PJ Tucker and Adventures in Low Usage

1.  Adventures In Low Usage, PJ Tucker:  Despite the high powered offensive era in which the NBA currently operates, PJ Tucker stubbornly refuses to shoot.  Currently, Tucker has started all 31 games he has played and racked up 28.5 mpg, yet he is averaging only 3.1 shots per game, which yields a miniscule 6.5% usage rate.  His shot creation is absurdly low: 100% of his baskets so far have been assisted.  Tucker’s other advanced stats are pretty gross as well: 5.0 PER, .059 WS48, -3.5 BPM.

Of course, Tucker has never exactly been an offensive powerhouse, racking up a 7.2% usage in 2020-21 (he had 7.7% in 32 games as a starter for Houston and 5.8% in 20 games with Milwaukee as a reserve).  Miami was able to get more offense out of Tucker last season, 11.3 PER, 11.7% usage (his best offensive stats since he was with Phoenix back in 2014-15).  Miami appeared to take care to make sure Tucker was somewhat involved in the offense.  Philly has defaulted Tucker back to his role in Houston/Milwaukee of standing in the corner and occasionally taking wide open three-pointers.

Can Philly win games with such an offensive sieve playing so many minutes?   For sure.  The 76ers’ offensive universe is centered around great scorers Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris, so Tucker just has to be enough of a threat to maybe make an open three that his defender hesitates before doubling.  One would think that opponents are going to dare Tucker to shoot more but it hasn’t really happened yet (Tucker was 0-0 in 20 minutes against the Clipps last night).

 You do have to wonder whether Philly could find a decent defender without such extremely low offensive output.  At the moment, the 76ers have an average offense (15th) and the 2nd best defense in the NBA, so perhaps Tucker is more of an asset than his low stats indicate.  Certainly Tucker has usually been useful in the grind out playoff games, where offense becomes harder to come by.

2.  Adventures In Low Usage, Charles Jones:  How historically unique is Tucker’s lack of shooting?  Quite.  According to Basketball-Reference, only one player in the modern era has a lower usage with a minimum of 26 mpg over a full season, Charles Jones of the 1989-90 Bullets. CJ had a 5.6% usage.  Late stage Dennis Rodman with the Lakers and Mavs also had low usages too (6.4 and 6.5%) but he wore out his welcomes quickly and did not play more than 657 minutes.

Jones was an undersized hustling center who forged a 15-year career basically leaning on centers.  In 1989-90, the Bullets had let had no legitimate starting center candidate.  They turned to Jones, who was a 32-year old reserve, to play major minutes.  Jones gamely played 27.7 mpg for 81 games and put up a whopping 3.2 ppg on 2.3 FGA/pg.  He did rack up 6.2 rpg and 2.4 bpg.  His advanced stats were not as bad as they could’ve been: 9.2 PER, .082 WS48, -0.5 BPM.  He took a season high 7 shots on one occasion.  He had nine games with no shot attempt (including from the line), and did not score in 23 games.  The 1991 Pro Basketball Handbook described him as “offensively bankrupt” but lauded his hustle and defense. 

Jones’ stilted skill-set didn’t seem to help as much as Tucker’s has for the current 76ers.  Despite giving CJ heavy minutes for defensive purposes, the Bullets were only 20th in the NBA in defense and were average on offense (16th).  The bad defense wasn’t Jones’ fault but he wasn’t a game changer who could cover for the more defensively challenged players.  For some more context, Washington went 31-51 on a team centered around a 33-year old Bernard King and a 28-year old Jeff Malone, who each had 29.4% usage (tied for fifth highest in the NBA that season):

King: 18.8 PER, .545 TS%, .099 WS48, 2.3 OBPM, -1.9 DBPM

J. Malone: 18.5 PER, .529 TS%, .098 WS48, 2.2 OBPM, -2.2 DBPM

As amazing as King’s comeback was from knee injuries, they were nowhere near as good offensively as current versions of Embiid or old Harden and the Bullets were just not good enough on offense to compensate for CJ’s lack of offense.   In other words, the Bullets/Wizards were futzing around with decent vets and had no direction as a franchise (this seems vaguely familiar to Washington fans).

3.  Low Usage Miscellany:  A few more random thoughts on low usage players…

-Since game logs have been kept, only five  times has a player logged 42 or more minutes in a game and did not take a shot:

Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia, 11/4/67): 44 mp, 1 pt, 18 rebs, 13 asts (won 117-110)

Wilt Chamberlain (Los Angeles, 3/27/73): 46 mpg, 0 pts, 14 rebs, 4 asts (lost 85-84)

Michael Smith (Sacramento, 1/14/97): 43 mp, 4 pts, 9 rebs (won 105-98 in OT)

Ben Wallace (Chicago, 3/31/07): 48 mp, 2 pts, 12 rebs, 2 blks (lost 112-108 in OT)

Joel Anthony (Miami, 1/18/11): 43 mp, 0 pts, 16 rebs, 3 bks (lost 93-89 in OT)

In case you are wondering, Philly was not thrilled with Wilt’s extreme non-shooting.  According to Wayne Lynch in “Season of the Sixers,” coach Alex Hannum told the press: “You’ll have to ask Wilt, [a]ll I can say is this was not my instructions.  Wilt’s version: “[t]he important thing is still to win, isn’t it?  And we did win, didn’t we?  I didn’t plan on having no shots.  You call it zero percent, I call it one hundred percent.”  Wilt seemed like a pleasure to deal with for coaches.

-Can a team win with a comically low usage player?  Well, Philly is winning now and the Lakers were pretty good with Rodman in 1998-99.  Other notable low usage, but useful, players were TR Dunn and Mark Eaton, who had roles as defense-only guys.  They worked as cogs because they played with Hall of Fame-level offensive teammates.  Eaton and Dunn also played in a more specialized time, where most players weren’t expected to shoot threes or handle the ball as much as they are today.

-If we look at low usage players since 2009-10, there are only a nine season  that are under 10%.  In addition to Tucker (who has done it four times), the group is exclusively small forwards who are corner three guys.  The lowest non-Tucker year came from Andre Roberson in 2017-18 (8.6%) for a very good Oklahoma City team that was top ten in both offense and defense.  Russell Westbrook (34.1%) and Paul George (25.7%) dominated possessions while Roberson, who was always a very poor shooter, was injured halfway through the season (which seems to have effectively ended his career).  When he did play in 2017-18, Roberson put up 5.0 ppg on 4.2 FGA/pg.  Unlike the other players on the modern list, he was not a three point threat and was exclusively a defensive player.  For what it’s worth, OKC was 24-15 in games Roberson played and 24-19 without him.

-Royce O’Neale also clocked in at 9% usage the last three years for Utah for really good offenses.  He is at 13.3% for Brooklyn this year and has looked aggressive offensively at moments, suggesting that the O’Neale’s lack of shots was more by design, as they were loaded with other scorers.

-Reggie Bullock has also dipped below 10% this year.  He is a career 14% usage player and had 13.3% playing last season with the ball dominant Luka Doncic.  This season, Bullock has played the exact same 28 mpg but the drop in usage seems to be due to the fact that he can’t make a shot (.487 TS% versus .558% last season).  Bullock’s shot chart shows he is basically only taking three pointers now (83.4% of his shots versus 65.0% career and 78.2% last season) and he is shooting them poorly (31%).  Perhaps incidentally, Luka’s usage has hit a career high 38.1% this season (which would be 7th highest usage since the stat has been kept).