This year was supposed to be a good one for Reggie Jackson. Up for a contract extension, the Thunder were anxious to work out a deal with the young guard, who had established himself as a capable sixth man/spot starter/combo guard next to Russell Westbrook, the type of player who can both prop up bench units with his scoring but also stay on the floor late in the game given his ability to play and defend both guard spots.
As Jackson’s value rose, so did his contract demands, and although negotiations stalled, both sides were still optimistic they could make something work, despite the myriad of trade rumors that hounded both parties throughout the offseason and into the regular season. That was when things began to go south for Jackson and the Thunder.
After losing both Westbrook and Kevin Durant to start the year, OKC needed Jackson to assert himself more than ever and lead a depleted team. Unfortunately, things did not transpire that way. With his mind clearly elsewhere, Jackson took to playing a selfish brand of basketball and found himself at odds with both his coach and his teammates: Scott Brooks began leaving him on the bench during the fourth quarters of games, doomed whether Jackson was on the floor or off it, and teammates Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins even took to freezing Jackson out of a November game during the fourth quarter. The pair refused to pass the young guard the ball in order to send him a message about how he’d been playing–something I’ve never heard vocalized by teammates prior to that incident.
It’s a bummer because Jackson is a solid player who has shown development in all areas of his game since entering the league, and his defense and versatility make him a positional asset.
Unfortunately, since the returns of both Westbrook and Durant, Jackson has remained a disappointment. While his numbers across the board are similar to last year’s––aside from his notable and harmful five-point slide in 3PT%––he hasn’t made the same kind of positive impact, and his teammates have never appeared to be at ease while playing with the young guard.
When players are trying to prove themselves, especially near the end of a contract, it can be difficult to walk the line of putting the teams’ needs before your own while still picking your own spots as a scorer. That said, Jackson has failed miserably in this regard, and he never regained the trust of his teammates after a difficult start to this season. While it didn’t start until around the All-Star break, Lance Stephenson allegedly experienced a similar breakdown with Indiana last season, stat-hunting in the wake of his All-Star snub in a way that eroded the patience of his teammates. He wasn’t solely responsible for the Pacers’ slide, but he certainly didn’t do himself any favors within the organization, and the Pacers essentially sent him packing after a one-sided, take-it-or-leave-it negotiation during the summer.
Jackson’s continued inability to toe that line and keep the faith is perhaps the single biggest reason for his recent demotion in playing time behind Dion Waiters. While their numbers are comparable, Waiters has expressed enthusiasm in his new situation and bought in wholeheartedly. He’s more willing to do what the Thunder have asked of him, which is basically playing defense, spotting up, and slashing in specific situations. Considering what Waiters’ attitude was like in Cleveland, it seems a bit unfair to compare the two, but Jackson is suffering from the same stubbornness and inability to balance his needs against the team that Waiters did with the Cavaliers.
Still, the outlook on Jackson around the league is almost certainly more favorable than Waiters, although the free-agent-to-be has certainly lost himself some money this season. The rumors that OKC wants to move him before the deadline are picking up, especially in the wake of the Waiters trade. Frank Isola reported that Jackson was almost moved to the Nuggets earlier this year. He seems intent on testing the free-agent market no matter where he winds up this season, but a team interested in having a chance to keep Jackson long-term would increase their chances to keep him, since he would be a restricted free-agent. They would have to match any deal, though, as any receiving team would forfeit Jackson’s Bird Rights, meaning they’d be unable to offer the increases in years or money that incumbent teams typically can. This would be valuable for a team like Indiana, which is capped out for next season and would be unable to sign Jackson outright, but NBA teams are always to exceed the soft cap in order to keep players already on the roster.
Even considering the league’s deep pool of point guards, Jackson’s talents will be in demand. Though his development has plateaued––some would even argue regressed––since there was talk of a possible max deal for him last summer, some team will be willing to take a chance that the Jackson of last summer remains, still young enough to be molded into a solid point guard and leader. Maybe the Knicks, Heat, or Lakers would be candidates to pay the man as well.
No matter where he goes, it seems likely at this point that the Thunder would rather send Jackson on his way and get even a small bundle of assets for him, rather than allow him to walk for next during the summer. The motive of his suitors will probably be to increase their chances of keeping him around past free-agency, but as we’ve already seen with Jackson’s impending liberation, there’s a lot that can happen between now and then.