The horribleness of the Pistons 2016-17 season, and how things just seemed to keep getting worse, drove this Resident Optimist underground.
[I also moved into a new house in March, so bugging out on a disappointing season was easier to justify.]
But I’m back. Partly because my wife and daughter are out of town for the weekend so I have a few hours to sit down and write, and partly because I think there’s something about the current state of the Pistons that needs to be said. It’s been said before in comments and possibly in articles as well, but maybe it needs to be driven home a bit more.
The (near) future of the Pistons, unfortunately, rests firmly on the shoulders of Reggie Jackson.
Please, don’t despair.
Oh, for heaven’s sake… grab a tissue and wipe away your tears.
This is not entirely bad news.
All you need to do is hop into your time machine and travel back to the summer of 2016. Detroit Bad Boys was a wonderful place to be. It was full of optimism and hope.
The grand debate was about not if, but when, this Pistons core would contend for multiple NBA titles. Hell, I take full responsibility for contributing to this madness.
It all started after the Reggie trade.
We saw potential in the Reggie-Drummond tandem that we hadn’t seen in Detroit in a very long time. We saw two young guys who could put up monster numbers (remember Reggie’s triple-doubles and Dre’s 20-20 games?) and who, seemingly, a team could build around.
Then Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower began doing exactly that. They replaced a very shoddy supporting cast with guys who actually seemed to fit. At first, they added a reliable stretch PF in Ersan Ilyasova and an adequate SF in Marcus Morris (both of whom they acquired for peanuts). The bench? Well…that took a bit more time.
But right away they began to improve. The 2015-16 season showed genuine signs of optimism. In spite of a HORRIBLE, LEAGUE-WORST bench, they made the playoffs and looked downright fantastic while getting swept by the Cavs.
Then came the 2016 offseason.
SVB continued to make logical, if unspectacular, moves to shore up the rotation. The signings of Jon Leuer, Ish Smith and Boban Marjanovic were widely viewed as being overpays for marginal players, while also undoubtedly improving the Pistons’ bench from HORRIBLE to well, not horrible.
Everything was in place for a fun and exciting season. The goal was to blast through the first round of the playoffs and build on the previous year’s success.
Then came some odd news about Reggie Jackson’s knee and...platelets or something.
“Ahh,” we told ourselves, “he’ll miss 20 games. Maybe we’ll be a lower playoff seed instead of third or fourth.”
Remember this next part. It’s very easy to forget.
The Pistons played .500 ball while Reggie was out. They played their best ball of the season just before he returned… as we can all recall their torrid 3-game road streak where they shot threes like the Warriors and had opposing teams’ TV announcers saying things like “This is nuts! They can’t miss! You’ll never see the Pistons shoot this well again!”
And it turns out they were right. But maybe for the wrong reasons.
Basketball, it appears, is a team sport. One in which the players on the court have an affect on each other. Not just physically, but mentally…emotionally.
When Reggie Jackson came back, he was clearly not himself. Industrial Light & Magic did a better job impersonating Peter Cushing in Star Wars: Rogue One than 2017 Reggie did impersonating 2016 Reggie.
He was the Pistons’ thermal exhaust port. And the Pistons’ Death Star got blowed up.
[End of the Star Wars references. Promise.]
It’s not as though the players who played so well during that stretch suddenly forgot how to play team ball, or how to shoot or play defense. Their play was heavily influenced by the starting PG who returned to the lineup thinking he was capable of playing at the same level as before (Spoiler: he wasn’t).
Reggie shot too much. He missed too much. He passed too little. Defended even less.
And his play negatively affected virtually every other Piston on the court.
You see, when the guy running the offense looks to shoot first, second and third…and shoots very poorly, and fails to put in any effort on defense, well…guys get upset. They start wondering why they’re working so hard to get open if no one’s going to pass to them. They start wondering why they should bust their asses on defense when Reggie’s holding the door open for the Jeff Teague layup drill.
Some players make their teammates better. Bad Reggie made his teammates worse.
So where do we stand now?
That’s why I took the trouble of writing this bloody masterpiece.
Again, I find myself needing to say “You guys need to chill.”
And no, I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass.
Last season sucked so badly that I stopped watching the games during the final month. To put that in context, I watched every damn game from the 2014-15 season, including every minute played by He Who Will Not Be Named But Is Still Making $5 Million Per Season.
It may well be that this coming season turns into a dumpster fire that leads to SVB deciding to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. But that’s no sure thing.
And while it’s easy to look at the current roster and come to the conclusion that the Pistons are absolutely doomed, and have the bleakest outlook of any team in the NBA due to being capped out with mediocre talent… well, hold on a second.
These very same core players were one of the most productive units in the NBA during the 2015-16 season. None are on the downside of their careers (by age, anyway).
It’s all. About. Reggie.
With Good (healthy) Reggie, an inferior supporting cast (Old Man Blake!) was sufficient to win 44 games. With Bad (or injured) Reggie, an improved supporting cast scrapped and clawed its way to 37 wins.
Look, no one knows if Reggie can or will return to his previous form (fringe All-Star?). We only know that if he does, the cast around him is good enough to get back into the playoffs.
In spite of his ball-dominant, asthma-fatigue and poor-defense flaws, Good Reggie was capable of taking over games. There were many games in that previous season when he single-handedly kept them in or flat out won games in the fourth quarter. And guess what? When he wasn’t capable of doing that last season, they lost. And it was excruciating to watch.
Reggie was the straw that stirred this team’s drink. So last year, the Pistons had to clumsily guzzle a poorly-mixed drink straight from the glass, and they spilled it all over their chins, their shirts and even their knickers.
But Good Reggie, who like Superman in Superman II or Spider-Man in Spider-Man 2 or Batman in The Dark Knight Rises (c’mon, Hollywood!), seems to have disappeared for good, if he comes back…every other guy on the team suddenly looks a lot better.
Good Reggie makes it easier for Dre to do what he does best - rebound and dunk. Good Reggie takes the burden off guys like KCP and Andre to create shots in crunch time. Good Reggie creates open looks for guys like Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, and Jon Leuer (and maybe Luke “The Force” Kennard). Good Reggie allows Ish Smith to do what he does best - provide a spark off the bench for 20 minutes a night.
His injury exposed a major (major!) flaw in SVB’s construction of the team. I’m not sure how many other NBA teams have relied as much on a single player performing to his capability as much as the Pistons relied on Reggie Jackson doing so.
He’s literally the only guy they have who can (when healthy!) consistently drive to the basket and convert at a high percentage. When he’s on, they’re good. When he’s off, they’re horrible.
And because Reggie is currently at his lowest-possible value at the moment, the franchise’s only hope of returning to relevance anytime soon is that he return to his previous form.
In fact, pretty much every Piston aside from KCP is currently at his lowest value due to their late-season collapse. But remember that these are the same players we all universally agreed were on reasonable and moveable contracts just one summer ago.
Aside from Reggie, who’d have to be packaged with other assets in a trade, everyone else is being paid relatively close to his market value. Leuer wouldn’t fetch much in return at the moment, but Morris, Harris, Ish and the young players are all being paid reasonable salaries. And if Good Reggie returns, many of these supporting players will go up in value as well.
I write this because I see a LOT of doom and gloom in the comments. And while I can’t confidently say that things are looking good for the future of the franchise, I can say confidently that it’s a bit too early to tell.
If SVB can get a good return for Andre Drummond on the trade market, I’d be okay with that. If they can’t, I’d be okay with running it back one more time to see if Reggie has a bit more magic left in him. Maybe last season was the worst-case scenario realized in horrific detail. And maybe a healthy Reggie Jackson will bring the team back to its previous level of success and provide hope for the future.
And then, in the midst of his All-Star season, SVB will trade Reggie for a king’s ransom.
Because hey, what if that knee acts up again? (Right???)
Andre Drummond is not a leader. His play is determined in large part by his emotions. It’s not ideal, but the reason I mention it is that he could play at a higher and more consistent level of effort if the team as a whole plays better around him. Again, I don’t think that’s a good trait. Max guys should bring it every night. Period. But I do think Dre will play harder and better if Good Reggie returns.
I’m not optimistic about this upcoming season. My expectations are very low because I have serious doubts about Reggie’s ability to return to his previous form.
But yes, there’s a chance he gets healthy and the Pistons surprise people once again.
I may be the only member here at DBB courageous enough to dream that they’ll turn things around this season. But I can’t help but look at the supporting cast around Reggie-Dre and see that (with KCP returning) it’s potentially stronger and deeper than it has been in many years.
I see Ish, Leuer, Boban, Ellenson, Stanley and Kennard as all being capable rotation players. There are no gaping holes on the second unit.
With Bad Reggie, this team goes nowhere and possibly gets dismantled. With Good Reggie, it’s a solid playoff team with a bright future.
Cross your fingers. There’s a (teeny, tiny, eency, weency) chance this could be a fun season.