At the time of the Reggie Jackson trade for Pistons starters D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler, there was a fair amount of confusion among the team's fanbase.
Moving a pair of proven starters for a high upside guy, was Stan Van Gundy throwing in the towel on the playoff race? How would he coexist with two other players who also thrive in the paint in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe? Was Van Gundy just being lured in by name recognition?
Well, even with the benefit of hindsight, all of those turned out to be valid questions. But as I pointed out in the immediate aftermath of the trade, the key for Jackson's success would be in forming a dominant pick and roll pairing with Drummond - and he was able to do just that.
The Pistons have experienced a considerable amount of roster turnover in the three short years Drummond has been in Detroit. Dre has had playing time with a total of eleven different point guards. And out of all of those point guards, Jackson stands heads-and-shoulders above any other at delivering the ball to the young big man.
Even better than Will Bynum, who's pick-and-roll game with Drummond helped Dre thrive right out of the gates as a rookie.
Below, I've charted out each of the point guards who have played with Drummond, totalled up the number of assists each delivered to Drummond, and used the two-man lineup data to figure the number of assists dished to Drummond per 36 minutes. This is about as apples-to-apples as you can get.
It's pretty remarkable. Presuming Jackson continues his rate of assists to Drummond, it would be the second highest total of assists to one player in the league behind only Chris Paul to Blake Griffin.
Despite being tossed straight together mid-season with a roster that wasn't necessarily built around them, the duo thrived. It's exciting to think what more might be in store with a full summer to work together and continuing to build a roster that fits.
So what makes this work in ways that others haven't?
There are two keys: Jackson's ability to score in a variety of ways in the paint and his size.
When the point guard comes off Drummond's screen, he's faced with a balancing act. He has to be aggressive in attacking Drummond's man to occupy the defender. He has to act quickly enough to prevent his man from recovering and allowing the opposing center to switch back to Dre. But he also has to be patient enough to allow Drummond to slip behind the defense for the alley oop.
Jackson masters this act, but his skillset helps him do so. Most point guards the Pistons have had during Drummond's tenure have had some paint skills. Augustin was a strong finisher and a surprisingly nifty floater, Brandon Jennings offered some craftiness in creating space for jumpers, Bynum was ferocious getting to the basket - but none even come close to the variety that Jackson brings.
Jackson can attack and finish over seven footers with either hand, he has nice touch on his floater, can step back and knock down the 10 foot jumper reliably. The 3-10 foot range doesn't tend to be an efficient spot on the court for most point guards. Augustin and Jennings shoot 28 and 32 percent respectively from their career from that area. Jackson's career mark is 43 percent. He's about as good as anyone in the league in that area.
And that's an important spot. Take a look at how Jackson attacks off the Drummond screen.
He wants to get to that green circle. This spot creates gets the defense far enough apart that they can't quickly recover, but also is close enough to get the pass through without the chance of it being intercepted. The result leaves the defense with two players to cover and only one person to do it. By the time they recover, all they can do is watch the ball sail over their heads for a Drummond dunk.
Or, if they opt to cover Drummond, Jackson's going to have a lane to the rim. Defenses can't cover both.
Jennings and Augustin didn't put the same pressure on defenses - defenses were actually able to force the issue. With only a couple of tricks in their bag, opposing big men were able to push hard for the direction they knew each wanted to go (Jennings left, Augustin right) while walling off the lob to Drummond. If the point guard stopped short, the defense was comfortable sagging off and leaving the low percentage shot open to instead catch up to Drummond while the point guard recovered.
It also helps that Jackson does most of his damage within 16 feet of the rim. While it may not earn him "floor stretcher" status, it makes delivering Drummond the ball much easier. After all, it's easier to deliver a pass 12 feet than 22 feet.
Consider this play:
Boston uses Jared Sullinger, Drummond's man, to prevent point guard penetration and brings Brandon Bass back to help defend the roll. Jennings often responded to this defense by stepping back for a three from the elbow - which was a very effective shot for him this season.
But Jackson's game allows him the option of taking mid-range jumper which also freezes Sullinger from being able to recover to Drummond in time - or to hit the wide-open Tolliver.
Much has been discussed about Stan Van Gundy potentially moving to a 4 out-1 in system similar to what he used in Orlando with Dwight Howard. But even if Greg Monroe is replaced this summer with a shooting power forward, Jackson's presence essentially still leaves the team with a 3 out-1 in position.
Jackson's superior height, long arms, and strong ball handling ability also give him an advantage in getting the ball over opposing big men or across the court to exploit too aggressive of a rotation by the defense. This turns the Jackson-Drummond pick and roll to a true triple threat with Jackson's scoring ability, the lob to Dre, and the pass out for the three.
In fact, the pass-out might actually be the most dangerous of the three. According to Synergy, during Jackson's time in Detroit he led the league in points created through passes out of the pick and roll.
Thanks to this, defenses aren't able to collapse into the paint or cheat a man over to shut off Drummond's roll.
As with every issue surrounding the Pistons these days, where Greg Monroe fits into the equation is part of the question. Jackson's assist numbers to Drummond rose when Monroe sat out 11 games, but only to the tune of 2.9 per game compared to 2.4 with Monroe on the court.
But scheme is the bigger issue.
Drummond and Monroe finished first and third in the league respectively in field goal attempts from fewer than five feet this season. Adding a third player who looks to score from close takes away many of those advantages the team enjoyed in the pick and roll thanks to a lack of spacing, making them much easier to defend. Jackson ran into too much traffic in the paint and the Pistons were no longer able to punish teams for rotating.
The lack of space also made a major impact in Jackson's shooting numbers, but we'll get to that later. The key point is that just as if the team were being built around Drummond and Monroe, a roster built around Drummond and Jackson requires those two to be surrounded by players who can shoot in order to be at its best.
That factor could very well guide Stan Van Gundy's free agency approach this offseason, even if Monroe decides to put the Pistons toward the top of his list of teams he is interested - or in other words, interest from Monroe might not be mutual. Van Gundy might see players with a jump shot like Brandon Bass, Kyle O'Quinn, or Derrick Williams as the better fit and value for cost than the near-max salary Monroe likely expects to receive.
It'd be a major shift in the development of the team over the past several years. But based on the early results, the Jackson-Drummond connection is one worth building around.