There was a time when Reggie Jackson was the most important player on the Detroit Pistons roster.
That time wasn’t so long ago, but it seems like eons ago, with the subsequent trade for Blake Griffin, the emergence of Andre Drummond and a complete overhaul of the roster.
For much of 2015-16, in Jackson’s first full season with the Pistons, he was the offensive catalyst and averaged career highs in points (18.8) and assists (6.2). Moreover, at $14 million, he was the highest-paid player on the team until Tobias Harris was acquired near the trade deadline.
The Pistons won 44 games that season — still the high-water mark for the franchise since the end of the “Goin’ to Work” era in 2009. Many of the team’s recent regular-season shortfalls are connected to Jackson’s devastating knee and ankle injuries that kept him out of 67 total games over the next two seasons.
Last season, for the first time in his career, Jackson played all 82 games. He’s entering the final season of his five-year deal worth $80 million and faces an uncertain future with the Pistons — one that was heading in a different direction in the midst of the injuries.
“A few years back, I thought (my future) was retirement after this season,” Jackson told The Detroit News. “I’m just happy to be in a good state of mind and playing ball this year. We’ll figure (the future) out from there. I’m excited about what we can possibly do this year.”
Jackson added: “I was just getting injured too much and I had hit basketball depression and it was a point in time that I really didn’t want to deal with the game anymore. It was more the injuries that started to have that (retirement) thought creep in my head.”
The ideas of a premature parting with basketball have vanished, as have the persistent issues with his left knee, in which Jackson had a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection just before the 2016-17 season. He wasn’t himself that season and he suffered a severe ankle sprain the following season, another setback both for himself and the Pistons as they missed the playoffs for the second straight year.
Last summer, the Pistons were overly cautious in determining Jackson’s summer regimen. They didn’t want to take any chances for a freak injury and after Pistons owner Tom Gores hired Ed Stefanski as the de facto general manager, the new front office made some critical additions aimed at getting Jackson back to his best self.
When the team met last summer in Las Vegas, Jackson heard the sweetest two words that he could imagine: Arnie Kander.
Kander, a longtime Pistons trainer and strength coach, is renowned for his work in injury prevention and training techniques. Following Kander’s departure in 2015, the number of games missed due to injury crept up.
“When the team got together, I saw Arnie and I was just like a kid in a candy store,” Jackson said. “I was just so excited to see him again. The (success in 2015-16), I saw it as a residual effect from being with (Kander) for half a season when I got traded here.
“He taught me some habits, like all the things I needed to do for that year and coming back, my body was ready. And those years after he was gone, I didn’t have anybody there that was my guy for day-to-day to help me take care of my body and then things kept breaking down. When we got Arnie back, that’s when I had a little more confidence.”
The Kander effect
After his PRP injection before the 2016-17 season, Jackson’s injury troubles persisted, and he wasn’t himself, on or off the court. The ankle sprain compounded the frustration.
Then came a breakthrough last season with Kander.
“We did some blood work and found out what was causing a lot of my problems and (Kander) had a method and a way to attack it. Before then, we just kept getting a bunch of tests and nobody could figure out what was going on,” Jackson said. “That left me feeling the furthest deep down because it felt like I was getting injured and no one could figure it out.
“My body wasn’t responding the way it should; it didn’t matter what I did. I could have been made out of adamantium like Wolverine and it wouldn’t have mattered; my body wasn’t going to receive it. I had a bug and once they figured it out, it was a whole regimen while getting healthy attacking it last year and now I feel great.”
Injury prevention is a paramount concern for Griffin, Jackson and newly added free agent Derrick Rose, making last summer’s addition of Kander and the rest of the new medical staff as big as any free-agent acquisition.
“One of the best hires we made was bringing Arnie on as a consultant as part of the medical staff. His track record is among the best in the league,” Stefanski told The News. “We’re thrilled to have him, and he and the medical staff did a tremendous job of helping Reggie Jackson get to play all 82 games last season.”
The new Reggie
Jackson again has been cautious with his summer workouts and is looking forward to improving on last season’s 41-41 record while trying to get even beyond that 2016 season form.
“Honestly, the rhythm I’m trying to chase is the one I had the last two or three months last season,” Jackson said. “That’s where the game came easy and I wasn’t forcing anything and taking what was given. We were more comfortable as a team.”
The numbers seem to back up that assessment. In the final 36 games, Jackson averaged 17 points and 4.3 assists and shot 41 percent on 3-pointers. In the four playoff games, he was even better, with 17.8 points, seven assists and 43 percent beyond the arc.
He transformed from a traditional point guard to more of a spot-up shooter, with Griffin as the main facilitator. Jackson looks forward to teaming with Rose in some stints, in what could be an intriguing backcourt and one that fits with coach Dwane Casey’s tendency to use two hybrid point guards.
“I’ll have more of a chance to play with Derrick on the ball and off. I’m better at catch-and-shoot,” Jackson said. “The layout of the team is complementary to each other. All the pieces work really well and it’s ideal for my game, how we mesh. It’s very ideal and a situation I’d like to be in.”
Jackson’s future with the Pistons poses an interesting question. He turns 30 in April and with retirement plans on hold, he could have at least a couple more years left in the NBA. That might entail adjusting to a backup role, similar to what Dennis Schroder is doing with the Thunder.
It’s unlikely that Jackson could get another big contract but he could settle in with the Pistons or another team for a smaller salary, especially with his remade game. Next summer, the Pistons will have several big contracts — including Jackson’s — off the books, which will give them flexibility to rebuild the roster based on their performance this season.
That could include Jackson, or he could go searching for a new home.
Either way, he’s just happy that the injuries didn’t push him away from basketball prematurely.
“I’m not a person that really speaks much about the future,” Jackson said. “I’m just trying to enjoy each and every day and the team I’m on and the opportunity God has given me and whatever He has in store for me.”