Late last night, The Vertical's Shams Charania reported some news that will alter the Raptors' off-season game plan.
P.J. Tucker, the deadline pickup who reached Toronto fan-favourite immortality in record time, is going to the Houston Rockets on a 4-year/$32 million deal.
Toronto clearly wanted to keep him. ESPN's Brian Windhorst revealed that the Raptors' final offer to Tucker was for $33 million over three seasons. A significantly higher annual cap hit, and more money overall; there wasn't anything more the Raptors realistically could have done. Bumping the offer up to 4-years/$44 million might have been a tad excessive. Tucker is already 32.
Windhorst mentioned that Chris Paul's influence played a big role in convincing Tucker to join up with that terrifying Rockets squad.
The fit in Houston is nice. It was as a small-ball four that Tucker put in some of his most swoon-worthy work in Toronto. Playing as a complete antithesis to Ryan Anderson's defense-light game, Tucker should shine in a similar fashion to how he did with the Raptors. Although it remains to be seen how Daryl Morey, he of the "threes and layups" sensibility, will react to Tucker's penchant for accidentally turning threes into long twos. If Morey starts greying this year, you know why. Regardless, it'll be a treat to watch Tucker on a team with designs on winning a title next season. It feels like a foregone conclusion that he’s going to have some sort of moment against the Warriors in a playoff series in May.
Tucker is the type of player who can switch onto a point guard and shut him down, grab a grimy defensive rebound through traffic, and then shut down an opponent's best wing scorer all within the span of a three possessions. He put that skill set to quick use with Toronto. When he was acquired, the talk was that he'd be a third or fourth wing, comfortably behind Norman Powell in the rotation. If the match-up didn't call for it, maybe he wouldn't even play some nights. One game into his second run with the Raptors that notion was dispelled. His debut against Boston, in which he scored 9 points while grabbing 10 rebounds and exactly one Isaiah Thomas soul, will go down as one of the most memorable individual efforts by any Raptor in 2016-17.
Tucker became a crunch-time horse at both forward spots after that initial outing, supplanting plus/minus savant Patrick Patterson in the closing moments of most close games. His almost psychotic love of defense spread to the rest of the Lowry-less, post All-Star Raptors. DeMar DeRozan even amped up his intensity under fear of Tucker's scorn.
Without Tucker next season, the Raptors will have to rediscover a defensive identity. Keeping Serge Ibaka might help, but barring a cheap pickup of someone like Tony Allen (who would exacerbate Toronto's shooting issues), the Raptors won't have an ornery, feared defender to rally around.
As far as hybrid forward replacements go, the market isn't overflowing, but some options exist. Omri Casspi and C.J. Miles are both good and still available, but the cap gymnastics Toronto will have to perform will hinge on what kind of figures Kyle Lowry and Ibaka end up with should they return. The non-taxpayer mid-level exception of about $8.4 million could be on the table, but the threat of the Raptors hard-capping themselves looms. Jonas Jerebko is out there. He is blah.
So we circle back to an old friend, Patrick Patterson. He's a four-five, not a combo forward, so he wouldn't paper over all the holes Tucker leaves with his departure. But he's a known commodity in these parts. His overall team defense and ability to hang with some of the league's best wings on switches are a pair of desirable tools. He was also the only Raptors big man capable of doing a damned thing with the ball in his hands last season. Patterson's drives -- once dependably cringe-worthy -- became a source of some secondary creation this season. His dunk against Milwaukee in Game 6 was a culmination of the work he’s done to improve his off-the-dribble game.
People seem nonplussed by the prospect of retaining Patterson. He might be the league's most infuriating 37 percent three point shooter. But the Raptors have his Bird rights, making it the easiest financial fit out of any potential Tucker pseudo-replacements. For the last few seasons, the team has almost always been in line for a run when he steps on the court.
Patterson's playoff struggles and no-show on locker clean-out day may have expedited the process of grieving his exit. He certainly doesn't inspire the masses the way the outgoing Tucker, probably the franchise record holder in jerseys purchases per games played, did. But sometimes you have to set aside the desire to be wowed in favour of convenience. If Tucker's move to Houston clears the way for a reunion with Patterson, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing.