Is Reggie Jackson Finally Playing Like an $80 Million Player?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 19, 2019

DETROIT, MI - MARCH 10:  Reggie Jackson #1 of the Detroit Pistons handles the ball against the Chicago Bulls on March 10, 2019 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

Up until February of this year, Reggie Jackson's value was most obvious in his absences.

That's why it seemed like his sprained right ankle, suffered in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to the Miami Heat on March 13, would send the Detroit Pistons into a tailspin, halting all the progress they'd made over the last several weeks and potentially scuttling their playoff hopes.

Last season, the point guard sprained that same right ankle on Dec. 26. The 19-14 Pistons promptly went 12-25 in the 37 games Jackson missed, finishing four games back of the eighth spot in the East at 39-43. 

This time, Jackson, who hasn't missed a contest all year, didn't let the same story unfold. He returned for Detroit's very next game, posting 20 points, five boards and five assists in a 111-97 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Then, on March 17, he put up another 20-spot to help beat the title-pursuing Toronto Raptors 110-107.

"I wasn’t going to miss today," he told reporters after the Lakers win. "That was the biggest thing I was talking to (the training and medical staff) about, not missing today. They kind of laughed at me. But they could tell how serious I was about playing."

Anecdotes aside, Jackson's presence hasn't generally coincided with elite play from the Pistons. He's more of a floor-raiser than a ceiling-raiser; he prevents 12-25 stretches when available, but he's not necessarily good enough to catalyze a 25-12 run. As such, the five-year, $80 million contract he signed in July 2015 has long felt a little too rich.

Things are different this year, though. And even if we may be dealing more with correlation than causation, his availability and productivity coincide with Detroit's season-defining stretch.

Since Feb. 1, the Pistons are 14-6 with a plus-5.1 net rating that ranks sixth in the league during that span.

Jackson's spike in scoring volume and efficiency in February and March lines up almost perfectly with Detroit's surge. 

Reggie Jackson's Season Splits
TS%USG%Net Rtg.
Before Feb. 152.921.7Minus-2.6
Since Feb. 161.326.0Plus-5.8

The version of Jackson who's played the last several weeks sure looks like someone worth an average of $16 million per season. It's just that this edition doesn't show up all that often, and too frequently, he hasn't been available at all.

While we see the negative effects of Jackson's absence in Detroit's play (recall that 12-25 mark last year), the underlying fact he's missed so much time means the Pistons haven't exactly gotten their money's worth. He has missed 71 games since he signed in the summer of 2015.

To make a case for Jackson, it's only fair to first note he's still under contract for one more year after this one, which means we won't have a final verdict until 2020. There's also an argument in his favor if we zero in on this season and consider context.

The 2018-19 Pistons aren't a championship contender, but they'd sure like to make the playoffs—if only to justify their high-priced, veteran-driven roster. For a team with their particular goals, Jackson's improved play offers significant value. Barring disaster, he'll be a key reason for their postseason trip.

Of course, if we pull back and scrutinize Jackson's worth objectively, the outlook changes.

Let's measure his production and the average annual value of his contract against his peers at the point.

There are a dozen point guards making more money this season than Jackson. We can say he's been better than the four immediately above him in the salary hierarchy. Goran Dragic, Jeff Teague, George Hill and John Wall all trail Jackson in Basketball Reference's Value Over Replacement Player metric. That's an imperfect catch-all, but injuries and general ineffectiveness render those four higher-paid players less valuable than Jackson this season.

Eric Bledsoe, Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker make less than Jackson in 2018-19, and all have been more productive. But that's more a reflection of their team-friendly salaries than a condemnation of Jackson's contract.

AUBURN HILLS, MI - JANUARY 5:  Reggie Jackson #1 of the Detroit Pistons drives to the basket against Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets during a game on January 5, 2017 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

Is Jackson, then, something like the NBA's 12th- or 13th-best point guard, which is what his salary suggests?

Plenty of other ways to parse the data are less charitable to Jackson. He ranks 22nd among point guards in ESPN's RPM Wins statistic. Jacob Goldstein's Player Impact Plus-Minus has Jackson tied for 23rd among point guards.

Jackson is also one of just 19 guards with a usage rate over 23 percent and a true-shooting percentage north of 54 percent. Among that group, Jackson's 4.8 win shares tie for 12th. Finally, a cherry-picked stat that comes close to validating his contract.

Roll all that analysis together, and it profiles Jackson as a player who's still probably overpaid. But this is where you have to circle back to the idea of subjective analysis. Different organizations have different goals, free-agent cash doesn't go as far in one city as another and a player's value to a team constructed one way wouldn't necessarily reflect his value to a team built differently.

We've seen the Pistons come undone without Jackson. They've long lacked secondary creation (Blake Griffin has helped in that regard), and though backup Ish Smith tends to perform well whenever Jackson can't play, his insertion into the first unit exposes a glaring lack of ball-handling bench depth on Detroit's roster.

Since Feb. 1, Detroit's net rating is 3.3 points per 100 possessions higher with Jackson on the floor. He hasn't been nearly that impactful for the season (the overall difference is only plus-1.2), but for where the Pistons are and where they want to go, Jackson matters. A lot.

For a player who's had issues with bad timing, Jackson has picked the right moment to hit his stride.

SportsCenter @SportsCenter

Reggie Jackson probably picked the wrong time to crash Blake's interview 😬 https://t.co/3qCnqwp6J6

It's not ideal for a team to be constructed in a way that makes a moderately overpaid point guard so critical to its success, but the Pistons aren't exactly a historic free-agent magnet. They acquired Jackson via trade initially, and paid handsomely to retain him—probably because they would have struggled to do better on the open market.

No, Jackson's strong recent play and its impact on one of the Pistons' best stretches in years doesn't erase three-plus seasons of mostly subpar play and injury. If we'd had to say whether Jackson was worth his $80 million deal as recently as late January, it would have been easy to skip all the peer comparisons and statistical analysis. The answer would have been an obvious "no."

The Pistons could have spent Jackson's money on someone else, perhaps someone who'd have missed fewer games and been more productive. So it's not quite as simple as asking whether two playoff berths (Jackson was also vital to Detroit's 2015-16 postseason trip) are worth $80 million over five years.

But the Pistons are primed to make the dance for just the second time in a decade, and Jackson's play has a lot to do with that. Maybe he's overpaid but, at least lately, he's also been invaluable.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference and accurate through games played Sunday, March 17. 

The Coach, David Thorpe, joins Howard Beck on The Full 48 to discuss his new venture, the Pro Training Center, as well as his return to True Hoop and the surprises of the 2018-19 NBA season (both good and bad). Thorpe also reacts to Russell Westbrook's interaction with a fan in Utah, puts players to the "bust, not, too early to tell" test and explains why basketball fans across the league should be concerned about the L.A. Lakers and LeBron James. 


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