Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reggie Jackson caused the Cuban Missile Crisis

Reggie Jackson is not playing good basketball. Full stop. Since coming to the Pistons, Jackson has struggled to find his rhythm, shooting the Pistons out of games and lacking the offensive understanding that DJ Augustin and Brandon Jennings used to lead the Pistons into playoff contention. Some of this was expected. Jackson comes from a notoriously poor coaching situation into one that is heavily guided and requires a high-level understanding of the scheme. Some of it, like the shooting, is troubling. But trying to extrapolate anything more than "Reggie Jackson is not playing good basketball" from his first eight games with the Pistons is on some Stephen A. Smith #hottake shit.

With Stan Van Gundy all but admitting that the trade-deadline moves made the Pistons worse (intentionally so) it becomes important to look at what Jackson stepped into with the Pistons and look for a reason why he has played so poorly.


Given the Pistons' recent history, it seems ridiculous that spacing needs to be considered. Josh Smith spent the first 28 games of the season clogging up the Piston offense and heaving ill-advised three pointers. And yet, following the trade deadline, complaints about Jackson's play have centered on his inability to play at a high level, not the fact that the Pistons' spacing may be worse than it was during any time with Smith on the roster. Consider, please the Pistons' current starting five:

PG: Reggie Jackson (career 29% 3-point shooter)
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (experiencing an 0-for 18 streak from outside that ended yesterday)
SF: Tayshaun Prince (2015 Tayshaun Prince)
PF: Greg Monroe
C: Andre Drummond

Monroe and Drummond are obvious. Monroe possesses no consistency beyond 10 feet and Drummond can't shoot at all. But replacing Kyle Singler with Tayshaun is notable. In fact, replacing a three point shooter with Prince has happened before:
The [Memphis Grizzlies]’s second-most common lineup includes four starters, with Prince sliding in to replace Lee. This group has been much less effective, with opponents actually outscoring it by two points per 100 possessions.

Replacing Lee with Prince may seem minor on the surface, but it greatly reduces the team’s spacing. It’s a throwback to the pre-Lee days, with Allen and Prince on the wings. These guys don’t exactly strike fear into opponents’ perimeter defenders.

Ruining the Pistons' spacing will implicitly limit what Jackson can do. As a player who excels at getting into the lane, playing with three other players who can't play beyond 10 feet will hinder Jackson's productivity. The effect of having Tayshaun on the court instead of Singler (or another true floor spacer) cannot be overstated.

This leads us to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Last night, after KCP missed his first three pointer of the game, the Lakers TV announcers noted that he was in the midst of an 0-19 streak from outside (in reality, it was 0-18, but this doesn't make things any better). It seemed unbelievable, but I looked up the stats: KCP hadn't hit a three pointer since February 28th, a game in which he hit his first but finished 1-5 from outside. He had played 115 game minutes over 4 games (and the start of last night's game) without hitting a three. He wouldn't hit one until late in the first half.

Whatever your thoughts on KCP may be, he shot 40.3% from outside in the month of February. Through three games in March, he was 0-13 before going 4-10 from outside last night. Prior to this drought, KCP hadn't gone more than a single game without hitting a three pointer. In fact, he only had 10 such games this season before this shooting drought. Why was he suddenly struggling so badly from outside? With four starters unable to threaten defenses from beyond the arc, KCP became the sole focus of defenses looking to limit outside shots. This is more than coincidence.

The System

You would expect that SVG has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to point guards. An abbreviated list of point guards that he has developed into quality-to-good starters: Rafer Alston, Jameer Nelson, Brandon Jennings, DJ Augustin. So maybe cut the guy a little slack. But for giggles, a blind comparison:

Player A: 15.3 PPG (35.9% FG; 24.1% 3FG), 4.8 RPG, 6.8 APG, 3.3 TO, 0.9 SPG

Player B: 12.4 PPG (40.6% FG; 43.5% 3FG), 2.7 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.3 TO, 0.9 SPG

Player C: 12.4 PPG (38.1% FG; 25.0% 3FG), 2.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.9 TO, 0.4 SPG

It may be easy to discern who is who in this, but perhaps not. Player A is Jackson's stint as the Pistons' point guard. Player B is the criminally underrated first 8 games of Brandon Jennings' tenure as a SVG product. And Player C is DJ Augustin's first 8 games this season. By the end of his season, Jennings was widely considered a high-level player. He was scoring 20 points per game, averaging 7.2 assist per game, and shooting 43.5% from the field in his final month. But before the calendar year turned, Jennings had an awful December:

Jennings' December: 9.3 PPG (32.4% FG; 27.3% 3FG), 2.8 RPG, 6.9 APG, 2.4 TO, 0.6 SPG

Jennings' struggles were largely attributed to the existence of Josh Smith and the Pistons' persistent spacing issues. It wasn't until after Christmas--and the release of Smith--that Jennings exploded, turning in potentially the best month of his career before the injury that sidelined him. Not only was Jennings set free by the new construction of the team, but he became notably more comfortable in SVG's system, one that asks quite a bit from the point guard.

A similar meteoric rise from Jackson should not be anticipated, but it also shouldn't be ruled out. SVG puts the ball in the hands of his point guard as much or more than any coach in the league. Reggie Jackson currently handles the ball for 8 minutes per game, 4th most in the league. Jennings held the ball for 7 minutes (14th most in the league) and Augustin 5.9 as a Piston (31st most in the league despite being a bench player for the better part of the season). It takes time to implement the offense, understand your teammates, and work within the structure of the team. Given that Jackson has hardly been asked to function within a coherent offensive scheme, the learning curve may be greater than usual, but his struggles were not be unexpected.

Now What?

First, your chill: find it. This season is over, and hoping for anything other than losses like last night's to the Lakers ignores the most prudent course of action for the Pistons. Van Gundy made these moves for the future and with the full expectation that the team was going to be worse (emphasis added):
We knew as far as for this year that it was a gamble. Just because of continuity, we would've been better off not making moves. We knew that. We thought we could make those moves and still stay right in the playoff race and we were willing to take that gamble because of what we thought it did for the future.
Make no mistake, SVG knew that these trades would tank the season and he did so anyway because that's how you build a good franchise. Anything else he says is the window dressing that coaches/GMs have to say to appease people who bought tickets for that game two weeks from now. SVG has been adamant that Jackson is the point guard of the future, and I think he deserves a little slack and leniency. He turned Brandon Jennings into a crucial player to a streaking team on a playoff run. Give him--and Jackson--time to come to terms with this new situation and find the right pieces.

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. Prior to the season, conventional wisdom said that Monroe was gone, but as the Pistons turned the corner and the team was developing together, rumors arose that Monroe might consider a return next season. 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 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.

The positive side of Jackson's poor play is that re-signing him this offseason may be easier. A rough, troubled stint in Oklahoma City already brought his market value down, but if he underachieves in a new situation, it may make him more affordable. Because this is still the player that turned down $48 million/4 years from a perennial contender. Jackson doesn't think that he should sign a small contract, but if the league does, that will work to the Pistons' benefit.

In the short term, the Pistons are going to struggle to finish the season. But these losses do not fall entirely on Jackson, despite how poorly he's played. The composition of this roster doesn't make sense anymore, and the resources and flexibility that SVG had at the start of the season have been expelled. Jackson's development over the next few games will be important, regardless, but this is a feeling-out process, not something that will come together immediately. Even if he doesn't make the turn that Jennings and Augustin did earlier in the season, that may be beneficial for the Pistons' salary negotiations this summer. Jackson remains a talented, young point guard who the team's coach and GM is committed to. So pump the breaks on the doom and gloom.

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