NBA teams experience constant change and variance over time, but the issue the Detroit Pistons are facing with their point guard position goes beyond any easily dismissed matter.
Coming into the season, a hierarchy seemed to have been clearly established at the one, with Reggie Jackson at the helm long-term to pair with Andre Drummond as well as the rest of the franchise’s key assets.
Jackson, now in his sixth year in the league, averaged a career-high 18.8 points per game in 2015-16, tops on the team. Last season was his first full one in Detroit, having come to the Pistons in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder the year previous.
In order to rectify their weak bench, the Pistons made a key move last offseason in signing journeyman point guard Ish Smith to a three-year, $16 million contract. Smith was brought in mostly for his work in rescuing the Philadelphia 76ers in 2016, turning what could have been a historically bad campaign into just an awful one. The Pistons represent his 10th team in seven seasons after going undrafted in 2010.
These were two players on different tiers of value, one regarded as a potential All-Star in future years and one viewed as a great value backup.
The first blow to this predetermined order of things was a knee injury suffered by Jackson just prior to the season’s start. His affliction left him out of the rotation until early December, his starting spot to be taken over by Smith for the first 20 games of the season.
During his absence, the Pistons went 10-10, far from where preseason expectations had them but reasonable considering they were missing a key piece. Smith’s performance during this time was respectable (10.8 points and 6.4 assists per game), but not close to Jackson’s projected impact. The popular line of thinking held that the return of Jackson would propel Detroit’s potency to a new level, back to a higher seed in the playoffs.
The luxury of hindsight allows us to see that this has simply not happened. Since implementing their “ideal” lineup, the Pistons have gone 17-20, a record that could have been much worse without six wins in their last nine games. As Jackson has been the only new variable, the team’s struggles have been largely put on his shoulders, and his long-term value questioned.
It’s probably unfair to expect him to reproduce last season’s output - with the amount of time he missed, RJ had been playing catch-up against the rest of the league who went through a whole training camp and slate of 20 early games. Even so, per-game averages of 15.5 points and 5.6 assists on 42 percent shooting aren’t that far off from his 18.8/6.2/43 splits last season.
The issue seems to be one of fit. Jackson is a fairly inefficient player, fitting into the modern model of a score-first point guard, and actually takes the most shots on the Pistons per game, at 13.3. With many other mouths to feed among the Detroit roster, it could stand to reason that a distributor at the point might make more sense stylistically.
Enter Smith. Along with being a more willing passer (3.4 assist-to-turnover ratio, compared to Jackson’s 2.3), he takes less shots, at 8.2 per game, preferring to defer to teammates more apt at creating offense.
For a team with athletic potential, the Pistons play at a curiously slow pace, ranking just 24th league wide. Smith facilitates greater transition activity for himself and his teammates, as Shameek Mohile of PistonPowered explains:
“Smith loves to run the floor in transition, making up over a quarter of his overall possessions (compared to Reggie Jackson at 12.2 percent). When Smith is pushing the pace in transition, the Pistons have flourished. Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all average above 1.15 points per possession on fast-break opportunities, mostly due to Ish Smith.”
A knock on Smith his whole career has been his lack of defense, but he is actually beating Jackson in terms of defensive rating and defensive box plus-minus. Andre Drummond's interior presence seems to have given Smith a boost from his previous teammates, but a lack of quickness due to injury has to be factored in on RJ’s part. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric rates Smith as the 22nd best point guard this year, with Jackson falling outside the top 40.
It seems like a simple fix then, replacing Jackson with Smith among the starters, but that may not be true. Since Jackson’s return, the Pistons’ current starting lineup with him, KCP, Marcus Morris, Jon Leuer, and Andre Drummond has a minus-0.2 net rating. Substituting Smith in over the same time frame brings that number down to a minus-3.1.
Even among the lineup data, though, Smith’s impact is clear. The Pistons have registered positive net ratings with five separate lineups (minimum 30 minutes) since December 4th, and Smith is featured in four of them.
Although his game feels slightly more well-suited now, Smith is in no way the perfect player for the Pistons. His lack of a three-point shot (25 percent this season, has never shot above 33 percent) and lack of finishing ability (31 percent shooting at the rim) make it unlikely that he could ever produce effectively enough to be a starter.
Trading Jackson for cents on the dollar, as has been reported is a possibility, is not the right course of action either. He should ease back into form as the season progresses, and as mentioned before, Detroit is in a very good spot long-term. Their starting point guard is on a very good contract at three years, $51 million plus the added advantage of unrestricted free agency to follow. Rather than making a drastic lineup change or bringing in another player, the best course of action is so let the current situation work itself out. It may, in fact, already be doing just that.