Reggie Jackson’s return from injury earlier this month made the Pistons’ lineup whole and, in doing so, apparently triggered a full-on organizational crisis. Detroit is 4–9 since his comeback and 1–6 over the last two weeks, with that lonely win coming against a LeBron-less Cavs team hungover from their Christmas Day matinee. Most everything else seems to be a blowout. Mediocre Eastern Conference teams are waxing the Pistons on a shockingly regular basis, essentially wrapping up their games against Detroit by the second or third quarter. When games have turned especially dire, the Pistons themselves have largely turned their attention to the biggest variable in the room.
“Everybody go home tonight and decide on what you want to do,” Pistons forward Marcus Morris said after a postgame players-only meeting last week (via the Detroit Free Press). “Do you want to be a winning team or do you want to continue to get embarrassed? Are you going to play for the next man beside you or are you going to play for yourself?”
The meeting—which reportedly centered around Jackson’s shot selection—took on the air of an intervention. Frankly, few of Jackson’s offensive possessions over the games leading into the meeting were particularly egregious; there were some ill-advised three-pointers, a handful of too-difficult runners, and possessions where Jackson should have moved the ball along. Yet all of this was pretty characteristic of Jackson’s play as a Piston. Pressing a bit has always been a part of his role in Detroit. It should shock no one to see him pressing still, even after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Tobias Harris took on bigger, more creative roles in his absence.
Whether Jackson’s play is actually a problem effectively matters less than the fact that his teammates have identified it as one. In reality, the return of a player like Jackson really only taxes a player of a shot or two per game. Yet those shots can feel different based on a player’s role in creating them, and that feeling plays a role in Detroit’s effort and focus elsewhere. The thought that Jackson’s ball-dominance could hurt the Pistons’ defense might at first seem absurd, but basketball is a game of constant, invisible connection. Tweaking any one part of a team’s ecosystem can have real consequences elsewhere—including the level of investment a team feels when suddenly seeing the ball a lot less.
Jackson, for his part, responded to his teammates’ private and public criticism by staging an in-game protest. On possession after possession in the following game against the Bulls, Detroit’s lead guard trotted off to the corner or cleared out to the weak side. On one possession in particular, he literally stood in front of the Pistons’ bench with his hands on his hips while a possession unfolded:
“Anytime a point guard’s not attacking and playing to his instincts, you don’t play real well,” Van Gundy said (via MLive.com). “And [against the Bulls], I think he consciously was going to make sure he passed the ball on every possession because we’ve had some guys upset over the number of shots and things like that. So he basically didn’t shoot the ball at all. Well, that’s not it. Come off hard, attack and if there’s people open, throw them the ball. If you have a chance to score, score.”
Part of the reason the team meeting likely rubbed Jackson the wrong way is that it represents a basic tension at the heart of Detroit’s operations. Just last season, the Pistons won 44 games and made the playoffs with Jackson playing a ball-dominant style. An entire system was rooted in 1–5 pick-and-rolls. Jackson could pound the ball more than he was ever allowed in Oklahoma City (a situation which, if you’ll recall, he sulked his way out of to get just this kind of opportunity), slink into the lane, and edge his way into layups insured by Andre Drummond’s rebounding. The floor was spread around him and the responsibility for the offense was his.
That style can be pretty effective in the regular season and hopelessly limited come playoff time. It would be easy to write off the Cavs’ first-round sweep of the Pistons as the due diligence of a superior team, but on a micro level it demonstrated the peril of relying on a single sub-superstar ball handler. Detroit was sunk whenever Jackson was trapped. He could give the ball up early to Drummond, stranding his big man further from the hoop with no real recourse. He could try to dish out to a teammate on the perimeter, but all were still guarded by a diligent opponent and had no real one-on-one advantage. In that, an unhealthy chunk of Detroit’s playoff possessions came down to whether Morris, Harris, or Caldwell-Pope could manufacture a shot for themselves off the dribble and convert it under duress.
Detroit’s scoring was capped by that low, oppressive ceiling. The only hope of lifting it would come through roster addition or internal improvement. Regarding the former, most of the Pistons’ moves this summer were relatively conservative. The only ball handlers brought in (Ish Smith and Beno Udrih) were backups for Jackson. As to the latter, Jackson’s 21-game absence ushered the Pistons into more immediate developmental opportunity. Smith could run the floor and handle the ball, but his own limitations would demand that other Pistons break free of their narrow roles to try new things.
Caldwell-Pope suddenly had the ball in his hands more often than he ever had in the pros. His assist rate nearly doubled. Harris became a more featured piece out of necessity. He led an 11–10 team in scoring (17.1 points per game). Drummond’s role changed, too, to allow for more face-up drives in the post and a little more agency overall. Losing Jackson didn’t make the Pistons a better team by any means. But removing a clear reliance on a single creator proved freeing in a way Detroit badly needed.
At issue isn’t which shots Jackson takes but the liberty he feels in taking them. Jackson will still play his best basketball when putting pressure on the rim and making hay of the pick-and-roll. The case has been made, though—by how Detroit struggled under playoff scrutiny and how it held up in his absence—that Jackson shouldn’t be the sole engine of an offense. There are ways for him to create and help carry a team without ranking sixth in the league in time of possession. The Pistons are hoping to find them, and along the way encountering all the friction that comes with working against a player’s comforts.