Reggie Jackson never fit with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
He had some moments, sure. He had a few big games. But through the entirety of his tenure, Jackson was desperate for a role that gave him freedom to run an offense his way, a role the Thunder never had for him. Once he couldn't get it, he shrunk into a hole and alienated teammates.
Now, he has his chance. On Thursday just minutes before the deadline, the Pistons swung a deal with the Thunder to bring Jackson to Detroit in exchange for D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler. In a crisper Stan Van Gundy offense without two superstars to feed, Jackson has his chance to prove he was always too good for the supporting role he held with the Thunder for the past four years.
Jackson has always needed the ball in his hands to be effective, but with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in charge, the Thunder had no choice but to play him off the ball for large stretches. In his three-plus seasons, he did so dutifully, taking advantage of his chances to create offense with the second unit. Last season was his best, as he shot a career-high 34 percent from the three-point line and filled in admirably for the injured Westbrook.
But that taste only added to his ambition. When Westbrook and Durant were both injured to start the season, Jackson got his chance to really be a lead option. It was long enough that he couldn't regress and run tertiary sets while spotting up in the corner, especially after the Thunder added yet another mouth to feed in Dion Waiters.
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In those first 13 games to start this year, Jackson averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 assists in 38.9 minutes a game. He was taking 18 shots a game (hitting 42 percent) and getting to the free throw line nearly five times. Since Westbrook and Durant returned, Jackson's averages fell to 24 minutes and nine shots. No wonder he was frustrated.
That drop was bound to happen. Jackson's is in the bottom quarter of the league as a spot-up shooter, hitting only 28.6 percent of his shots when asked to do so, per Synergy Sports Technology.
What Jackson wanted to do more of was create his own offense, which is why he requested a trade from Oklahoma City shortly before the deadline. Jackson is an excellent pick-and-roll ball handler and isolation player, ranking in the top 15 percent of the NBA in both categories, per Synergy. Only six other players with a comparable number of possessions (80 or more) score more points per isolation possession than Jackson's 1.01.
Jackson's attitude all season may not have been conducive to success, but he certainly had a point that his talents couldn't be maximized.
They can now. In making the trade, Detroit showed it sees Jackson for his strengths as a penetrating pick-and-roll monster. It's clear Stan Van Gundy believes that role is far better suited to Jackson than any one he filled with the Thunder.
Van Gundy's last coaching job centered around a dominant Dwight Howard in the middle, and this one does the same with the combination of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. However, the Magic's success hinged on Jameer Nelson, a small, pick-and-roll heavy guard who could create offense out of nothing. Nelson was in the top ten percent of the league as a pick-and-roll ball handler and the best guard in the league in isolation in 2008-09, the year Orlando made the Finals, per Synergy.
Van Gundy must see some of Nelson in Jackson. It's not a perfect comparison -- Jackson's bigger, better at the rim and much worse from the perimeter. But Nelson, like Jackson, only needed an opportunity. Van Gundy gave it to him, spread the floor and watched Nelson blossom. The same could happen to Jackson, whether in the final 30 games or if (and when) the Pistons re-sign him as a restricted free agent.
Sending away Augustin, who had been incredible as a starter since Brandon Jennings tore his Achilles, is a risk. In 13 games, Augustin was averaging 18.7 points on 45 percent shooting from the field and 7.8 assists. Keeping Augustin would have been the safer move, especially if Detroit wanted to make a playoff push.
Instead, Detroit showed it is building for the future. Augustin is an NBA journeyman at 27 years old, with career averages of 10.2 points and 40.4 shooting from the floor. Assuming that 13-game stretch means Augustin could average 19 and 8 for a season is foolish. If anything, Augustin's success shows the value of Van Gundy's system: plug a more talented point guard into Augustin's spot and his numbers could be even better.
Jackson is a complicated player with some clearly defined strengths, something his role in Oklahoma City did a poor job of complementing.
In Detroit, nothing is holding Jackson back. It's the situation he wanted.