Something was just missing.
Just two seasons ago, the Pistons had a budding one-two combo with point guard Reggie Jackson and center Andre Drummond. After Jackson signed a long-term deal, they seemed to be the building block to the Pistons’ resurgence, with a return to the playoffs and percolating optimism.
Drummond had just made an All-Star appearance and Jackson had had a near-All-Star year, seemingly worth every dime of his five-year deal, worth $80 million. But when Jackson had tendinitis issues during the preseason last year, things fell apart.
One-half of certain combinations just don't work: peanut butter without the jelly, hamburger without the bun or Kool-Aid without the sugar.
Drummond without Jackson wasn’t quite the same.
After Jackson missed the first 21 games, the Pistons started slowly out of the gate with reserve point guard Ish Smith holding things down admirably in Jackson’s absence. When Jackson returned, he wasn’t near 100 percent and played through most of the season as just a shell of the 2016 point guard that was one of the most dominant fourth-quarter scorers in the league.
And that’s where the Pistons — and Drummond — are now, hoping that Jackson can return to his previous form, that the offseason regimen that they have him on now will keep his left knee healthy. Jackson isn’t doing basketball activities in the summer and the Pistons are keeping close tabs on his progress.
“Reggie’s got to have confidence that’s he’s back physically and that he can do the things he did before. This process has been good,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said recently. “This is a long offseason process. He’s got great confidence in it and he’s at a point every day where he wants to do more.
“That’s a good sign and he’ll return with the confidence to attack the basket and make the plays two years ago when there was no question he was one of the top 10 point guards in the league.”
The Pistons have their performance rehab specialist Mark Cranston in California with Jackson and while he’ll be increasing his workload ahead of the start of training camp in a few weeks, there’s still reason for optimism.
One of the reasons is that a healthy Jackson bodes well for Drummond in the pick-and-roll, which opens other options on offense. With the additions of Avery Bradley, Langston Galloway and Luke Kennard, they’ll have the shooters to complement the pick-and-roll, the main engine of the offense.
Drummond’s effectiveness was affected as much as anyone’s during Jackson’s absence. Last season, Drummond had 449 field-goal attempts within three feet of the rim — 207 fewer than in 2016. Although he hit a higher percentage of those shots (69 percent), last year, his scoring dropped.
Getting back to his ’16 form is tied to Jackson.
“Reggie and I are like Batman and Robin; without Robin there’s no Batman and without Batman, there’s no Robin,” Drummond said recently. “You need those two pieces to be able to work; if one of them isn’t working, you’re not going to have a full-running team.
“We struggled last year because the stuff we were getting easy baskets off of wasn’t there anymore.”
The Pistons will have a new-looks starting lineup, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope going to the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency and Marcus Morris going to the Boston Celtics in the Bradley deal.
That could open the door for Stanley Johnson to become the starting small forward, with Tobias Harris as the power forward.
The preseason begins on Oct. 4, with the first game at Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit.