Monday November 16th, 2015

LOS ANGELES — As a promising 5–1 start gave way to a fourth straight loss, Reggie Jackson, the highest-paid player on Detroit’s roster, gave up his spot in the closing lineup to a second-round pick who entered Sunday’s action with exactly one made basket to his name.   

Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy benched Jackson, his $80–million man, for the final 4:54 of a 97–85 loss to the Lakers in favor of Spencer Dinwiddie, who hadn’t seen the court in nearly two weeks. Afterward, he minced no words over Jackson’s performance.

“Tonight his decision–making was terrible,” Van Gundy said. “He was trying to go behind his back in the middle of the lane. Up in the air. He just had a really bad night. … His decision–making was bad. Guys are going to have bad nights and he had an awful one tonight.”

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The move was fully justified on basketball terms: Jackson tallied just nine points on 4-for-11 shooting, and he compounded his worst scoring performance of the season by committing five turnovers against just three assists in 24 minutes. Dinwiddie, by contrast, shook off the rust from five consecutive DNP-CDs to post 17 points and four assists, making him one of the few bright spots during an unsightly loss to one of the league’s worst teams. 

The straws that broke Van Gundy’s back came in the fourth quarter. Jackson reentered the game with just under 10 minutes remaining and the wheels promptly started falling off. In fairly quick succession, he lost his handle in the middle of traffic, he threw a pass out of bounds, he bricked a deep, contested three-pointer, he got stuck in the air and threw the ball to the Lakers, and then he forced up a contested midrange shot that failed to draw iron.

“[Jackson had] two quick turnovers and then he tried to isolate and post up, took a bad shot,” Van Gundy continued. “His decision–making was off and we went back with Spencer.”

All told, Detroit managed just two points in nearly seven minutes of fourth–quarter action as L.A. won the final period 31–19. Remember, this was a Lakers team who entered Sunday at 1–8 with a putrid defense that had conceded an average of 106.2 points per game. But the Pistons, who were on the second night of a back-to-back and playing the final game of a six–game road trip, couldn’t manage to flow through the sieve, shooting just 36.5% on the night.

John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated

​​​Van Gundy said perhaps Jackson was “worn down” and battling “mental fatigue” from the road trip and his “heavy workload,” which has seen him post a career-high 31.6 usage rate entering Sunday. The fifth-year guard waved off those suggestions while agreeing with his coach that he mad “bad decisions” with the ball.

“No excuses,” Jackson said flatly afterward. “I played too poor probably for us to get over the hump. It’s hard to bounce back when your starting point guard plays that bad. I’ve got to move on and learn from my experience tonight.”

Little was working for a Detroit team who has wins over Atlanta and Chicago under its belt, or for Jackson, who drew plenty of praise by scoring a career-high 40 points against Portland one week ago. Van Gundy said his offense was “a little bit of a mess right now,” and added that Detroit’s 2–4 road trip was “awful” in light of the four straight losses.

This isn’t the first time this season the straight-talking Van Gundy has jabbed at his players, and Jackson in particular. After a preseason loss to the Nets, Van Gundy accused the Pistons of “very selfish” play and added Jackson was “not good at all” because he was “forcing everything.”

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Then, like now, Van Gundy seems to be projecting a greater level of accountability on Jackson. Combine the benching and the direct talk postgame, and the message is pretty clear: Detroit’s success depends on Jackson, but he’s not on such a high pedestal, that his ego and playing time take precedence over everything else. As the Pistons continue to build around franchise center Andre Drummond, they need Jackson to be The Guy who runs the show in the backcourt and he wants to be The Guy. However, that’s a night-in, night-out occupation and slippage isn’t part of the gig.

If Jackson was upset by his treatment, he didn’t verbalize it. During his benching, he sat with shoulders slumped at stretches, but he stood to cheer on Dinwiddie on multiple occasions. Afterward, he answered queries in a curt but professional manner, taking responsibility for his mistakes and declining all invitations for moral victories.

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Asked if perhaps he might take solace that the Pistons, who haven’t finished with a winning record since ’07–08, are still .500 despite the losing streak, Jackson shook his head.

“Nah, I want to be 10–0,” he said, before exiting the locker room.

Perfection is obviously too much to ask from these Pistons, who lack the depth to truly scare anybody. But Van Gundy’s off-season investment in Jackson was undertaken with the idea that enough was enough in Detroit, and it was time to a serious step forward after years of dysfunctional losing. With that context in mind, Jackson’s public recognition that average won’t suffice felt like something resembling progress, even on an otherwise “awful night.” 

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