Many have called the release of Josh Smith financially irresponsible, or just plain dumb, but there is no question the Detroit Pistons have responded to the move on the court. The Pistons are 16-10 since the Dec. 23rd release of one of basketball’s greatest albatross contracts; in paying Smith to leave town, Detroit put its money where its mouth is by placing winning above the bottom line. (Although, if we’re being honest, they also put its money in Smith’s wallet, but hey, let’s not get too caught up in the particulars.)
Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe have taken over the reigns of this team, opening the door for some nifty two-man interior play. Monroe has Gasolian vision for a man of his size, a skill he has had since his Georgetown/Big East basketball days. Watching Monroe fling the ball around the floor as the defense tries to keep up with Drummond, an athletic dynamo, and the collection of shooters Stan Van Gundy has stationed around the arc is a treat.
Brandon Jennings came alive at point guard in the early beginnings of the post-Smith era. The team was 9-4 with an offensive rating of 109.0 and defensive rating of 98.9 — an elite 10.1 NetRtg — with Jennings leading the team. Detroit was taking care of the basketball, owners of an outstanding 3.48 assist/turnover ratio, or roughly twice the rate of the Golden State Warriors on the season.
Jennings wasn’t perfect, but he has a rare combination of pizzazz and control with the basketball. He can get himself in trouble when he forces bad shots, but he is a true point guard in the terms of protecting the rock and creating good offense. When Jennings and Smith shared the floor together the angels cried, scoring just 98.2 points per 100 possessions; both players wanted to have the ball all the time, and they seemed to dare each other into worse and worse shots. That number jumps up to 104 points per 100 possessions when Jennings shared time with Monroe, a figure that speaks to how tremendous Monroe’s pick-and-roll game has been as Detroit’s main attraction.
But Detroit has run into a bit of trouble, losing 7 of their last 11 games heading into the All-Star break after Jennings was lost for the season on Jan. 24th. When Jennings went down against Milwaukee in the third quarter of a double-digit loss, it was remarkably disappointing — for Brandon, for Detroit, for everyone. Suddenly Detroit was without a starting point guard, which, if you haven’t noticed, has become a pretty damn important part of the modern NBA.
Behind Jennings was D.J. Augustin, at this point the poster child for “Interchangeable Point Guard.” I don’t mean that as an insult, but Augustin came to Detroit by way of free agency after playing in Chicago and Toronto last season, Indiana in 2013, and four largely uneven years in Charlotte. Augustin blew the league away last season as the first guard off the bench in Chicago, tossing five assists and knocking down a couple 3s a night in 30 minutes per game. But here’s the thing: Augustin has proven unequivocally he isn’t starter in this league — not when that responsibility means guarding John Wall, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul each night. That isn’t the same thing as not being a good piece or a worthy NBA player, but you’re not winning basketball games with Augustin as a starter.
Detroit knows this, and I imagine they began spinning the wheels on the eventual Reggie Jackson trade immediately. But these deals take time, and unfortunately for Detroit, it meant going into the All-Star break on a losing skid.
The damage was mostly done on the defensive end, where Augustin is simply too small to handle the daily grind of guarding top-end NBA lead guards. That 98.9 DefRtg in the first 14 games without Josh Smith? Gone. With Augustin as its starting point guard, Detroit surrendered (gulp) 111.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That’s bad. The Timberwolves recently dropped 112 points on the Pistons at home. The Pacers — THE PACERS — scored 114 points against Detroit Basketball; George Hill scored a season-high 20 points on 8 for 12 shooting, his highest field goal total on the year.
Offensively, Augustin is fine. He’s a plus 3-point shooter, both on the season and for his career. But he isn’t a great shot-maker. When he’s wide open, boom, he’s serviceable. But Augustin was just 21 for 73 (28.8 percent) on jump shots over the past 11 games, including a ghastly 5 for 33 on 2-point jumpers, per NBA.com. Defenses want to collapse onto Monroe and Drummond whenever possible, and Augustin, unlike Jennings, gave them a reason to do so. Again, Jennings isn’t Isiah Thomas, but he demands attention, and creates opportunities for his teammates.
Any Reggie Jackson supporter, including Jackson himself, is going to point to April 26, 2014 — when Jackson’s 32 points and nine rebounds kept Oklahoma City alive in its death match against Memphis — as evidence that he can be a significant player in this league. Jackson, who is in his fourth season, sees what James Harden did in his fourth season, away from the Thunder, scoring 25.9 points per game as “the man” on his own team, and cannot help but see his own destiny.
The Harden comparison is, probably, an illusion. Jackson sort of inherited Harden’s role on the team, but then again they are not at all the same player. I won’t waste anyone’s time spelling out why Harden is a dynamic, devastating offensive power plant — and much more so than Jackson.
As Jackson’s season has broken down — from outspoken disappointment that he wasn’t named a starter to public tears of joy he was dealt to a team like Detroit — the narrative surrounding Jackson has been one of doubt; that Jackson is delusional, that he isn’t as good as he thinks he is.
I’ll make the blanket statement that nobody, not even OKC, realized that Harden was THIS good before dealing him for a collection of young men who wear jerseys and sometimes catch and shoot basketballs professionally. I’ll also go way, way, WAY out on a limb and say that Reggie Jackson is never going to lead the league in scoring, like Harden is this season. So what’s going to happen? What kind of player will Jackson be with the keys to the car?
Something worth noting is that for the general lackluster performance of the Thunder this season, who have been outside the playoff picture all season, Jackson’s counting stats are identical to last year: (roughly) 28 min, 13 ppg, 4.0 rebounds and assists and 43 percent shooting. Jackson’s 3P% is down (34 to 28 percent), but his assist/turnover ratio is a solid 2.35 since Jan. 1. Over the last 20 games, OKC was outscoring opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions when Jackson was on the floor, per NBA.com.
It is safe to say that Jackson is a more able defensive player than Augustin, and probably Jennings too, if only because Jackson has been a part of one of the NBA’s top defenses his entire career. But what should we expect offensively? Jackson is not a good shooter, but last season he was respectable, and this year things have fallen off a cliff. He’s shooting just 32.8 percent on all jumpers since Jan. 1st and 25.4 percent on 3s, per NBA.com.
What Jackson does well is get to the basket. He’s been above average in 2015 at finishing at the rim, converting 63.4 percent in the restricted area over his final 20 games in Oklahoma City. Like Jennings, Jackson is an aggressive point guard who looks for his own shot semi-regularly. His effectiveness hinges on his creativity. With the Thunder, their offense is, umm, not very creative, and when coupled with the bitterness that developed between Jackson and the organization, he became almost unplayable down the stretch.
With lifted spirits, there really is no telling how good (or great, or bad, or average, etc.) Jackson will be under center for Detroit. Van Gundy dealt Augustin and Kyle Singler to the Thunder in the deal, and Singler had become an overlooked piece to the post-Smith success of the team. I’m not sure who will start at small forward now — ESPN suggests Tayshaun Prince, but some combination of Caron Butler and Anthony Tolliver will likely get a ton of burn on the wing as well — but because Jackson is a limited shooter, surrounding him, Monroe, and Drummond with two capable shooters at all times is mandatory. I’m not convinced Prince and Jackson will play that much together.
But I’m excited for Jackson/Monroe pick-and-rolls, Jackson to Drummond lobs, and seeing Jackson in the driver’s seat to determine his own success. How can you not root for him? I don’t think Jackson will be the league’s best point guard or anything, but I also think he is a much better player than Augustin; he’s too talented — and accomplished — to be just another interchangeable guard. This summer, Jackson hits free agency, and if he hits it big as the starter in Detroit, it will mean a payday for Jackson. And if Detroit proved anything with the Smith release, they will be willing to pay Jackson if he earns it, as the Pistons are banking on him leading them back to the post-season.