CHARLESTON, S.C. — Joel Embiid slung a towel over his shoulder and ditched his sneakers somewhere on the McAlister Field House court as he walked toward an ice tub. He stripped his socks, sunk his size-17 feet into the frosty water and started shooting the breeze with P.J. Tucker.
Just about 5 1/2 months ago, they were adversaries — Tucker, the relentless trash-talker and defender who helped the Miami Heat knock out the Sixers in the playoffs; Embiid, the NBA scoring champion who openly stumped for Philadelphia to land a player like Tucker barely 30 minutes after the season ended in Game 6.
What the Big Man wants, the Big Man gets: three years and $32 million later, the 37-year-old Tucker was a Sixer.
The first impression at training camp for 76ers coach Doc Rivers of his newest asset was that the team signed a defensive difference-maker.
“You can see certain guys like P.J. stand out, especially defensively,” Rivers said Tuesday on The Citadel’s campus. “When he’s on the floor, when he’s off the floor, it is night and day. That’s what we’re challenging guys, because P.J.’s not playing 48 minutes. And it’s not just his defense. It’s his talking and it’s his knowledge. He went through the Riley system, I went through the Riley system. So for him, defensively, it’s very easy to pick up everything. But we need more of that from more people.”
The Riley system, of course, is a nod to Pat Riley, now the Miami Heat president who helped land Tucker in 2021 and also the former New York Knicks coach who swung a trade for Rivers in 1992 to run their offense.
Tucker opted out of his contract in the summer and found a familiar face waiting for him in Philly: his old Houston Rockets teammate James Harden. Turned out, Tucker and Harden had long ago hatched the idea of making their way to the Sixers. Harden asked for a trade out of Brooklyn last year and was dealt to the Sixers at the trade deadline.
“Honestly, me and James were trying to come here the year before,” Tucker said. “So, I kind of already knew the vibe and the rhythm of the team. It just made sense.”
It made sense for the Sixers, too. President Daryl Morey, another transplant from Houston, made the Tucker signing the centerpiece of his offseason that also included bringing in Montrezl Harrell, Danuel House Jr. and De’Anthony Melton. The eye-raising part, though, was the Sixers’ commitment to Tucker — three years to a 37-year-old who has already played for five teams.
Tucker could have borrowed some of Embiid’s ice at The Citadel; he underwent a 10-minute arthroscopic procedure on his left knee a few weeks before camp. The 76ers aren’t concerned with the heavy miles on Tucker, who helped Milwaukee win a ring in 2021.
“We’re focused on winning and I think anyone who’s counted out P.J. in the past has been wrong,” Morey said. “He’s been contributing at a high level for quite a long time. We wanted to make sure we got him here.”
The idea to get Tucker could have stemmed from his play in the Heat’s six-game Eastern Conference semifinal win in May, when he was the main agitator against a Sixers team with little fight. Tucker couldn’t walk off the court without thumping his chest into Tobias Harris or Matisse Thybulle. He jawed at Thybulle and Georges Niang as Game 6 slipped away from the Sixers. Embiid had to play peacemaker and usher his teammates away from further confrontation. Tucker did his part offensively and crushed the Sixers with corner assists and easy tip-ins in the paint.
Once the Sixers were finished, Harris was among a slew of veterans who called out the team’s missing toughness as an ingredient holding them back from a championship. Embiid went a step farther and singled out Tucker for his ruthlessness.
“You look at someone like P.J. Tucker. Great player, but it’s not about him knocking down shots. It’s about what he does, whether it’s on the defensive end or rebounding the ball,” Embiid said in May. “I’d be lying if I said that we’ve had those types of guys. Nothing against what we have, it’s just the truth. We never had P.J. Tucker. That’s really what I’m trying to say.”
Reminded this week of his scouting report, Embiid cracked, “Did I say that?”
“Obviously, playing against P.J., I thought if you don’t want to mention Jimmy (Butler), I thought P.J. was one of the X-factors that really had a big impact for them against us,” Embiid said.
The Sixers lost yet again in the second round — they haven’t reached the Eastern Conference finals or NBA Finals since 2001 — and maybe a chirpy, chippy Tucker can make them championship contenders.
On Day 1, Rivers had no complaints.
“It starts more with team defense than it does with individual offense,” Rivers said Tuesday. “That’s where a P.J. Tucker, who’s a great talker, he immediately helps your team defense. He was so loud at one point, that on both ends you could hear him down the other end but you couldn’t hear the guys on the end I was standing. To me, that can’t happen. So that’s where we have to get better.”