‘He's in a unique position': Sixers forwards lean on consistency, sacrifice


Fourteen games in, 14 starts apiece for Sixers veterans P.J. Tucker and Tobias Harris.

On a 7-7 team that’s thus far been characterized by injury, illness, inconsistent performance and individual brilliance, those two have been relatively dependable. As usual, they’re aiming to provide steadiness and stability.

Tucker has appreciated that about Harris, a player he faced 28 times before signing with the Sixers this summer. 

He said in an Oct. 31 interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia that "on our team, (Harris) is in a unique position." 

“He’s not necessarily asked to do everything,” Tucker said. “His position (before) was you’ve got to be the main guy every night, the ball’s coming to you and you’ve got all the responsibility. We’ve got so many guys, he just gets to fall into the role of being able to do different stuff on different nights. And he’s pretty good at consistently being consistent.”

At 37 years old and on his sixth NBA team, Tucker has seen that unwavering effort isn’t always present around the league. 

“It’s not,” he said. “And you get guys like that — and his size, being able to shoot the ball, being able to handle, being able to guard different positions — he can do a lot for you.”

Tucker described Harris as being a “tough matchup for anybody” because he has “the trifecta” of shooting, post-up and ball handling abilities. But, instead of showing off every tool he’s got, the full-strength Sixers prefer for Harris to accept every open three-point chance and play an adaptable, lower-usage role around stars Joel Embiid and James Harden.

He’s taken a team-high 4.7 catch-and-shoot threes per game and made 39.4 percent of them. And Tucker has recognized the 30-year-old’s team-centric mindset. 

“I think he’s taken another effort, another step in that direction this year,” Tucker said. “We’ve got so much firepower and so many guys to where nobody really has to force anything. Opportunities are going to (come to) us. That’s what we’ll take.

“And at the end of the day, it’ll be a different guy every night. But it’s just all dependent on how people guard us. And he’s essential to our small-ball lineup — being able to switch with me, and kick guards out of the post and be able to switch on everybody.”

Small ball indeed remains an important option for the Sixers, especially given the continued unpredictability at backup center with head coach Doc Rivers toggling between Paul Reed and Montrezl Harrell. 

The Sixers have a minus-0.3 net rating across 211 possessions in lineups with Tucker at center, according to Cleaning the Glass. They’ve been excellent offensively (121.3 offensive rating) but struggled on the other end. This early in the season, factors like 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis' success in two games with Embiid sidelined by the flu are bound to have a large influence on the numbers.

Still, part of the appeal with a Tucker-Harris frontcourt is that neither player is lacking in physical strength or an easy target on post-ups. 

“Yeah, he’s big,” Tucker said of Harris with a laugh. “So when you’re his size, that helps. But he’s decent moving his feet and he’s strong enough to hold off big guys. That’s pretty much all you need, for the most part.” 

Of course, there’s more to effective post defense against taller players than having adequate muscle and agility. Tucker has long enjoyed that specific challenge and been quite good at it. 

“It’s a balance of angles and strength,” he said. “It’s not just being brute strong. It’s knowing the angles for the pass, knowing which way guys want to go, what side of the court you’re on, which shoulder they like to go over. 

“It’s different things, but not a lot of the guys really play out of the post like that to score anymore. It was more like that in the early 2000s, when I was getting into the league. Now it’s not as difficult. There’s only probably a handful of guys that really post.”

One of those guys is new teammate Embiid, who’s on track to lead the league in post-ups per game for a fourth consecutive season.

The Sixers rely on Embiid to do a ton — 59 points in a historically tremendous game Sunday is one extreme recent example  — but he’s not their lone leader. Tucker has seemingly been living up to his very vocal reputation; Rivers noted that he delivered a locker-room wake-up call immediately after the Sixers dropped to 0-3 with a loss to the Spurs. 

Defensive communication has been problematic at times for the Sixers. Along with incorporating new rotation players in Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr. and Harrell, they’ve tweaked a couple of principles.

As Rivers explained it last Wednesday, “If the ball’s on the side, it should never come to the middle. If the ball’s on the side and it doesn’t come to the middle, there always has to be a low guy. And our low guy has been absent a lot this year when he should be there. We keep working on it and we’re doing better at it.”

The Sixers also adopted a significantly more switch-heavy approach to start the season, although Embiid said Sunday he thought the team initially “went away from what worked in the past.” He’s liked being at the level of the screen lately on pick-and-rolls while the Sixers switch one through three or one through four. 

Everyone is responsible for precise attention to those details … but Tucker is inevitably going to be the loudest about it. 

“He is the pinnacle,” Matisse Thybulle said. “He is the source where that comes from. He pushes everyone to do it at a higher level.”

Harris’ leadership style is more low-key than Tucker’s. He’s been a mentor to several younger Sixers, however, including Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey. 

“He’s a pro’s pro,” Maxey said. “I learned a lot from him my rookie year. He kept me sane, because I wasn’t playing that much and that’s hard for anybody. He was somebody that I really leaned on in the locker room. Shout out to Mike Scott, as well — he was another person. 

“But he’s just solid. He’s just solid. He’s always in the right headspace. He always says he keeps his vibrations flowing, which he does. And we need that. We just appreciate him. He goes out there every single night and does what the coaching staff asks him to do, and he does it well.”

As for Tucker, he certainly doesn’t need to toot his own horn about role acceptance. On Embiid’s 59-point night, he played 30 minutes and attempted zero shots. He’s made 11 of 24 threes this season and every one of those attempts has been from the corners. From two-point range, he’s gone 16 for 23. 

Obviously, consistency and willingness to sacrifice will not win the Sixers games on their own.

Still, there’s plenty of evidence that the team's starting forwards possess those traits and have real respect for each other. 

“He’s a great vet for this team, for this group,” Harris said Sunday about Tucker. “He plays his tail off and plays super hard each and every night. Defensively, he’s everywhere for us. (He has the) ability to switch and guard guards, and to contain whoever’s coming at him. And really, his post defense is great, as well.

“So it’s been great to shoot up next to him. Obviously this group is new and we’re still trying to figure many things out, but it’s been an honor so far.”

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