Reggie Jackson's short stint with the Pistons had an inauspicious start. The team began 1-10 in Jackson's first 11 games and the Internet promptly lost its marbles. I preferred tempered optimism, citing Brandon Jennings' and DJ Augustin's turbulent beginnings under Stan Van Gundy, overall personnel concerns, and Jackson's notoriously poor previous coaching situation as reasons to extinguish the fires exploding from everyone's ears. The one notable cause for concern was Jackson's perimeter shooting paired with Detroit's deployment of Monroe and Drummond:
It should be noted, however, that Jackson's lack of shooting and SVG's allegiance to him may spell the end of Monroe in Detroit... Jackson's a point guard with limited range, and given the effect that a non-shooting lineup has had on this team and on Jackson himself, replacing Monroe with a stretch threat might be essential. (Jackson's numbers are almost universally better with only one of the two bigs on the floor than with both according to NBAwowy.com. His numbers are better with Monroe than with Drummond, for what it's worth.) Monroe's future notwithstanding, putting Jackson on the floor with two conventional bigs may not be the best move.A week later, Monroe strained his knee and we've been given a petri dish of Life Without Monroe from the lab of Small Sample Size Science & Partners. All of the following should be taken with a grain of salt; correlation is not causation. With that in mind, the very real trends that the Pistons have displayed since the loss of Monroe are not encouraging for his future with the team or, perhaps more accurately, the franchise's success if he remains with the Pistons.
Jackson's first 11 games with Detroit put on display many of his negative tendencies. He took irresponsible shots, was unable to get to the rim and draw fouls, missed far too open looks, and struggled to make his teammates better. To wit, Jackson's first 11 games:
Those numbers do not inspire confidence. SVG requires that his point guards be ball dominant. To have a ball handler produce these numbers will destroy the offense and submarine the team's chance to win.
Jackson has been on a tear since those first 11 games, producing some of the best numbers of his career. This began happening the moment that Monroe was removed from the lineup, and SVG began playing more lineups featuring a stretch power forward. It should be noted that both Jennings and Augustin before him struggled to adapt to SVG's offense early in their tenure with the team. The following numbers may reflect Jackson's similar rise because of an offensive understanding, not because Monroe was suddenly absent from the lineup. However, that these events coincide should not be disregarded entirely. Whatever the true explanation for the improvement, Jackson's production through the last five games is impressive:
Some of these are to be expected. That his steals per game remains unchanged is a good indicator that he may not be playing above his head across the board, and that something more systemic has caused this shift. Additionally, the increase in rebounding feels obvious. Monroe is an excellent rebounder, and his absence--especially when being replaced by Tayshaun Prince and Anthony Tolliver--creates many more rebounding opportunities for the team. Jackson's length for his position would allow him to capitalize on many of those chances. The rest are eye opening.
Most notably are the free throw attempts, which skyrocket from 2.0 per game to 4.4. Jackson's inability to stretch the floor clogged the paint for drives and made drawing fouls difficult. With Monroe's minutes replaced by players who attack from beyond 10 feet, Jackson has had less difficulty getting into the lane and catching helping defenders off guard. In his first 11 games with the team, Jackson took 22 free throws. He matched that total in the ensuing 5 games. This improvement appears more significant than learning the offensive system. Looking at Jennings' and Augustin's production from their first 11 games and after, both saw their FTAs drop slightly on a per-game basis. Learning SVG's system doesn't necessarily produce more free throw attempts for point guards. If it did, we would expect that the prior two players would see similar increases. Jackson's improvement implies that Monroe's absence is a major factor.
(A caveat: Jennings and Augustin are both undersized and notoriously bad around the rim. If SVG's offense does create more driving lanes and FTAs for point guards, those two would be poor control cases for the theory. They are the most up-to-date examples we have to benchmark Jackson against, though.)
The shooting percentage increases likely have the same genesis. Without Monroe's defender available to help in the lane, Jackson has increased his shooting percentage to a number more representative of his production in Oklahoma City. His outside shooting, while significantly better than his career performance, is indicative of what SVG's system can do for shooting guards. Jennings shot far better from outside than he had for most of his career, and Augustin's time as a starter saw him shoot nearly a career best. This scheme affords quality looks for point guards.
Where are the shots going?
Another shift since Monroe's absence has been the distribution of shots for the team and who Jackson is giving assists to. On the season, the Pistons were averaging 25.1 3FGA per game, good for 10th in the league in attempts. Over the last five games, the Pistons have been averaging 28.0 3FGA, which if they averaged this for the entire season, would make them second only to Houston. Some of this is to be expected: Monroe doesn't take three pointers and replacing him with Tolliver and Prince will naturally generate more outside looks. But given that SVG's system is designed to generate these outside shots, any structural change that does so is probably a good one.
Jackson's presence in this stat is important. Prior to the Monroe injury, the Pistons attempted only 6.8 3FGA per game from Jackson passes. Following the injury, the team has attempted 11.0 3FGA per game from Jackson passes. Most of those looks are coming from Tolliver, but KCP takes 0.5 more 3FGA per game from Jackson passes, while Jodie Meeks and Caron Butler also saw increases in attempts (the latter because of more playing time).
Jennings' assist distribution over this time span is also telling. He averaged only 1.7 assists to KCP per game with Monroe, and 3.6 APG to Kentavious without Monroe. Drummond, meanwhile, sees only a 0.5 APG increase since the Monroe injury. Jackson has nearly doubled his assists per game since the Monroe injury, but his assists to Drummond have remained nearly stagnant, illustrating his preference for driving and kicking to perimeter players.
As aforementioned, take this with a grain of salt. Five games do not supply proof that these increases are anything more than statistical variance. But in Monroe's first game out, Jackson had 23-20, only the second such game in the NBA this season (the other was produced by Brandon Jennings). Strength of schedule concerns can be tossed aside, though. The Pistons played Memphis, Chicago, and Toronto in this span, in addition to Boston and Philadelphia.
What this means for Monroe is just as unclear. Monroe is a valuable player in the league, but his ability to co-exist with Jackson could determine whether or not the Pistons try to bring him back in the offseason. Van Gundy has to make nice for the cameras and say how important Monroe is, but given how Jackson performs without him and the looming presence of Draymond Green on the free agent market, you have to assume that the Monroe will be a fall-back option. SVG has stocked the Pistons with stretch power forwards: Tolliver, Shawn Williams, even Tayshaun and Cartier Martin have been playing minutes at the power forward lately. Drummond is critical to the Pistons' nucleus, and Jackson appears to be a priority for the team. Monroe is the odd man out. Unless he wants to play a backup role to Drummond and be a change of pace against teams like Memphis, Monroe doesn't make sense from a personnel standpoint. When he signed the qualify offer, he ceased being an asset for the Pistons. Though it seemed that he may be willing to return, the team's performance without him indicates he may not be worth the it.