Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson is wrapping up a fascinating season. His year has been marked by ups and downs, which has made evaluating him complicated, and presents observers with an interesting question: What will Jackson’s next contract look like?
Back in October, Jackson and the Thunder failed to agree on an extension before the deadline to re-sign fourth-year players. USA Today’s Sam Amick later reported that Jackson turned down a four-year, $48 million offer from Oklahoma City.
At the time, this appeared to be a defensible decision. He was fresh off the playoff series of his life. Jackson kept Oklahoma City’s season alive in the first round of the 2014 playoffs against the Grizzlies by scoring a career-high 32 points in Game 4, and hit four of five three-point attempts in a must-win Game 6. NBA salaries were and still are exploding in anticipation of a significant rise in the salary cap, plus talent evaluators believed Jackson was a young player on the rise.
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski quoted a scout as calling the then-Thunder guard “a bigger Eric Bledsoe ... and probably better.” Bledsoe, of course, had just won a staring match with the Suns in restricted free agency, signing a five-year deal worth about $70 million. It seemed clear that Jackson could do better than OKC’s $48 million offer.
Three months later, turning that offer down looked like a grave mistake. Jackson, who was mired in a shooting slump, started losing minutes to Dion Waiters, and there were obvious chemistry issues in the Thunder locker room. In fact, things got so bad that Jackson infamously tweeted he cried tears of joy after learning he’d been traded to the Pistons. At that point in the season, it looked like Jackson would be lucky to even find another offer close to the $48 million Oklahoma City had reportedly offered him just months earlier.
The trade to Detroit somewhat revitalized Jackson, and his play has improved. But he is set to navigate restricted free agency this summer, and his value is still unclear. Jackson is an interesting case, thanks to his high-variance play, his mixed statistical profile, and some of the most unique market circumstances in NBA history. So what will Jackson’s agent, Aaron Mintz, use to try and prove his client's worth, and how are teams likely to respond?
For starters, in his time with the Pistons, Jackson is piling up stats. He posted a pair of triple-doubles, making him one of only 10 players to accomplish that feat this year, and he missed a third by one rebound. On top of that, he’s added two games with at least 20 points and 15 assists. In all, in his 26 games in Detroit, he’s averaging 17.4 points, 9.1 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game, all career-highs. Jackson may argue that those numbers are comparable to what Bledsoe posted before signing his hefty deal, and he’d be right. Here’s how Jackson’s stint with the Pistons matches up against Bledsoe’s 2013-14 numbers:
Jackson: 17.4 ppg, 9.1 apg, 4.7 rpg (26 games)
Bledsoe: 19.4 ppg, 6.0 apg, 5.1 rpg (43 games)
On top of the glamour numbers, Jackson is legitimately making the Pistons better. Before he arrived, the Pistons scored just 101.9 points per 100 possessions, and had a net rating of -2.0. Since Jackson came to town, with him on the court, Detroit boasts an offensive efficiency of 105.9, a mark that would rank 8th in the league over the full season. That offensive surge is enough to push the Pistons into a positive net rating, and they outscore opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions with Jackson in the lineup. When he sits, the offense simply plummets, and Detroit manages an offensive efficiency of just 96.4, a figure that would top only the 76ers over the full season.
But there is a sense that Jackson’s individual numbers with Detroit are akin to empty calories. The Pistons were never really going anywhere, and were only on the fringe of contending for the East’s 8th playoff spot. Plus, Jackson’s numbers were likely inflated by his incredible usage rate, which rose to 28.4% in Detroit.
For reference, if Jackson maintained that usage rate over the full season, it would tie him with Blake Griffin for 15th in the NBA. It’s a higher usage rate than that of All-Stars like Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall. When teams look at signing Jackson this summer, they’ll have to consider whether he’s a player who should have the ball in his hands that often.
More pressing is the issue of Jackson’s shooting. He’s one of the worst shooters in the NBA, and he shoots… a lot. Seventy-six players take at least 12 shots per game. Of that group, Jackson ranks just 63rd in true shooting percentage.
He’s struggled throughout his career from long distance, shooting just 29.6% on threes. On the year, he ranks 113th out of the 122 players who have played at least 30 games and attempted at least three triples per game, hitting just 30.3% of those shots. He’s experienced a small uptick in three-point efficiency in Detroit, and he shot very well in that Memphis series last spring, but is a team willing to gamble on those flashes in tiny sample sizes?
Detroit, in particular, has been suffocated by a lack of spacing over the last several years. If the Pistons commit to Jackson long-term, that means there will always be two non-shooters in the team’s starting lineups between him and Andre Drummond, making a stretch four close to a necessity. If Greg Monroe re-signs, that spacing gets even more cramped.
Jackson’s checkered statistical profile is just one of a number of reasons why he makes for such an intriguing free agent.
He’ll be a restricted free agent, and Detroit can match any offer he receives and keep him around. Given that the Pistons gave up real assets—Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin are both NBA rotation players—to get Jackson, it seems likely they do intend to match an offer for the fourth-year guard.
Restricted free agency is a thorny venture, as it can sometimes drive down a player’s value. Other teams don’t want to tie up their cap space for three days if it’s assumed the incumbent team plans to match anyway. But last summer saw a couple of unique cases, where restricted free agents actually created some leverage.
One was the aforementioned Bledsoe, who used the threat of signing the one-year qualifying offer to squeeze a more lucrative deal out of the Suns. The other player was Monroe, who actually signed a $5.5 million qualifying offer, and will hit unrestricted free agency this year. The Pistons are intimately familiar with the Monroe negotiations, and they could overpay Jackson to avoid a similar fate this summer.
And Jackson is hitting the market at one of the most unique times in the history of NBA free agency. Thanks to the league’s massive new television deal, next summer the salary cap is expected to jump from approximately $66 million to somewhere between $88 and $92 million, according to an ESPN report.
That means overpaying for a player now might not be quite as painful in a couple years. In other words, Jackson may not be worth $14 million per year in the current economic climate, but that figure could look like more of a bargain once salaries start ballooning.
There’s another market factor that could work in Jackson’s favor: Two of the league’s marquee franchises, the Knicks and Lakers, will have plenty of cap space this summer, and will look to avoid a third straight year of futility. Each will almost certainly pick at the top five of this year’s draft and do not want to be in the same position next year. Should Los Angeles keep its pick this season, it could lose next year’s pick if it falls outside the top three, and New York would send their pick to Denver if it’s especially juicy, so they have no incentive to tank again.
Both big-market behemoths could be suitors for Jackson, especially if they strike out on the big-name free agents like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol. That’s the type of scenario where teams begin to panic and throw money at mid-tier free agents like Jackson and Monroe to avoid coming away from free agency empty-handed. The Knicks have already been linked to Jackson, however loosely, as it briefly appeared he was headed to New York in the deal that sent J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cavaliers. It only takes one team to drive a player’s price up, and the Knicks and Lakers could potentially do so for Jackson.
Complicating Jackson’s free agency even further is a question of supply and demand. ESPN.com recently ranked the NBA’s point guards, and Jackson ended up at number 25 on that list. The two players listed immediately after him were promising rookies Marcus Smart and Elfrid Payton, and the rankings didn’t include potential lottery picks like Emmanuel Mudiay and D’Angelo Russell. Though that ranking is subjective, it illustrates a larger point: there are a lot of really good point guards in the NBA. Is it really worth it to invest $50 million or more into a player like Jackson, who isn’t close to being one of the best at his position?
All those factors will combine to make Jackson’s summer fascinating. The Pistons have the inside track on re-signing him by virtue of their matching rights, but his contract could reflect changing economic realities in the NBA and illustrate the values placed on point guards.