Two years ago, Reggie Jackson admitted publicly what virtually any basketball player would tell you privately—that while he enjoyed his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, when he reached free agency he intended to find a team where he could run the show. In the context of the way we talk about sports, this was a gaffe. In any other, it was obvious.
But Jackson plays basketball for a living and so the Thunder, rather than lose him for nothing, traded him last February to the Detroit Pistons. Jackson had 27 games to prove to the Pistons that they should build around him. And that's precisely what he did, seamlessly stepping in as the team's primary ball-handler, posting an absurd 51.2 percent assist rate, and earning a five-year, $80 million contract this summer.
"Well, it was because of the 27 games last year, yeah," Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy said of the decision to retain and build around Jackson. "He played extremely well. And we were in a situation—Reggie played extremely well, we had Brandon [Jennings] on the shelf for we didn't know how long, and it was essential that you have that position. We wanted to lock that position up long-term."
Jackson put himself in a position to succeed, succeeded, and struck it rich. This is controversial only in the world of sports.
The new contract hasn't changed Jackson's max effort approach. After a recent game, he was treated for dehydration, and his trademark heaving as he leaves the court—he leaves reluctantly and infrequently, as he is central to virtually everything the Pistons do—led one Pistons fan, a nurse, to inquire after his health.
For someone who plays right out on the edge, Jackson does so with striking efficiency. He's upped his minutes and responsibilities in Detroit, but in a comprehensive way that bodes extremely well for Jackson and the Pistons long-term. Every indicator is up: Jackson is shooting 44.2 percent overall, a notch above with his career rate of 43.5, but that understates the improvement. He's doing so on 18.7 attempts per 36 minutes, by far a career-high. And 4.7 of those attempts are threes, which he's making at a 37 percent clip.
Despite all his new duties as a scorer, Jackson has not forsaken the distributive part of his responsibilities. Jackson is getting more shots, but his assist percentage of 36.7 percent is also the highest of his career, and eighth in the NBA this season. Options for the Pistons almost always come out of the pick-and-roll he runs with Andre Drummond—the Pistons are far and away the league leaders in total pick-and-rolls run, and most of those are of the Jackson-Drummond variety. "I knew it was going to be that way when I was brought over," Jackson says. "Coach called me and told me, everything was going to be dependent upon the pick-and-roll with Andre and myself."
Taken together, it reads like proof that Jackson was onto something when he declared that he would thrive when given the chance to lead a team. But Jackson also sees the particular makeup of the Pistons, and Van Gundy's system, as instrumental in that success. "I'm trying to be the best I can be, every possession, for my teammates," Jackson said after a shootaround last week in New York. "I know we're heavily dependent upon the pick-and-roll. And that's something I'm comfortable with, something I've done for my entire career. So I just try to go out there and make the intelligent play each and every play. When I take that approach, it makes my job easier—not really worrying about scoring numbers or assists... So go out there, figure out things as quickly as possible, and don't be afraid to make mistakes."
Jackson seldom does. His turnover rate of 13.1 percent is remarkable for a player who handles the ball as much as he does, and it's gotten even better since the calendar turned to 2016—20 games with a turnover percentage of just 11.1 percent.
A significant part of that comes from both Jackson's ability to move beyond the Drummond pairing and find other teammates on the floor in better spots to make shots. Since the new year, his scoring, and Drummond's, are down. But Kentavious Caldwell-Pope enjoyed the best month of his career in January, reflecting a more complete Detroit attack. "I think we're getting better running in transition more," Jackson said. "It's centered around the pick-and-roll, of course, but it's about finding ways to get guys involved—mid-range, post-ups, isolations—situations where KCP on pindowns is going to diversify our offense a little bit."
Most importantly, Detroit's situation is going to improve as the team spends more time together. The Pistons have Pope, the slashing playmaker, just 22 years old. They have Jackson, 25, signed long-term. And they have Drummond, one of the top-ten talents in the sport, who is also still just 22. They've found the franchise center and point guard, and Pope will create space for the shooters they need to add—no one else on the team hits threes as well as Jackson. But that's usually the easier part. Look around the East: who is set up, long-term, any better than the Pistons right now?
Jackson isn't ready to proclaim the Pistons the future of the Eastern Conference just yet. "Nothing's guaranteed still," Jackson said. "I could say that Andre's not signed past this year. Hopefully we'll stay together, the organization will figure it out, because the core gets along. So hopefully they keep us together, and we keep moving in the right direction."
For his part, Van Gundy pumped the brakes as well. He said he'd be looking for players under contract past this year in any trades—no rentals—which suggests he sees the current core as something to build around.
"We have a lot of building still to do," Van Gundy said. "We're nowhere near where we want to be. But we're closer than we were, in terms of having our core, having the type of guys we like, and playing the type of game we want competitively. We're getting there. We're on the right path." And the Pistons have Reggie Jackson to lead them there. That's a good start.