Nylon Calculus: Is Reggie Jackson disrupting the Pistons offense?

Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) is in today's DraftKings daily picks. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) is in today's DraftKings daily picks. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports /

The return of Reggie Jackson was supposed to juice the Detroit Pistons offense. The talented point guard was the driving force for Detroit’s offensive attack last season, both as a scorer and a distributor, and in the 21 games Jackson missed recovering from knee tendinitis the Pistons managed to score just 103.5 points per 100 possessions, 16th in the league.

In the eight games since Jackson reentered the rotation, the Pistons are just 3-5 and have managed to score…101.3 points per 100 possessions. The return of their best offensive player has made the Pistons less efficient.

After a 15-point loss Saturday night to the Indiana Pacers, the Pistons held a player’s meeting where Marcus Morris reportedly voiced his frustrations with the way their offense had been trending. Morris’ comments to the media after the meeting (h/t Vince Ellis, Detroit Free Press) identified a lack of ball movement as his major issue.

"“If you have a guy wide open, he has to get the ball. It builds guys’ confidence. It makes the game funner. That’s just how it is. Of course some dudes are going to get more shots than other dudes. That’s how the game goes, guys are not going to respond well when they don’t get the ball when they’re open. That’s just basketball. That’s just the right way. The Spurs, Golden State, Cleveland, the top tier teams play the right way. You never win if you don’t play the right way. That’s just the bottom line.”"

The decline in the Pistons’ overall efficiency over the last games is not enormous and doesn’t necessarily represent an inherent flaw when you consider how much time Jackson missed and how long it may take him to work back into a personal and collaborative rhythm. But clearly chemistry is an issue and something feels fundamentally broken in Detroit’s offense, at the very least it feels broken to Marcus Morris. The problem is, it’s hard to find much statistical evidence of what Morris has identified as the primary problem.

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Looking at measures of ball movement and player movement (miles traveled per minute of possession), there are hardly any significant differences since Jackson returned. The team is throwing slightly fewer passes per game but generating similar assists numbers and with no appreciable difference in touch time or dribbles per touch.

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As to the idea of the Pistons overlooking wide-open shooters, before Jackson returned the Pistons were averaging 17.4 3-point attempts per game that were classified as either open (4-6 feet from the closest defender) or wide-open (6+ feet from the closest defender) by the NBA stats site. Since Jackson returned, that number has jumped to 20.5. They’re even making a slightly higher percentage of those open 3-pointers as well.

If you want broad reasons for the Pistons’ offense fading, it is slight declines in effective field goal percentage (49.6 percent to 49.1) and offensive rebound rate (22.4 percent to 21.4 percent), and a slight increase in turnover percentage (12.0 percent to 12.5). None of those appear to be catastrophic shifts that couldn’t be undone with a positive bounce in random variance (luck). However, if you wanted to take a look at who might feel as though the offense had changed significantly since Jackson returned, the table below should help.

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Obviously, Ish Smith’s touches per game have declined as his minutes have shrunk down to the back-up point guard role. The player who has lost the second-most touches since Jackson returned (about 14 percent of his pre-Jackson total) is Marcus Morris — airer of grievances and venter of frustrations. Five fewer touches per game is a big shift, especially for a guy who was only seeing about 35 of them to begin with.

Given their relative skill sets and historic production levels, more touches for Jackson at the expense of Morris is probably a net positive for the Pistons. But if a handful of those missed touches were when he was left open by the defense, and since an eight-game sample hasn’t been enough for the Pistons to feel the positive impact of Jackson’s return yet, you can understand how Morris would feel frustrated.

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Jackson is a much more ball-dominant player than Ish Smith but the statistical indicators don’t show Detroit’s offense functioning dramatically differently, even if it might feel like a big difference to players or fans, moment to moment. The Pistons are better off with Jackson healthy and in the lineup. Over time, the numbers should more than bear that out.