NBA Position Battles: Should Reggie Jackson Be the Starting Point Guard for the Detroit Pistons?

Reggie Jackson is having a down year for the Pistons. Should he continue to start over Ish Smith?

There was a lot of hope for Reggie Jackson when he signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Detroit Pistons in 2015, but this season -- his second full campaign with the Pistons -- hasn't gone quite as expected.

Knee tendinitis cost him the first 21 games of the year, and although he's played in all 36 contests for the Pistons since returning, his numbers are a bit down compared to last year.

2015-16 79 30.7 18.8 43.4% 35.3% 86.4% 3.2 6.2 0.7 0.1 2.8
2016-17 36 28.4 15.2 42.8% 36.3% 85.0% 2.2 5.6 0.8 0.1 2.4

His shooting percentages are fairly similar, but the slight dips in points, rebounds, and assists per contest are concerning for a 26-year-old point guard who should be headed towards his peak, not away from it.

He had one of his best games of the last month on Wednesday night against the Mavericks, scoring 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting, along with 3 triples, 4 assists, and 2 steals, but that was his most positive outing in a while.

Previous to that game, Jackson was coming off a pretty horrible 9-game stretch in which he averaged 8.9 points, 1.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.0 blocks, and 1.2 turnovers in 25.8 minutes per contest, while shooting 32.9% from the field, 20.7% from long range, and 81.8% from the charity stripe.

Meanwhile, Ish Smith -- Jackson's backup at point guard and the Pistons' starter for the 21 games Jackson missed -- has averaged 10.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.8 blocks, and 1.5 turnovers in 21.5 minutes per contest over his last 10 while shooting a blistering 60.5% from the field, 37.5% from deep, and 66.7% from the line.

With Smith nipping at Jackson's heels in terms of overall production, is it soon going to be a question for head coach Stan Van Gundy whether he should be starting Reggie Jackson or Ish Smith at point guard?

What the Numbers Say

In terms of raw averages, Jackson has a clear advantage due to the fact that he plays five more minutes per game than Smith. If you compare the per-36 numbers of both guards, however, both players have their strengths and weaknesses.

Player PTS/36 FG% 3P% FT% REB/36 AST/36 STL/36 BLK/36 TOV/36
Reggie Jackson 19.3 42.8% 36.3% 85.0% 2.8 7.0 1.0 0.1 3.0
Ish Smith 12.9 44.5% 25.4% 68.7% 4.1 7.4 1.1 0.6 2.2

R-Jax scores the ball more and does so more efficiently than Ish while dishing out a similar number of assists, but Smith is better at rebounding, defending (this year at least), and limiting turnovers.

When you toss those numbers in a pot and cook up their advanced metrics, you realize these two players have had pretty similar seasons, despite the fact that Jackson gets paid nearly three times as much as Smith.

Category Reggie Jackson Ish Smith
nERD -1.0 -1.8
Offensive rating 105 103
Defensive rating 110 108
Player efficiency rating 15.7 13.8
Win shares 1.7 1.9
Win shares per 48 minutes .080 .070
Box plus/minus -0.7 -1.3
Value over replacement player 0.3 0.2

Jackson is better than Smith in nERD -- our proprietary metric -- offensive rating, player efficiency rating, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus, and value over replacement player, but only slightly in each case. Smith, meanwhile, gets the edge in defensive rating and total win shares.

With the two having fairly similar raw averages and advanced stats, it's perhaps best to look at lineup data to see how well the Pistons have performed when each point guard has been combined with the team's other regular starters.

Playing With the Starters

Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Marcus Morris have started every single game they've played for the Pistons this year, but Van Gundy has oscillated at one forward spot between Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer, with Leuer starting the team's last 12 games. For the sake of our study, we'll just look at the four-man combination of each point guard with Drummond, KCP, and Morris, and leave the influence of Harris vs. Leuer out of it.

4-Man Lineup MIN Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg AST/TO Ratio REB% eFG%
Jackson, Caldwell-Pope, Morris, Drummond 582 104.5 112.4 -7.9 1.80 50.1% 51.2%
Smith, Caldwell-Pope, Morris, Drummond 480 106.9 106.5 0.5 2.25 49.2% 51.3%

Both lineups have similar rebounding percentages and effective field goal percentages, but the Smith iteration has bested the Jackson version in terms of both offensive and defensive efficiency, net rating, and assist-to-turnover ratio by a fairly wide margin.

So, while Jackson and Smith have been fairly similar this season in terms of individual averages and advanced metrics, the Pistons have been better with Smith on the floor than with Jackson. To drive that point home, just look at their on/off splits.

Situation Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg
Reggie Jackson on 103.0 110.3 -7.3
Reggie Jackson off 104.2 101.9 2.3
Ish Smith on 104.7 102.6 2.1
Ish Smith off 102.8 107.2 -4.4

Playoff Bound?

The Detroit Pistons are currently the 8 seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 27-30 and we give them a 54.0% chance of making the playoffs. Based on recent play at the point guard position, a change in the starting lineup might be necessary in order for that to happen.

Reggie Jackson is popping up in trade rumors, so the Jackson vs. Smith argument might be moot within a week. That said, if the Pistons do keep Jackson on the roster, they might be best served to bring him off the bench and to reunite Smith with the regular starters, since they had so much success together early in the season and whenever Smith has made it onto the floor.

It would be unusual for a team to move their third-highest paid player out of the starting lineup, but Stan Van Gundy is no stranger to that kind of move: he recently benched Tobias Harris, the team's second-highest paid player, for Jon Leuer.

If Detroit stays put at the trade deadline, it will be interesting to see how they and Van Gundy deal with the Reggie Jackson decline moving forward.