When it was announced that Reggie Jackson would miss over a month to start the 2016-17 season after undergoing plasma injection therapy to treat tendinitis in his left knee, some people wondered if the Detroit Pistons could stay afloat without their floor general.
After all, Jackson was the team’s leading scorer last season, averaging 18.8 points per game on 43.4 percent shooting from the field. He also led the Pistons in assists per game (6.6) and three-point shooting (118 total threes).
Few teams relied on their go-to option as much as Detroit did last year; not only did Jackson’s 29.1 percent usage rating easily lead the Pistons, it was actually the 16th-highest percentage in the NBA. The only players with a higher usage rating than Jackson last year were All-Stars.
Fortunately for the Pistons, offseason free agent acquisition Ish Smith stepped into the starting lineup and did a terrific job in Jackson’s absence. In the 21 games that Jackson missed, Smith averaged 10.8 points, 6.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds and one steal in 29.6 minutes per game.
Also, Tobias Harris emerged as the Pistons’ top offensive weapon with Jackson out. He’s averaging a team-high 16.8 points on 49 percent shooting from the field so far this season. The 24-year-old has scored 20+ points in seven games and reached double figures in all but four contests.
Without Jackson, the Pistons went 11-10. That puts them in the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed. They currently have the NBA’s fifth-ranked defense (allowing 101.4 points per 100 possessions) and the 16th-ranked offense (scoring 103.2 points per 100 possessions).
Now, Jackson is back in the starting five – making his season debut last against the Orlando Magic. For the first time this season, the Pistons will be at full strength and they should be able to climb in the standings if they play to their full potential.
Not only will the return of Jackson improve Detroit’s starting lineup, their bench will benefit as well since Smith will strengthen the second unit. He’s one of the better back-up point guards in the league, as he has shown that he can post starting-caliber numbers when given significant playing time.
In Jackson’s season debut, he had 18 points and four assists in 23 minutes. He shot an efficient 7-12 from the field and 2-3 from three-point range. Detroit lost to Orlando, dropping their record to 11-11 on the season. More importantly though, Jackson’s knee felt fine after his first contest.
“It felt good,” Jackson told reporters after Sunday’s game. “It felt pretty good when I was playing. It’s going to take some time to get acclimated with my teammates again, but it felt good. I just wished we came out with a win. I felt like I was a little behind others in game shape and little aspects like that. I think in defensive coverages and rotations, I was a little rusty and then just finding guys a little bit quicker. But offensively, I felt pretty good. I can attack and go downhill.
“I trust all the work that I have done with the staff and with my coaches and teammates. I can’t put any limitations on it, so I just go out there and be myself and play to the best of my ability to find out truly where I’m at.”
Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy was critical of his team’s performance after the loss, but did say that Jackson “scored the ball well.” He added that Jackson had “too many turnovers, but that’s probably to be expected [in his first game back].”
Jackson’s teammates were impressed with Jackson’s debut and it’s clear they’re excited to get him back in the starting lineup.
“I thought he looked good,” Jon Leuer told MLive.com. “For his first competitive action in a while, it was good to see him out there and doing what he does – getting to the lane, making plays, making shots. He really looked good.”
“Slowly but surely [he’s] getting there,” Marcus Morris told MLive.com. “He hasn’t played in a while. He’s going to be back good soon. Real soon. I thought he stayed really aggressive. I thought he got his shots.”
Detroit’s +3.1 point differential is fourth-best in the Eastern Conference, which suggests that they’re better than their eighth-place standing indicates. The Pistons are fourth in the Central Division (behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks), but that’s because they play in one of the toughest divisions in the NBA; they’re just four games back from Cleveland, one and a half games back from Chicago and one game back from Milwaukee.
Perhaps the return of Jackson is just what the team needs to take the next step forward and become one of the better teams in the conference.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.