Today, it is time for an uncomfortable talk for Pistons fans. The organization and the more optimistic among the fan base have been rather steadfast in their belief that everything is going to end up being okay with the team, they just need to get Reggie Jackson back in full form. And so far this offseason, all of my thoughts have gone with the assumption that Jackson will be back and better than ever, but today let's look at what happens if he isn't.
One thing to be clear about is that there is not a good option for the Pistons, so even when I say "this might be the best option," it doesn't mean it is a good option. If Jackson's play remains as poor as it was last year, there is a very good chance that it will break the current team, and possibly the entire organization.
For starters, Jackson should get a very short rope coming into the season. Last year, I advocated for letting him try to figure it out because the Pistons were not going anywhere without him in top shape, regardless, so it was best just to hope he managed to get his game back.
However, if he cannot get back into full form after an entire offseason of preparation that is largely focusing on making sure he is healthy and ready to go, then the Pistons cannot pin the future hopes of the team on him getting healthy.
If he plays poorly for the first few weeks of the season, that should be it, unless there is some new development (like if he sprained his wrist or something like that which is unconnected to his knees). Obviously, in this scenario, the Pistons would be looking to move Jackson because they need a starting point guard from somewhere, but it will likely take some time to find a trade, so they will have to restructure until a replacement is found.
First, the offense must shift away from Reggie Jackson, in large part to Tobias Harris. It will be tricky to find a balance, since Tobias isn't a good enough passer to have super heavy usage as a ball handler, but most of Jackson's previously held shot creation and isolation opportunities should shift to Tobias.
Especially with Marcus Morris out of town, Tobias is easily the Pistons best hope to generate consistent offense if Jackson is out of form. Beyond simply putting the ball in Tobias' hands more, there will have to be a general shift away from the heavy pick and roll usage. Andre Drummond is the larger part of the Pistons pick and roll attack, but the Pistons just don't have any other ball handler who is the sort of player who can do what Jackson had previously done with Drummond in that area. This means running more pin downs and off ball stuff for shooters like Avery Bradley, and letting Jon Leuer hunt mismatches in the post.
The second thing the Pistons will have to do is decide if Jackson is still any use at all. Last year, he was mostly miserable, but he at least had occasional bouts of being average. In January he scored 19.6 points per game with 5.8 assists on a solid efficiency of 55 percent. That was buoyed by an unsustainable (for him at least) 45 percent from deep, and his plus/minus was still terrible, mostly thanks to his defense, but there is some hope he could at least be playable in some way.
If the Pistons feel like he can still play a bit, then they should use him, but at the very least, the offense should shift away from him, and he will take a more passive scoring role.
How far his role is diminished will have to depend on how bad he looks. If he plays as he did for the majority of last year, then they may be best off benching him outright, but he probably can do enough to at least come off the bench or something of the like. Either way, Ish Smith is likely getting more minutes.
What About A Replacement?
Once again, there isn't a good option here, and a lot depends on if Jackson shows anything useful or not. If he plays so poorly that he is getting DNPs, he will be incredibly hard to move. After all, he is under contract for three more years at 16, 17, and 18 million per year for each year respectively. The hope is that he can find enough game that he can still play, even if it isn't the level that the Pistons need for their point guard. But regardless, to entice a team enough to take him it will likely require some painful decisions by the Pistons.
What Do You Mean By "The Level That The Pistons Need From Their Point Guard"?
Obviously, in this scenario, blowing up the current roster, and potentially the front office is a real possibility, but based on everything the organization has said they are going to go down swinging, so they will probably at least attempt to salvage the current team.
The way the current team is designed is for a heavy usage pick and roll ball handler running tons of pick and rolls with Andre Drummond.
Two years ago, when the Pistons made the playoffs they were, by far, the backbone of the Pistons' offense, and as last year showed, the Pistons just don't have enough weapons beyond that to generate consistent offense.
So whether it is the point guard or not, they need to have someone who can run tons of pick and rolls with Andre Drummond and be enough of a scoring and passing threat to maximize Drummond's prowess as a roll man. On the current roster, Smith is a good enough ball handler and passer to hit the open men, but he doesn't scare defenses enough (or, at all really) with his scoring to create many openings.
Tobias Harris is a fantastic scorer as a pick and roll ball handler, but he is a pretty bad passer.
Obviously, the best thing to happen would be for someone to make an unexpected leap. Maybe Tobias suddenly learns how to pass, perhaps Stanley Johnson makes good on that 86 point outing in The Drew League this summer, maybe Avery Bradley is a lot better ball handler than the Celtics were letting on. But none of those seem like they are all that likely for various reasons so it would be foolish for the Pistons to base the future of the team on one of those things happening.
So essentially, somehow, someway, the Pistons would have to find someone else who is at least theoretically capable of being that high volume ball handler in the pick and roll to make the backbone of the current offense keep chugging.
For all of these scenarios, I am going to assume that Jackson is at least still capable of being some sort of NBA player, because if he is so bad that he can't play at all, then I have no idea what the Pistons can do that wouldn't kill them. So pray that he can at least play a little bit. In all of these scenarios, the Pistons are giving up something along the lines of Jackson + asset(s).
Trades That Could Make Some Sense
To Brooklyn For Jeremy Lin
The Nets are going to be talked about as a possible trade partner for every team trying to shed salary this season, and with good reason.
However, they may be particularly receptive to the Pistons' offers. The Nets now have a start towards a decent young core of players with just one more season of misery before they have their own draft picks, but most of their younger players are guards and wings with not much in the way of bigs, which combined with the Nets' desire to add shooting would likely make Ellenson a desirable piece for them.
The fact that they took on Timofey Mozgov and DeMarre Carroll shows that they don't have much problem with taking on players who are on big contracts and are too hurt to play up to them, so they probably won't shy away on that front.
For the Pistons, it would be painful to let go of Ellenson and likely at least a second round pick as a price to pay to get rid of Jackson, but if they could get Lin back in the deal, it might be the best outcome for the Pistons.
It is unclear if Lin could handle the same kind of load as Jackson as a full-time starter, but Lin is a real player and he excels in the pick and roll with the right combination of scoring and passing to make the offense turn. Particularly, if he opted into his last year (he has a player option for the coming season), this could be a very nice get and a good chance for this current team to save itself.
The biggest deterrent to this going through of course is that the Nets may not have any desire for Jackson, even with Ellenson as a sweetener. The Pistons don't have any blue chip assets, so whoever would take Jackson will have to have at least a base belief that they can make something of him.
To Denver For Emmanuel Mudiay
This would be a real gamble for both sides, and matching salaries would be tricky, but it makes some sense on a basic level.
For the Nuggets, the emergence of Nikola Jokic killed Mudiay as the point guard of the future. Mudiay has been mostly bad, but even on his good days, he is not a great fit with what Denver accidentally stumbled onto with Jokic as the franchise player.
Mudiay is a super athletic, but raw point guard who doesn't shoot very well. This sort of player is useless without the ball in his hands, and even in a theoretical world in which Mudiay becomes a good player, it would be something along the lines of (a likely much worse version of) Russell Westbrook or John Wall, and those guys are not great without the ball in their hands either.
With Jokic emerging, the ball shifted away from Mudiay and made him struggle even more than he already was. Last season, the Nuggets ended up just playing an old Jameer Nelson significant minutes at point guard, and they suddenly became a historically great offense. So the theory here is that they just need a very basic level of competency from their point guard to be good offensively due to Jokic's offensive brilliance.
If Jackson showed some ability to dial back his game into a more passive role and continue his improved shooting as a Piston, it would go a long way towards making the Nuggets go for this because they certainly are not going to make this trade if they think it makes them worse. The other thing that might help is that with the departure of Danilo Gallinari they may have use of Jackson's ability and willingness to take the tough shots. (even if his ability to do so is diminished).
For the Pistons, this would be similarly risky. While giving Mudiay a shot to prove himself while playing in an offense that should play right into his strengths is not the worst idea in the world, and the optimist in my thinks it could work out pretty well, the reality is that Mudiay probably is never going to be all that good.
On the plus side, he is on a rookie contract, so if it doesn't work out, he won't bog down the team for the future. Essentially the Pistons would have to look at it as a straight salary dump of Jackson, and they get to take a flyer on Mudiay for the rest of the year.
The main reason this wouldn't work has to do with any additional pieces involved. Unless the Nuggets are afraid of losing Gary Harris this coming offseason, then I doubt they have much desire for Luke Kennard or even Bullock as they have another young guard in Jamal Murray.
I also doubt the Nuggets have much interest in Ellenson unless they have a particular love of him for whatever reason (which happens sometimes. The Boogie trade happened largely because the Kings happened to really like Buddy Hield) since they now have a great starting frontcourt of Jokic and Paul Millsap, and with Mason Plumlee, Juancho Hernangomez, and Trey Lyles behind them, there just doesn't seem to be any need there. On top of that, Denver appears to be ready to win now with the addition of Millsap so I doubt they would have much interest in even a first round pick. Stanley Johnson is probably the only asset the Nuggets would have much interest in, and depending on how he plays this year the Pistons may be (rightfully) unwilling to part with him. On top of that, matching salaries would be tricky.
Trades That Don't Make Sense But The Other Team May Be Desperate
There was a rumor that the Pelicans were interested in Jackson this summer, and that the Pistons would not need to put in an additional asset as they would take back some of the Pelicans' bad contracts in return.
The rationale behind that would be if the offers for Jackson are just terrible, and the Pistons decide that they will trade their bad contract for a pair (or three) of the Pelicans' bad contracts, figuring that it would be easier to move those contracts going forwards than Jackson. The other benefit is that if, theoretically, someone else on the team stepped up (like Tobias for instance) then taking on E'Twaun Moore and others could help the team.
Regardless, the Pelicans could end up being pretty desperate to try something, and their front office has not proven to be the most brilliant as of late, so the Pistons could potentially swing a decent trade there.
The other thing that could make this interesting is that the Pelicans figure to be so desperate on the wing that guys like Reggie Bullock or Anthony Tolliver could be real pieces to throw around in a trade with them. The downside is that the Pistons are almost certainly not getting back a capable starting point guard in return for Jackson here, and also potentially some contracts that would be not much easier to move than Jackson's is.
The Magic supposedly showed some interest in Jackson last season and this summer, but that was under a previous administration. Until the new guys show that they are in fact going to start having the Magic go in a better, and smarter, direction, I am not going to count them out. If Elfrid Payton does not impress this coming season, then the Pistons could potentially swing something along the lines of Jackson for Payton.
Obviously, Payton wouldn't be ideal, especially if he doesn't show some real improvement next season (which is the only reason he would be available in the first place), but the Pistons could do worse than that. Especially if the Magic continue their trend of making dumb trades with the Pistons and don't demand another asset, then it could be a decent deal allowing the Pistons to dump Jackson and give Payton a trial run before he hits restricted free agency this offseason. If Jackson could put together some decent play, he could help the Magic make their long-wanted run at the eighth seed.
Although admittedly, if the Magic are smart, they wouldn't take Jackson without an additional asset here, at which point they are much less ideal as a fit for the Pistons.
What If They Decide That This Team Isn't Worth Saving And Blow It Up?
Trade By The Deadline: Avery Bradley
Bradley is a good player who would get real interest from almost any contender as long as he is healthy, but he isn't good enough to be a centerpiece in a rebuild. It would be painful for the Pistons to have lost both Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a guy who is gone after half a season, but the reality is that in this scenario they probably would've wanted to trade Morris at this time regardless, and KCP's contract would've been a problem with the rebuild.
Listen, But Only Trade It If You Get A Real Good Haul: Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris
Essentially, these guys are both good and young enough that they could theoretically be pieces in a rebuild. If you can't get a good deal for them, it is fine to hold onto them, at the very least you probably hold onto them until draft night when teams are more willing to make major trades. If the Pistons can get a good haul for them, then they would not be in a position to turn it down, but they should not be eager to dump either of these guys.
Trade If You Can Get Any Value, But Not A Straight Dump: Ish Smith, Reggie Bullock
Both guys are good enough, and on pretty solid contracts so if they are around for a rebuild they won't be a problem.
I would guess that you could recoup at least a little something for either one. Bullock or Smith would be good options for teams looking for wing shooting or a backup point guard at the deadline or around draft day.
It is likely that someone will bite on giving up at least a second rounder or give the Pistons a flyer on a young player, but since neither player is hurting the Pistons in a rebuild, they can be patient in waiting for a decent return.
Try To Dump, Don't Give Up Any Real Additional Assets: Jon Leuer, Langston Galloway
Depending on how they play, their contracts could end up not being too bad after this season, but neither figures to be all that good. As such, if the Pistons can find someone to take them for anything then they should go for it, but given the fact that a rebuild requires as many young assets as possible, the Pistons should try and avoid giving up any to get rid of either player. If the worst comes to pass and Leuer or Galloway becomes the designated overpaid veteran presence on a rebuilding team, then it isn't the worst thing in the world.
Hold: Luke Kennard, Henry Ellenson, first round draft picks
Unless Ellenson gets real playing time this year and is miserable, the Pistons will want to hold onto both of these guys, which I think should be fairly obvious. The Pistons will also, of course, want all of their first round draft picks.
TBD: Boban, Stanley Johnson
Boban Marjanovic is about to see his first action in regular rotation minutes in his career. While it is doubtful he would be good enough to keep around as a piece for the rebuild due to his age, it's unclear whether he would go into the category of definitely getting something in return or if the Pistons should just try to dump his salary.
Stanley is a little more interesting. He has had some real ups and downs in his first two years, but heading into his third he figures to have a bigger and more stable role on the team. If he can build off of his late season success defensively and find any offensive game, then he is a guy the Pistons want to hold onto.
If that doesn't happen and he still looks to be a player destined for being nothing more than a solid defender and terrible offensive player, like a less lanky version of Andre Roberson, then the Pistons could think about letting him go. Either way though, they will want to hold onto him through the end of this season at least, letting him take on a larger role after a theoretical tear down at the deadline.
The Pistons will be in a bad place if Jackson cannot perform well this season, and there is a good chance that it results in the blowing up of the current team. There are not any good options for moving Jackson and trying to replace him, but there are some options that are a little bit better than others.