Auburn Hills — The Pistons should be better, and are showing signs of getting better. They showed it in bursts Saturday night, shooting their way to a big lead, then winning at the buzzer.
This is the promise and the puzzle of this team, which beat the Wizards 113-112 on Marcus Morris’ tip-in. It was the Pistons’ third straight victory, a timely little streak considering what lies ahead. The trade deadline is a month away and the Pistons might be contemplating a deal, as they usually do this time of year, as they should.
But a startling rumor popped up this weekend, that the Pistons were considering a point-guard swap — Reggie Jackson to Minnesota for Ricky Rubio, 26. Frankly, it sounds like an awful deal for the Pistons. Even if the Timberwolves added swingman Shabazz Muhammad, as reported by ESPN, it’d be a highly dubious move.
Yes, Jackson, 26, remains mercurial — sometimes magical, sometimes mystifying. But sorry, it’s too early to give up on the guy, two years into a five-year, $80-million deal.
Listen, the rumor might amount to nothing. The seriousness of it is debatable, and Stan Van Gundy brushed aside the talk, without squashing it. You don’t have to look beyond the Pistons’ 21-24 record to suspect there’s smoke here.
“This stuff is crazy,” Van Gundy said before the game Saturday night. “I’m not going to be the guy to step up and say that none of these guys is available — because I’m not lying to anybody. Was the discussion had (about Jackson)? I don’t know. Maybe it was. I wouldn’t doubt it. I know people are interested in him. People are interested in Andre (Drummond). I know we’ve had a lot of discussions on those guys — and really, all of our top seven or eight guys.”
This is what can happen when a team expected to keep rising bumps its head on the ceiling. Van Gundy texted Jackson Friday night to tell him he wasn’t being traded for Rubio, and the guard appreciated it. Beyond that, Jackson didn’t have much to say after the victory.
“I had no idea (about the rumor),” Jackson said. “So if he traded me, I told him it was news to me. I appreciated the text, just let me know I’m his guy. But I don’t really pay attention much to it.”
Van Gundy isn’t reluctant to make a bold move, and it might be necessary at some point. The problem with any notion of trading Jackson is, he’s your floor leader and someone you felt comfortable investing deeply in. You can’t keep switching out valuable pieces under the guise of fixing something when you’re not sure why it’s broken, or what exactly is broken.
Does Jackson dominate the ball, dribbling too much at times? Sure. He missed four of five shots down the stretch Saturday, but the Wizards’ defense was good and his decisions weren’t bad. Is his defense lax? Yep, which is true of several Pistons, and has been a nagging issue.
No one is untouchable on a superstar-less team, and that includes Jackson and Drummond. We’ve seen Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower listen to all possible deals, and pull off some big ones. Less than two years ago, they acquired Jackson from Oklahoma City, and later gave him the hefty contract.
What really has changed since then? The Pistons made the playoffs last year, brought back the same lineup, improved the bench, and were supposed to keep climbing. And somehow they regressed, notably after Jackson returned from knee tendinitis. It’s not a huge difference — the Pistons were 11-10 without Jackson, 10-14 with him — but when seeking answers for the team’s struggles, his readjustment definitely is part of it. Chemistry has been lacking and Van Gundy has ridden his team hard.
But this is the roster he put together, and the truth is, the Pistons aren’t loaded with deadly shooters. They have a unique commodity in Drummond, who has taken strides but has a way to go. With the rest of the starters — Morris, Tobias Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jackson — the Pistons rank in the bottom third in the league in scoring, 18th in field-goal percentage and 24th in 3-point percentage (.343).
Jackson sometimes does too much, perhaps because he feels he must. Or perhaps because he’s still learning to run a team, when to shoot and when to pass. If you took his 16.7 scoring average out of the lineup and replaced him with a guy like Rubio, who can’t score or shoot, you’re making a mistake. The quest for a “pure” point guard is often fruitless. Rubio plays better defense and averages 7.9 assists, but his scoring average (7.7) and shooting percentage (.241 on 3s) are anemic.
Rubio doesn’t look like an answer, and maybe Van Gundy and Bower aren’t even considering it. They might mull something else with a different player. Or the Pistons might ride this recent streak into playoff contention, and Jackson might remind us why they were expected to be good.
There’s a lot to contemplate in the next month, and the Pistons had better be very careful. These are the same pieces they considered promising, so it shouldn’t be impossible to figure it out.