How do the Pistons manage without Reggie Jackson?


Against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night, Reggie Jackson suffered a bad ankle roll in the 3rd quarter and had to be helped off the court. He was diagnosed with a grade 3 ankle sprain this morning, and he will be re-evaluated in 6-8 weeks. Essentially he is going to be out for at least two months time, and quite possibly more. This is especially painful given that Jackson had been playing really good ball and having a bounce-back year after the season from hell last year, but the Pistons will have to find a way to cope with his loss.

The new rotation

Jackson's injury will certainly press Ish Smith back into starting duties, but beyond that, it is not abundantly clear how Stan Van Gundy will adjust to Jackson's absence. Given the way SVG talked about the roster before the season and also in practice the few times it has been relevant, Langston Galloway will take backup point guard duties. Dwight Buycks, who is on a two-way contract, got his first NBA minutes against the Pacers in garbage time so there is obviously some thought that he may be pressed into service but I'd assume he is not going to be in the rotation unless another thing goes wrong.

All that said, it is most likely that Ish and Galloway will take up the point guard minutes, it is the wing minutes that now becomes interesting. Galloway has spent the season (with a couple games of randomly leaving the rotation for some reason) as the backup shooting guard. If he moves to point guard then the wing rotation, which already was in flux, is thrown even further amiss. With Avery Bradley out, SVG has alternated between starting Luke Kennard and Anthony Tolliver depending on the matchup with Bullock at small forward and Stanley Johnson filling in minutes (usually playing starter-level minutes) wherever he is needed.

One answer would be that Tolliver essentially is going to be the starter until Bradley comes back, which obviously moves Tobias Harris to small forward and Reggie Bullock to shooting guard, then Stanley Johnson is the backup small forward and Kennard can take the backup shooting guard minutes and Harris will essentially double as the backup power forward in what would be a nine-man rotation. This is probably the most likely result until Avery Bradley returns.

If SVG wanted to get a bit freaky with it, however, he could potentially shift everyone up a position as described previously, but keep a ten man rotation by putting Henry Ellenson back into the rotation after a long absence. He could also potentially try out the long intriguing but never really used an option of trying Stanley Johnson at power forward a bit, this could become especially viable once Avery Bradley returns and fewer minutes are available for Johnson on the wing.

If I were SVG, and I was feeling frisky, I'd actually leave Ish Smith with the bench and start Langston Galloway. I'm dead serious. But I don't think there is any way that SVG does that, and the reality is that it could be a disaster.

How does the offense change with Ish

This is the place where Jackson's injury is going to be the most painful for the team in comfort and results. Ish Smith is a good backup and not hopeless as a starter, but his style of play is a pretty radical change from Jackson even with Jackson playing faster and easier than in previous seasons.

First off, the entire geometry of the floor changes with Ish Smith on the floor due to his lack of shooting. Jackson's long ball has dipped to 34% this year after a rough stretch, but he has shot 35% in his time with the Pistons which is solid when you consider that a lot of those are tough pull up looks. As a spot-up shooter, Jackson remains in the 82nd percentile per synergy sports. So even though Jackson isn't exactly a sniper, he is at least a capable shooter when he gets open looks. Ish Smith, on the other hand, is a total non-shooter from deep. Teams ignore Smith when he is off the ball and there have been a number of possessions this season where the motion offense is flowing well only to end up with a wide open Ish Smith who charges into a packed paint instead of taking a wide open long ball.

This is especially painful given the offensive changes the Pistons made this season. Previously the Pistons put the ball in the hands of their point guards on a huge amount of possessions which mitigated Smith's uselessness off the ball. This year they are running a much more egalitarian offense that requires everyone to move off the ball and be a threat in that way, Ish is not that. This is actually the reason that I'd actually be open to trying Langston Galloway as the starter because his shooting would keep the motion offense humming. That said, Ish is still a speed demon and crafty cutter so he can make it work, but everyone will be operating in tighter quarters and get ready to see a couple of possessions per game feature great ball movement only to be wasted when the ending point is Ish Smith behind the three-point line.

The good thing Ish brings, of course, is transition offense. He pushes the ball at every opportunity he can and the Pistons have the right personnel to take advantage of that. There will be nights (it already happens with the Ish-led bench mob.) where teams are diligent about getting back on defense which will be painful for the Detroit offense, but if the Pistons can catch any team on a night of lazy defense they will have a great chance to shred them with Ish playing heavy minutes.

The last thing to mention with Ish now at the helm is that for all of his flaws as a half-court point guard, especially as a shooter and scorer, is that he does occasionally have bouts of knockdown mid-range shooting. Just as there will be ups and downs with the Pistons ability to get out and run, there will be some ups and downs with his mid-range jumper since teams will let him take all that he wants, but there will be nights where they are falling and he tears the opponent apart. 

Where do Jackson's shots go?

A lot will go to Smith. Despite being a pass first, he is a pretty ball dominant player (by necessity since he is useless off the ball) and is not afraid of taking shots. Smith is not even a full shot attempt per 36 behind the pace that Jackson has been at this year. However, my hope is that any leftover largely falls to Tobias Harris. His lack of passing and penchant to end up taking impossible shots remains an existential weakness to him being a lead option in an offense, but with Jackson out he is by far the best option. More plays for Tobias and telling him to be willing to force the issue a bit more will sometimes be ugly, but it will sometimes work so you will live with it. Perhaps by running more of Tobias' plays as hand-offs or even straight pick and rolls with Drummond will help him to avoid his uglier tendencies.

What about Avery Bradley? He is supposed to be back soon

If he comes back it would certainly ease the pain of Jackson's loss at least a bit. He would help to shore up the defense which the Pistons will need on nights where the Ish Smith led offense sputters, and the combination of him and Bullock cutting will help to keep the wheels of the motion offense greased with the lowered spacing. That said, I don't think I would want his role in the offense to increase much with Jackson out. The Pistons should've already been working to decrease his touches a bit when he got hurt, and that should probably not change with Jackson out. If this recent stretch has proved anything, it is that Bradley's offensive contributions are nice to have but not essential to the team. He isn't all that efficient a scorer (when he is creating for himself) and he turns it over a lot, which isn't to say he isn't still a good offensive player because he is, but I think he was already pushing the limit of what he is capable of offensively as far as creation duties go.

How does the bench change?

Once again, this is where things can get weird and it is hard to say exactly what will happen. For all the gesturing above, we largely know what Ish Smith starting looks like from last year, and even though it will generally not be pretty you can grind your way to a certain base amount of competency with him at the helm. Assuming SVG doesn't get too freaky and just plays Galloway as the backup point guard there is a pair of potentially fun opportunities to change the bench mob while Ish is away. 

Bench Mob Ben Simmons

Despite an off night against the Pacers, Stanley Johnson has been handling the ball more, playing super aggressive, and generally looking way more comfortable and capable as a bench player than he did as a starter (offensively at least) and with Ish went he is likely about to get a chance to really spread his wings. Langston Galloway is a good player, but he is not really a true point guard. Stanley Johnson hopefully will find himself in a similar role to his rookie year where he was almost the de facto backup point guard due to Steve Blake being freaking terrible. In theory the Pistons can do the same sort of thing, except that Langston Galloway is actually a good (or younger) version of what Steve Blake was that year as a good off-ball player who can shoot and space the floor and do at least some basic point guard stuffs even if he isn't a guy who can create a lot of good looks for others. If Stanley Johnson can continue to look as capable as a bench mob ball handler as the early returns then the bench could end up actually being very effective. If Johnson struggles in a larger role though then the bench mob will probably be in trouble for as good as Galloway is, it is pretty well proven that he isn't really capable as a facilitator. Essentially the bench mob has guys who can finish looks as shooters and cutters (Galloway, Kennard, Tolliver) but they need that guy to create the looks, hopefully, Stanley Johnson is up to the task. One way to help him though:

Give me Boban

The main reason you play Eric Moreland over Boban is that Moreland fits way better with an Ish Smith bench mob. Boban runs hard but he is not fast, and he is best utilized as a slow it down post up guy who you dump it to. Boban's game goes totally contrary to Ish Smith's so despite all the complaining about Boban's lack of minutes, it does make sense. Without Ish though, and a potentially fatal lack of shot creation on the bench would be harder to defend leaving Boban on the bench. With Ish gone, there will be plenty of space for Boban to work, and he is a good enough passer to hit open shooters if teams double him. Once again, the Pistons bench has guys who can finish looks but they need a focal point to work around. Perhaps Stanley Johnson is good enough to do that on his own, but having Boban would help immensely in the half-court.

So what is really the long-term prognosis? Be honest

It certainly isn't good, but what happens after the next two months will probably be the determiner of whether or not this is a disaster or not. If you recall last year, the fact that Jackson got hurt isn't what derailed the Pistons season, the fact that Jackson came back when he clearly wasn't ready is what derailed it. Once again, it will not be pretty, and the Pistons will almost certainly fall off their current pace a bit, but they should be able to keep afloat without Jackson for a couple of months. But the thing with sprained ankles is that they are pretty fickle injuries. If 2 months pass, Jackson is all set, he comes back and picks up right where he left off, then my guess is that this will be little more than a speed bump in the season. They will fall a bit in the standings but other than that no harm was done, in fact with Bradley and Leuer (hopefully) coming back soon it is possible a couple guys get hot for a while and the Pistons keep up their current pace.

The bigger worry is the big picture. The reality is that if this current Pistons squad wants to get where they want to go they need Jackson and they need him playing well. If two months pass and Jackson keeps getting pushed back because something clearly isn't right, and then when he finally returns he is not right, then it could derail the Pistons season, and this is a pretty pivotal season for the franchise as they decide whether to double down on this team or re-tool around Drummond. Heading into next year Avery Bradley and Anthony Tolliver will be free agents, but all of Tobias Harris, Boban, Ish Smith, and Reggie Bullock will be on expiring while Stanley Johnson will be in the last year of his rookie contract. This was quietly a big reason why the decision to trade for Bradley and let KCP walk was good for the Pistons, it gave them a chance to run this team back for a healthy season to see if it was worth committing to long-term, and if it didn't work they could re-tool pretty easily. If Jackson is now wrong again they will have to make tough decisions about the future of the franchise without nearly as much information as you want.

What about a trade?

Given the Pistons salary situation it will be tricky to find a suitable trade scenario for them, but they were likely to be active in looking for an opportunity to make a slight upgrade anyways. Unless there is something about this injury that they have not told us yet, my guess is that they will not do anything quickly. If things start to turn south with Jackson's recovery and/or the Pistons start free-fall without him then the door is open for the Pistons to make a major, possibly desperate, move.

There is one thing though that should help Pistons fans sleep a little bit easier going forward. Andre Drummond looks to have fully formed himself into a legit franchise player, and the reality is that this season the Pistons have already been missing rotation players, some guys have struggled at various points, and they have swapped some stuff around. But the one constant that has kept it together is Andre Drummond, and as long as he is out there the Pistons will have a good chance to make it work. 

Best case scenario

Jackson is out for a little under two months, during which time several other players (pick whichever ones you want) have great stretches shooting the ball to make up for Jackson's absence so the Pistons barely miss a beat. With the Pistons still right on track the Pistons are able to ease Jackson back into game shape, and by within a couple weeks of returning from injury Jackson is playing at a high level again and the Pistons ride a wave all the way through the Eastern Conference to be the annual sacrifice to the Warriors. 

Worst case scenario

The Pistons struggle with Jackson out and although it is not an outright free-fall, they slowly begin to fall back in the playoff race. Jackson's return date is continually pushed further and further back until by the time he comes back the Pistons are barely clinging to a playoff spot and Jackson is forced into heavy service before he is really ready which in turn keeps him from being able to really get right. The Pistons continue to slip and miss a playoff berth for the second consecutive year and enter the offseason having to make impossible decisions about the future of the franchise.

What do you think? Can they keep afloat without Jackson?

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