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NBA free agency: Reserve center remains vital for Sixers, who know PJ Tucker well

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The Sixers know from experience that four years and $97 million guaranteed is too much to invest in the backup center job.

That’s true even if the player is as well credited as Al Horford.

For the vast majority of Joel Embiid’s career, the team has been unable to find satisfying answers behind him. Perhaps a 37-year-old who is seven inches shorter than Embiid will become an important part of the picture.

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ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and The Philadelphia Inquirer Keith Pompey reported Tuesday that the Sixers are interested in PJ Tucker, who will reportedly decline his $7.4 million player option with the Heat. Yahoo Sports Chris Haynes reported Wednesday that “Tucker is expected to have interest from several contending teams willing to offer” the full mid-tier exception (approximately $10.3 million) in free agency.

It’s fair to focus on the intangibles with Tucker, a player who gives up height in almost every matchup. Embiid praised his toughness, physicality and energy after Miami eliminated the Sixers from the playoffs, and no one in the NBA is going to dispute that opinion.

But on-court logistics would also matter if the Sixers added Tucker. The positive outlook goes hand in hand with a sentiment Morey expressed on the night of the 2020 NBA draft. Morey emphasized that he prefers flexibility at backup center.

“I think you like having the option to play behind Joel,” Morey said. “I think (head coach Doc Rivers) and his staff could be very creative with unique lineups that Ben (Simmons) shows up in and we build a system around him like I’ve done in the past and Doc in the past. There is a chance to play really unique, fast-paced, spaced-out shot lineups. But I also like to add a big solo so that Doc has all the tools to basically attack who we’re playing in different ways.

“I think the main thing is never to force anything. Actually, having a perceived opening of a grand often allows Doc to go to work and use his incredible recruiting skills, which I think is the best thing I’ve ever seen in the coaching position, to be considered by top players here. because they see a way. and an opportunity.”

Since that night, Morey has signed Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. It would be an exaggeration to say any of those players improved the Sixers’ option at center. Drummond was the closest, though the brief cameos from the “King Kong-Godzilla” lineup with Embiid and Drummond would obviously have been a shaky playoff proposition. Assistant coach Dave Joerger expressed optimism about Simmons playing five, but the 25-year-old was never Embiid’s regular backup.

Meanwhile, Tucker is a defender ready for any challenge who enjoys protecting the stars. During the past three postseasons, he has spent time with Anthony Davis, Steven Adams, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Jayson Tatum. That versatility in assignment elevates his team’s defense, as does the Texas product’s determination to contest every jump shot, nail every rotation off the ball and keep the opponent from having anything easy.

While the physical differences between him and Tucker are stark, Paul Reed is comparable in terms of being interchangeable and unforgiving. However, Reed is wilder (and far less experienced), which evidently gave Rivers reason to hesitate before giving the 23-year-old consistent playoff minutes.

In his exit interview, Reed was asked what he had been told he would have to do to earn a stable spot in next season’s rotation.

“There are mental things,” he said. “Know when to cut; know when to blink; know when to set up screens; know when to stay spaced, re-spaced. There are a lot of little details that go into what Doc wants. And that’s something I’ve been working on all season.”

Tucker is limited offensively, but he’s a zealous blocker, a capable short-throw passer and a willing corner 3-point shooter who made a career-best 41.5 percent of his attempts from long range last year.

Tucker also gives in to the stars, and Reed indicated the Sixers want him to focus more on that than adopting a “stretch five” mentality.

“(Outside shooting is) definitely a part of my game already, but that’s not what the team was asking of me,” Reed said. “We have guys that are 3-point shooters, and one thing that the coaches and my teammates emphasized to me was not to focus on shooting 3s; focus on rebounding and making guys like Georges Niang or Tyrese Maxey have more shots. So that’s something I was focusing on this season. However, if I get an open shot…I work hard enough on my shot and I’m confident, I’m going to take the shot. However, I’m not going to go out and force it.

“I understand that it’s common for big guys, guys that are tall, to fall in love with the 3-ball and always end up staying on the 3-point line and shooting too many 3-pointers. And I’m not trying to end like this. I had experience doing that before and that caused me not to win a championship when I was in the G (League) so I learned from that and I’m not trying to be one of those guys who’s just trying to live on the 3-point line. I like to hit the paint. And that’s what I plan to do.”

Like Reed, Charles Bassey was drafted late in the second round and impressed in the G League as a rookie.

As a more traditional edge protection hub, it’s also worth including in this discussion.

“Charles, I love that kid,” Rivers said at his season-ending news conference with Morey. “I don’t know if he’s ready yet. He would say that personnel wise he needs to get stronger, they push him around quite easily. Offensively, he’s raw, but not as raw as you think.

“I think about the guys, he has a chance to have a great summer. And in terms of development, we need it to do so. And we’re going to push it. I have to make it stronger. That’s the number one thing.”

The Sixers will play in the Utah and Las Vegas summer leagues next month. That should be a chance to see Bassey, who didn’t play in summer league last year because he hadn’t yet signed his contract with the Sixers.

By the time the games start in Las Vegas, it should be clear exactly how Morey now thinks the “optionality” behind Embiid should look like, as well as what price is appropriate. A reunion with Tucker could be part of his answer.

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