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Brandon Jennings and Reggie Jackson: Why they can play together

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There's plenty of reasons as to why the two point guards can co-exist.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

In today's NBA, teams are gravitating towards small ball, as shown by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, who were able to get away with starting a 6-foot-7 Draymond Green at center on the far taller Timofey Mozgov.  The reason?  The NBA is getting quicker, with "pace and space" being the new mantra.  In that regard, a pairing of Brandon Jennings and Reggie Jackson could be viewed as desirable.  Both possess tremendous athleticism, with Jennings having elite speed and agility and Jackson with great strength, acceleration and body control.  They are also both excellent ball handlers and, for a team which sometimes struggles due to the lack of a secondary ball handler on the floor, having two point guards could open things up.

We saw in 2013-14 and early 2014-15 how effective the Phoenix Suns made super-small-ball look, with Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and later Isaiah Thomas running the show.  Often, the Suns would trot out two of the three, with the tallest being Dragic who's only 6-foot-3, the same size as Reggie Jackson.  The reason the Suns were able to make it work is because all three are good ball handlers, and all three offer a consistent outside threat.  Therefore, to be able to effectively run this system, you need good shooters and ball handlers, as well as a strong defensive unit.  Let's examine the variables.

Shooting

Both players are known as streaky shooters, but in this system, one of them will be playing off the ball, and given a lot of spot up three point opportunities.  Let's take a look at each player's catch and shoot three pointers and also their three pointers when they take no dribbles.  For the purposes of this analysis, we're going to be using the numbers from the 2014-15 season with the Pistons, so we'll use Jennings' 41 games before his injury, and Jackson's 27 games post All-Star break*.

*NBA.com didn't allow actual filtering of certain dates/months exactly, so I just categorized Jackson into post-All-Star, luckily since it was the break when he was traded, the numbers are the same.

Player Catch-and-shoot 3PT attempted 3P%
Reggie Jackson 1.1 per game 45.2%
Brandon Jennings 1.8 per game 41.7%
Player No. of threes attempted w/no dribbles 3P%
Reggie Jackson 1.2 per game 43.8%
Brandon Jennings 1.8 per game 40.0%

So, as we can see, both players are very efficient when playing off the ball while shooting from three.  Obviously, the sample size is a little smaller than ideal, but bear in mind that both players' stats include stretches of horrible play (Jackson when he first arrived, Jennings in December).

Because Jennings has more of a history as a decent three-point shooter, it's easier to imagine that, were this system to come to fruition, then he would be the one to play off the ball.  Jackson's career sub-30 three point percentage would mean that teams would likely sag off him due to the fact that he isn't a consistent three-point threat.  What's more, with Jackson's size and acceleration, plus his body control and ability to finish around the rim, he becomes the ideal ball-handler in this scenario. Not only is he very good at getting penetration, but if he was to run a pick and roll with someone like Andre Drummond (envision a small ball lineup with KCP at the 3 and Morris/Ilyasova at the 4), then he could get into the paint, and because the Jackson-Drummond pick and roll has proven deadly, he can find shooters on the perimeter.  He has already shown a great proficiency to whip passes across the court one-handed to open marksmen, so this scenario would allow for that.

Another reason why Jennings is ideal to play off the ball and Jackson as the ball handler is their distribution of shot attempts, as in, where they're taking their shots from.  For someone on the ball like Jackson, the best shots are at the rim and above the break threes, whilst for someone spotting up like Jennings, wing threes and corner shots are the best (as well as at the rim).  Let's look at each player's heat maps for 2014-15, Jackson on top, and Jennings below, courtesy of Basketball Reference.

For Brandon Jennings, because he was a dominant ball handler for his time on the court, the majority of his three pointers were above the break.  However, he shot the ball at 50% from both corners (16-32), and he was assisted on over 60% of his corner threes compared to just 40% from above the break, where he shot it at only 33.7%.

Jackson, on the other hand, for his time in Detroit, shot the ball at 35.5% for above the break threes (27-76), while only attempting 4 corner threes in 27 games (1-4).  While these sample sizes are again small due to the limited amount of games both played for Detroit, they both show promise in co-existing in a spread offense where Jennings can be lethal from the wings whilst Jackson can attack inside or comfortably shoot his top-of-the-key three pointers.

Like I said, with Jackson being the primary ball handler, he'll be attacking a lot, and thus needs to be efficient near the hoop.  According to NBA.com, he shot the ball at 58.5% in the restricted area, with 15% of those shots being assisted, showing a proficiency to drive and finish without the need for much help, opening up potential avenues for isolation if the shot clock is running down.  Also, a fair few of those buckets would have come as a result of the pick and roll where Drummond shielded off Jackson's primary defender, but the big man, fearing the lob, shaded Drummond, hence allowing Jackson an easy path to the hoop.

Ball Handling

During their times in Detroit, both Brandon Jennings and Reggie Jackson showed previously unseen abilities in running an offense.  In Milwaukee, Jennings was branded as a chucker who only got his, hoisting up bad shots and neglecting his duties as a facilitator.  In Oklahoma City, Jackson was merely seen as a spark plug off the bench and an able body to fill in when Westbrook was out of the game.

But, in Detroit, with teams to run, both players have really embraced the role of facilitator.  Last season, Jennings clearly made strides under the tutelage of Maurice Cheeks, and even finished the year 5th in the league in total assists (behind only John Wall, Stephen Curry, Ricky Rubio and Chris Paul), and 6th in assists per game (behind same group + Ty Lawson).  This past season, despite his assist numbers dropping from 7.6 per game to 6.6, his assist percentage went up 5.5%, showing a greater efficiency and realizing when to take his shot and when to dish off.  The low numbers can also be partly explained by the early season minutes where D.J. Augustin was running him even.

Player PER Assist % TO% Usage Rate
Reggie Jackson 19.8 51.2% 17% 28.6%
Brandon Jennings 19.7 39.9% 12.9% 26.3%

First, let's address the elephant in the room, Reggie Jackson's stupid assist rate of over 50%.  This means that, for all the time he was on the floor, he assisted on half of the team's made field goals.  In his short time in Detroit so far, he's dished 248 assists, in only 27 games, at 9.2 a game.  His previous high was actually his stint with OKC before the trade, where he averaged 4.3 assists per game.  Obviously the naysayers will again point to sample size, but it's not like these numbers were over one week.  27 games is one-third of the season, give or take a game.  Even if his ridiculous rate does peter out to a more reasonable level, it's still not unrealistic to imagine that reasonable level being around 8 assists per game, considering his options will be improved, especially from the fossilized remains of Tayshaun Prince and Caron Butler to Marcus Morris and Stanley Johnson.

What's also encouraging is the turnover and usage rates of both players.  Obviously, if Jennings' usage rate does go down, as would be expected in a role in this lineup, his turnover rate would also go down.  However, just because Jennings and Jackson are on the court together, doesn't mean only one has to handle.  Jennings could still handle for some sets, and get Jackson attacking to the rim, whether it be a curl cut around the elbow with Jennings executing a dribble handoff to get Jackson going downhill against a retreating defense, or a small-small pick and roll with Jackson and Jennings resulting in a Jennings three.

This dual-point guard lineup also gives the offense a bail out of the primary offensive set breaks down, as you can then initiate secondary action.  For example, too often last season, plays would break down because the ball would be forced out of Jennings' hands, and, with the lack of a secondary playmaker on the court, the offense broke down into isolation and hero ball.  With Jackson and Jennings, it forces the defense to think twice about doubling one, because they'll simply kick to the other, and create a 4 on 3, with lethal shooters around the perimeter.

Lineup

For this tandem to work, there needs to be a specific lineup in which it's a part of.  Due to the defensive weaknesses of both, a strong defensive unit behind them on the perimeter is needed, so Drummond or Joel Anthony would likely be the center.  This duo shouldn't really play with guys like Ersan Ilyasova or Jodie Meeks because of their defensive liabilities, likewise with Aron Baynes.  I can envision the best scenario being a small ball lineup, with Jackson at PG, Jennings at SG, Caldwell-Pope or Johnson at SF, Marcus Morris at PF, and Joel Anthony or Andre Drummond at C.  KCP or Johnson, whichever you choose, both provide athletic defense and a respectable jumpshot, while Marcus Morris has shown defensive potential and a good ability to stay in front of his man.  Plus, he's pretty strong at 235 pounds.  Drummond and Anthony both provide shot blocking, but they both have weaknesses.  Drummond is an amazing rebounder on historic levels, but is still prone to defensive lapses, while Anthony, for all his defensive acumen, is a tad undersized and can struggle on the boards.

Also, the opposition should be small ball as well.  It won't work if Jackson, whom I envision defending the 2 because of his size, is stuck on someone like Klay Thompson, Joe Johnson or Khris Middleton, because they'll exploit the size mismatch.  Some good teams who run small ball which this lineup could be used are Phoenix and Boston.  Phoenix is the pioneer of modern day dual point guard lineups with Dragic and Bledsoe in 2013-14, when they nearly made the playoffs, and now they have Bledsoe and Knight, both under 6-foot-3, who figure to see considerable time together.  With Boston, they have Avery Bradley, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas all under 6-foot-4, and they figure to run a lot of dual-point-guard lineups as well.

Well, there are the strengths of playing Reggie Jackson and Brandon Jennings together. Don't worry pessimists, I'll also bring out an analysis on why this pairing will cause catastrophic destruction to life as we know it, so stay tuned, but for now, what main strengths to do you see with this system?

Have your say below.