a look at that other deadline acquisition.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

P.J. Tucker has a reputation — a tough player, a solid rebounder, and a decent floor spacer. But he’s a defender first and foremost. Defensive numbers aren’t the most reliable, but let’s take a look at what we might expect from Tucker as he joins a team needing an influx of defensive talent, a team hoping that issue might have been resolved by the acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and Tucker.

In Phoenix

On-court stats in Phoenix point to Tucker being one of their best defenders. Of the 8 players with over 1,000 minutes played (MP) on the season, Tucker (1,627 MP) has the best on-court defensive rating (DRTG). Now, it’s not a particularly impressive DRTG (108.7), but on a terrible team that can be misleading.

In the meantime, his defensive box plus-minus (DBPM) has been consistently slightly above average. In the past four years his DBPM has been 1.6, 1.4, 1.3 and 1.5. This year his DRPM (defensive real plus minus from ESPN) has been +0.5 (again, slightly above average), right in line with last season’s +0.5. If nothing else, he’s consistent.

His individual stats (and this is where this starts to get fuzzy) paint a slightly different picture. In Phoenix, opponents he guards shot about 4% better from three than they had on the season, while making their two pointers at about the same rate as they usually do (1% worse).

His steal rate is good, the best on the Suns of high minutes players, but not elite. His 2.5% steal rate in Phoenix would place him outside the top 50 this season.

Now, steals are not the be all and end all of defense, and the defensive FG% numbers can be very misleading. Who knows how many shots he prevented by playing good defense, for example? That said, according to 82games’ opponent production, Tucker’s average opponent in Phoenix posted a 15 PER (Player Efficiency Rating, a catch all stat that rewards volume scoring and raw box score production), which is right in line with the league average. Now, maybe he usually guards above average players, so that could be a good thing.

In any case, defensive numbers are always muddy, even more so on a bad team, so let’s skip ahead to how he’s looked for the Raptors so far.

In Toronto

Tucker’s box score stats have translated pretty well from Phoenix in his (short) time with the Raptors so far. His steal rate is up slightly at 2.7%. His DBPM is steady at 1.5.

Meanwhile, he’s looked a little better in a tiny sample in terms of defensive FG%. Opponents are shooting only 26% from three with him guarding them — a number I doubt is sustainable, but it’s a good sign if anything.

But most important, let’s look at how the team has done with him on the court.

In the past six games, since the break and the introduction of the new players, Tucker has the second best DRTG on the team after Patterson. With him on the court, the Raptors’ DRTG is 100.2, which would be the best defense in the league if a team were to own a DRTG that low.

And it’s not just that the team is doing better in general. With Tucker off the court, the DRTG leaps to 111.2, the worst of any player’s off-court rating.

And since the break, the Raptors have played four lineups more than 15 minutes. Three of those have Tucker in them (so he’s already being recognized as a key rotation option), and have net ratings of 19, 25 and 57. The 4th does not, and has a -4 net rating.

The Tucker trade looks like it is already paying off, and although defensive stats are noisy at the best of times, all signs point to him continuing to have a big positive effect on the team’s defense moving forward. With the team’s offence struggling at times without Lowry, that will be even more important than was thought at the time of the trade.

Stats per NBA.com, basketball-reference.com, ESPN.com and 82games.com.