Reggie Jackson had to get out of Oklahoma City so bad he didn’t care how ugly it was. He got a taste of the starting point guard job and decided he didn’t want to play as Russell Westbrook’s understudy anymore. So he agitated for a trade, then made himself a nuisance. While Russ was out with a finger fracture and Kevin Durant was rehabbing a foot injury in November of 2014, Jackson milked an ankle sprain, sulking because the Thunder hadn’t sent him elsewhere before the October 31st extension deadline. At shootaround one morning, he told reporters he probably wouldn’t be playing that night. Once he was done fielding questions, he jogged over to a basket and threw down a windmill dunk. His Thunder career was about over then. He publicly thanked god when they shipped him to the Pistons in February.
This isn’t to tongue-cluck about the saga two years later—although Jackson clearly isn’t over it; he tweeted a smirking emoji when KD and Russ fell to the Warriors in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season—so much as to remark that Jackson’s self-estimation hasn’t diminished in the meantime. He wanted to leave the Thunder because he thought he could be a star, but his time in Detroit has proven that he’s not. The basic conceit of the pick-and-roll-heavy offense Stan Van Gundy likes to run is that if his point guard gets a half-step on the defense, he’ll be able to hurt them. Jackson has the quickness to create space for himself, but he lacks the polish to make that space matter. He doesn’t have Kyrie Irving’s finesse, nor Kyle Lowry’s midrange game, nor John Wall’s court vision, nor Westbrook’s terrifying physicality. He’s excellent at nothing and deficient enough as a shooter that good defenses can smother him.
He’s fine, in other words—a member of the fraternal order of point guards whose teams are always open to replacing them. He’s Jeff Teague. He’s George Hill. Well, he’s those guys plus a persecution complex. Coming off a knee injury that delayed his season debut until early December, Jackson has been less than serviceable this year. He doesn’t get to the free throw line as frequently as he used to, and his assist numbers are down. There have been calls for Van Gundy to start Ish Smith over Jackson, and Stan Van has experimented lately with splitting minutes more evenly between the two guards. Asked about his struggles a few days ago, he talked about going into a media blackout: I can’t recall any article I’ve read, I can’t really recall watching any interviews…. I’ve literally just learned to tune out all the fans… I could really [not] care less about anybody else’s opinion anymore. It’s not as if a director has an obligation to engage with critics panning his movie, or a politician has to parlay with hostile journalists, but Jackson’s defensiveness reveals that he doesn’t seem to understand that he’s not playing well.
Perhaps that’s unfair. It assumes a kind of willful stupidity. But Jackson has had a prickly importunateness about him his entire career. You get the impression that even when he’s alone he deflects blame, that he senses some hidden greatness within that simply hasn’t manifested yet. He wouldn’t be the first professional athlete to overestimate himself. Maybe that’s how you get to Jackson’s level in the first place, if you don’t have Klay Thompson’s jumper or Kawhi Leonard’s athleticism: you believe that you’re Jordan and then see how true you can make that delusion. What irritates the hell out of fans is when the persistence of that belief becomes counterproductive, both for the player and for his team. A couple weeks ago, with the Pistons holding a one-point lead over the Celtics, Jackson launched a half-contested 25-footer in the final minute. Took a few pensive dribbles and just fired the sucker with 12 seconds on the shot clock. The Pistons ended up losing by six.
There was scuttlebutt near the trade deadline that Van Gundy was thinking about cutting Jackson loose, dumping him on the Magic in exchange for some expiring contracts. Stan was probably of two minds on the matter: on the one hand, the Pistons are trying to make the playoffs and need all the help they can get, and on the other, where are you going with Reggie Jackson as your point guard?
And where is Reggie Jackson going? He’s 26 and if he’s not yet straining against the limits of his own ability, then it’s difficult to see what mental breakthrough is going to arrive and make him into the player he thinks he is. Growth is not only about effort, but about having the perspective to pick up your head and realize where you are. Sometimes it takes knowing what you can’t do. Jackson is convinced that he has the talent to run with Lowry and Irving and Westbrook and Wall. That conviction won’t help him, and it puts a hard ceiling on what the Pistons can accomplish with him in charge of their offense.
If you have a retributive streak in you, you could say Jackson has gotten what’s coming to him. He’s failing to live up to a big contract on a mediocre team that the coach has put him in charge of. He has the freedom to do what he wants and what he does isn’t particularly impressive. But he’s pitiable too, in the way the protagonists of fables who get battered against the rocks for their hubris are. His ass has been shown. We know for certain what he is now. The only question that remains about Reggie Jackson is whether, deep down, he knows too. He must, right? Then you watch him play, see him squirm at every unkind word said about him, and you wonder if maybe he’ll just go on like this forever.