NEW YORK — P.J. Tucker doesn't drop 40-footers or embarrass defenders with crossovers. If a highlight of his goes viral, it will not be a traditional one. With his brick-wall build and ballet-dancer footwork, Tucker is the guy who prevents superstars from doing the spectacular.
At shoot-around before Monday's preseason game, the new Houston Rockets forward was most animated when discussing the joys of lock-down defense. Along with fellow stopper Luc Mbah a Moute, Tucker plans to turn Houston into a defensive juggernaut. Their presence has been felt already — even in practices and scrimmages.
"It just gets nasty," Tucker said. "We just start switching everything and they can't run offense. We just kind of beat people out of offense. I can't wait to put that to use in regular games."
Chris Paul, himself an excellent defender, was happy to be a recruiter for his new team. When Rockets general manager Daryl Morey asked him to call Tucker in early July, the future Hall of Famer didn't hesitate. He and Tucker, both 32, have known each other since they battled in AAU as 11-year-olds, and he delivered the same message James Harden had when running into Tucker in Atlanta: The Rockets needed Tucker.
After Tucker signed his four-year, $32 million deal, Morey called in another favor. Paul was on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, when he picked up the phone to call Mbah a Moute. Paul told his former Los Angeles Clippers teammate that he'd like it in Houston, and Mbah a Moute recognized that this 55-win team could use his specific skill set. He signed a one-year deal for the veteran's minimum.
As stunning as it was to see Paul shift the West's balance of power in a trade before free agency, it is as much of a marvel that he found himself pitching these two vets on the idea of being the missing pieces to a championship contender.
The 32-year-old Tucker made his playoff debut just last season for the Toronto Raptors after four-and-a-half years doing dirty work for the Phoenix Suns. Drafted No. 35 by Toronto in 2006, his first stint in the NBA lasted only one season. He spent five years globetrotting from Israel to Germany, Puerto Rico, Italy, Ukraine and Greece before Phoenix gave him a chance to find his niche.
For Mbah a Moute, the Rockets are a sixth team in the past six seasons. The 2008 draft's No. 37 pick bounced around as a defensive-minded role player before the Clippers came to count on him as their starting small forward.
Neither player can be called a marquee signing. In the summer,Tucker as the 30th-best player on the market; Mbah a Moute was No. 47. Together, though, they have changed Houston's identity, and the hope is that this will matter when Paul and Harden are trying to take down the NBA's Goliath.
"Golden State set the bar really high," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It's been great for basketball. It is good for basketball. And now, you just gotta catch them somehow. It's not easy."
The Warriors are flirting with basketball perfection. Their challengers need to be world-class on both ends just to have a chance. Last season, Houston had one of the top 10 offenses in league history, but it was mediocre when it came to stopping the ball from going in the basket. Despite , the Rockets finished 18th in defensive rating.
Morey has acknowledged that the Tucker and Mbah a Moute signings were made with Golden State in mind. Tucker understands this and knows that even though the regular season hasn't even started, there is already much discussion about how the teams will match up.
"Everybody talks about the whole league and playing every night and it's true, but when you look at it, you gotta get through Golden State to get to where we want to get to," Tucker said. "It's inevitable."
To understand why Tucker and Mbah a Moute are so important to the Rockets, you must first grasp how thoroughly Golden State — and, more specifically, a No. 35 pick who turned into an All-Star, gold medalist and Defensive Player of the Year — has shaken up every executive's priorities. Conventional power forwards are increasingly outmoded, and big wings who can make 3s and guard multiple positions are essential.
"Draymond [Green] literally himself changed the game of basketball," Mbah a Moute said. "Golden State being the team to beat for the last three or four years, his ability to play at the 5 and switch onto point guards and them being so successful at it, it changed the game. 'Cause now you gotta match up with them. And to match up with them, you need guys who can also guard from a 3 to a 5 to a 1 -- guys similar to Draymond."
The Warriors don't just make defenses account for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant at the same time. They make them deal with endless screens, ball movement and player movement. There aren't many ways to combat this, but switching helps.
In a way, Mbah a Moute came before his time. Six years ago, ESPN's TrueHoop enlisted him to write scouting reports on the superstars he defended, from Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose to Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. Guarding completely different types of players is "nothing new to me," he said, though sharing the court with a defender as dogged and trustworthy as Tucker is novel.
"He's got your back," Mbah a Moute said. "You can switch all the matchups and you know he's going to be relentless."
Rockets forward Trevor Ariza said a weight has been lifted off his shoulders now that he doesn't always have to guard the other team's best perimeter player, adding that Tucker and Mbah a Moute's "intensity on defense is unbelievable." D'Antoni raved about the team's newfound depth and will be able to experiment with all sorts of different lineups. Tucker appreciates the fact that he was wanted.
"It means everything," Tucker said. "When I first came into this league, there weren't many guys like me in the league that can do that. It wasn't valued as it is now. People didn't see the positive in that, in guys being able to guard multiple positions on defense. It's amazing now to get an opportunity, especially with me being out on the league, being on minimum deals -- being able to do that now is unbelievable for me. It's a great feeling. It gives me that energy every night to go out and play harder."
Last week against the Oklahoma City Thunder, D'Antoni put 6-foot-5 Tucker at center and asked him to guard 7-foot Steven Adams. "I loved it," Tucker said, pointing out that Adams was "in a bit of a pickle" trying to stay with him when Houston had the ball. The Rockets don't have to do this all the time because their centers — Clint Capela and Nene — are quick on their feet themselves, but merely having this flexibility represents a radical change for the Rockets.
For Houston to be the team it wants to be, Mbah a Moute said the players will have to get on the same page. Essentially, they have to buy into Bzdelik's defensive system the same way they bought into D'Antoni's offensive system. If everything goes to plan, Tucker sees Houston being a top-three team on defense, keeping the ball out of the paint and routinely ruining pretty offensive sets. Collectively, the Rockets have to fall in love with that feeling they've only had in practices and scrimmages, the one that comes with taking all of their opponents' options away.
"There's nothing like it," Tucker said. "When you take a team totally out of their offense and make 'em switch up what they normally do to do something else, that's what it's all about. I think the guys on this team relish that."