For the second consecutive season, the Detroit Pistons have made a big splash at the trade deadline. Almost a year to the day after they traded Kyle Singler and DJ Augustin to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Reggie Jackson, they sent Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings to the Orlando Magic for Tobias Harris. In an era where young talent is valued more highly than ever, the Pistons have been able to acquire two foundational under-25 pieces for spare parts without even having to give up a first-round draft pick. Stan Van Gundy has found a glitch in the system and he’s exploiting it for all its worth.
The common theme for Jackson and Harris is that they were talented young players caught in a logjam for touches, minutes and salary space on teams full of talented young players. While the Thunder were obviously much farther along in the building process than the Magic, the underlying dynamic remained the same. Rob Hennigan is a disciple of Sam Presti and he clearly brought the Oklahoma City playbook to Orlando when it comes to being able to find talent in the draft. He hasn’t found any superstar caliber players yet, but he had so many good players in Orlando that they couldn’t all show what they could do.
After a breakout season that landed him a four-year $64 million contract in the offseason, Harris regressed this season, in large part because he didn’t get to play with the ball in his hands as much. His usage rating slipped from 22.5 to 19.1 as he fell behind a number of different guys in the pecking order. As a small-ball PF, Harris depends on his guards to get him the ball and that’s a problem when all his guards are young players who are trying to put up stats and prove themselves at the next level too. He was only averaging 13.7 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists on 46.4% shooting and his value has slipped league-wide.
For as talented a player as Harris is, he could only be so valuable on a team that has to find some way to get minutes to Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja, two Top 5 picks who are dying for more playing time. As long as Nikola Vucevic is entrenched at C and Elfrid Payton is entrenched at PG, there will be a crunch for playing time on the wings and Harris was clearly the odd man out. He never had a great relationship with Scott Skiles, whom had coached him in a previous life in Milwaukee, and he was one of the only members of the Magic’s young core whom their front office had not drafted and developed themselves.
As a result, Detroit was able to swoop in and grab him for almost nothing. They knew he could be more valuable for them than the was for his previous team and they valued him higher than most teams around the league because they could envision a bigger role for him in their system that would be the perfect match for his talents. In a lot of ways, it resembles the process by which they got Jackson and then gave him a max contract, a move which raised eyebrows around the NBA but now feels like a fairly self-explanatory set of decisions.
A year ago at this time, Jackson was dying to get out of Oklahoma City. Like so many of the other young players whom the Thunder had drafted and then forced to sit behind veterans like Derek Fisher and Caron Butler, he was chafing for more playing time. As the saying goes, Jackson “wasn’t meant to play the son.” Just as important, with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant dominating the ball, there was no room on the Thunder for a ball-dominant PG who wasn’t all that effective as a spot-up shooter and who was at his best when aggressively hunting for his own shot.
You can see it in the numbers. Jackson was averaging 12.8 points and 4.3 assists on 43.2% shooting when he left Oklahoma City and even those limited stats were boosted by his stint as the primary option when Westbrook and Durant were out with injuries. There were a lot of questions about whether he would ever be able to handle a bigger role on a winning team and they weren’t answered by Jackson’s up-and-down performance as the main guy in Detroit in the last few months of the season.
What the Pistons recognized was that last season’s version of the Pistons was only a Beta version of the team they were trying to set up. With Greg Monroe clogging up the paint next to Andre Drummond, there was no driving lanes for Jackson to exploit and no spacing to consistently run the pick-and-roll to Drummond, the backbone of their offense. When they could put more shooting around the Jackson and Drummond two-man game, they envisioned better stats for both of their young centerpieces and that’s exactly what has happened.
What they still needed was a consistent third option who could provide more of a scoring punch without sacrificing their floor spacing or their defense. Jackson is still an inconsistent shooter while Drummond’s inability to shoot free throws will always limit his ability to create his own offense in the halfcourt. Ilyasova, the previous starting PF, was more of a role player while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was better off focusing on his defense and Stanley Johnson, whom they took in this year’s lottery, is still years away from reaching his offensive potential.
Harris can slide perfectly into that role. At 6’9 235 with a 6’11 wingspan, he’s almost a prototype small-ball PF in the modern NBA. He’s a walking mismatch who can create his own shot whenever he wants, either by taking slower defenders off the dribble or punishing smaller ones in the post. He’s a big man with the skill-set of a guard - he can shoot, handle and pass and he can match up with multiple positions on defense. The two biggest areas for growth in his game - defensive awareness and knowing when to look for his own shot and when to move the ball - are two areas that should naturally improve with time.
The most encouraging thing about the Jackson and Harris trades is just how young both players still are. Van Gundy got them right in the sweet spot where the perception about their games around the league has been solidified (as they are both now in their 2nd contracts) but before they actually reach their prime (Jackson is 25 and Harris is 23). When it comes to team building, the Pistons have managed to have their cake and eat it too. They are going all-in on making the playoffs this season while still managing the long-term ceiling of their roster.
What they have done over the last year and a half is an absolutely textbook job of building around a young franchise player. Instead of drafting guys younger than Drummond and painstakingly going through the process of grooming 18 and 19 years old from the ground up, they have let other teams do the developing for them and identified talented 22 and 23 year olds who are waiting for a chance to show what they can do. It’s a lot easier to evaluate players once they have been in the NBA for 3-4 seasons - the tricky part is finding ones who still have room to grow. That’s exactly what the Pistons have done with Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris and it has them poised for brighter days ahead.