Nearly two months ago, 2021 NBA champion and forever Milwaukee legend P.J. Tucker was sent by the Sixers to the Clippers as part of the James Harden trade. Over the following four weeks, he appeared in twelve games, scored exactly fourteen points, saw his playing time dwindle to 6–8 minutes, and has not logged a minute of action since November 27th. Now that LA is rounding into form somewhat without him, the scuttle around the league has naturally been that Tucker may not be long for the team and that both parties are looking for a solution (i.e. facilitating a move elsewhere so he can play).
With memories still fresh enough from his contributions to the 2021 title run and Jae Crowder most likely still out for at least a couple more weeks, Bucks fans have been bantering about the possibility of a reunion. The team itself may also be considering it, according to Marc Stein, stating that they “still maintain a healthy level of admiration” for the now 38-year-old (39 in May) forward.
Whether or not that feeling is mutual is up for debate. Upon his free agency mere weeks after the championship parade, comments from Tucker suggested he may have preferred going elsewhere after finding the Bucks’ stated desire to match any offer he received to be disrespectful. Tucker then signed a two-year contract with a player option in Miami, and after nearly getting back to the NBA Finals with the Heat, declined the option to hit the open market again. He parlayed that into a three-year, $33m deal with Philly, also including a player option for the contract’s final season.
However, maybe he’ll bury whatever hatchet might have arisen to join a title contender that will play him. Recently he told ClutchPoints “I feel like I still got a lot to contribute to a team to be able to win, whether that’s here or somewhere else. I know myself, my worth. I know what I bring. I know what I’ve brought. I know what I can continue to bring. And with that, I want to be able to go to a good team that I can be able to help that.” For the time being, the Bucks might be able to give him such an opportunity—perhaps even after Crowder returns too.
Here’s the question: what would the Bucks be getting in today’s P.J. Tucker, who hasn’t played in nearly a month? The sneakily good offense he provided in 2021–22 (7.9 PPG on .484/.415/.738 shooting, albeit on just six shots a night) all but totally evaporated once he joined his old teammate Harden in Philly, averaging just 3.5 PPG in 25.6 MPG. Scoreless in eight of his twelve games as a Clipper, it’s not an exaggeration to say he’s currently a zero on that end, and could even be a net negative. For the last season or more, it seems like opposing defenses have stopped guarding him completely.
Of course, Tucker was never known for his offense, as Bucks fans are well aware. He did provide the Sixers with his typically stout and versatile defense while starting 75 games, including all their playoff matchups. His defensive reputation around the league is still good, which is why Stein also reports that another recent employer of Tucker’s has that “healthy level of admiration” for him: the Heat. Is Tucker the same guy that he was even in Philly seven months ago, though?
In any case, his remaining contract makes acquiring him by trade pretty undesirable. Tucker makes $11m this year and seems likely to opt into his $11.5m option for 2024–25. The only player Milwaukee has who they could swap one-for-one with LA is Bobby Portis due to the NBA’s salary-matching requirements. Pat Connaughton’s $9.4m salary does not meet the 110% threshold of outgoing money to permit acquiring Tucker since the Bucks are over the first apron above the luxury tax (in fact, they are over the second apron too), so they would need to add another small salary like Chris Livingston’s. Plus, Milwaukee is then likely stuck paying a 39-year-old next season.
So yes, trading for Tucker is not a good move from a cap management perspective. Other teams no doubt feel the same way, so if LA wants to trade him, it would probably have to be for another bad contract. If they want to use his salary as ballast in acquiring someone they like more, they’ll have to include some draft assets or younger, cheaper players. That means it’s possible they don’t find a taker between now and the February 8th trade deadline and buy him out, perhaps even before.
Again, the Bucks are above the first apron, and as such are restricted from signing any waived player whose salary pre-waiver is higher than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. The good news is that Tucker’s $11m clears that by about $1.4m, so Milwaukee would be able to sign him on a minimum contract for the remainder of the season. Their roster is currently full, however, so they’d need to create an opening via trade or by waiving a player. In the latter case, they’d likely eat that salary for the remainder of the year unless that player is claimed by another team, which rarely happens even for minimum players. This would put Milwaukee further over the second apron and the net cost of signing a rest-of-season deal would be more than four times higher than his actual salary with luxury tax penalties factored in.
As far as who the Bucks could waive if they had to go that route, the candidates seem to be Robin Lopez and Livingston. Lopez doesn’t seem to have much—if anything—left in the tank and has made just seven garbage time appearances. However, Milwaukee’s frontcourt depth is thin beyond their three regulars at the five: Brook Lopez, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Bobby Portis. Should any of them miss time, Robin is the only experienced option who can fill in, otherwise it’s two-way player Marques Bolden. Even if it’s not Robin, having another center-capable big man on the roster seems wise, and Tucker is not such a player (if he ever was).
The 20-year-old Livingston has played just one more minute (22) than Robin and it’s unclear if the last selection in the 2023 NBA Draft has any skills that will cut it in the association, or if he’s truly in the Bucks’ future plans. He’s gotten into five G League games with the Wisconsin Herd and averaged a ho-hum 12.2 points and 6.4 boards with .553/.333/.500 shooting in 24.6 MPG. Waiving him really wouldn’t hurt the Bucks at all on the court; his salary is guaranteed for next year, though. But since he makes the minimum, any team could take on his contract without sending any salary to the Bucks in a trade, so he could be flipped for cash or a heavily protected second-round pick. Moving Livingston might be the safer move, as things currently stand.
For now, though, we’ll continue to monitor Tucker in the weeks ahead. Despite what he says, he may not be able to contribute to another title run, but it would be great to see him back in hunter green and cream once more. Maybe not on his current contract, or—if he’s cooked—as a rotation player, though.