A healthy Jackson, a steady Smith put Pistons in position to challenge

(Editor’s note: Pistons.com concludes a five-part series looking at the roster after a summer that saw them add five newcomers. Stan Van Gundy sees four essential position groups: centers, point guards, forwards and wings. Today’s Part IV looks at the two point guards on the roster.)

AUBURN HILLS – For as much as the Pistons expect an improved offense this season after adding 3-point firepower and secondary ballhandlers, Stan Van Gundy always will take his chances with a top-10 defense.

POSITION: Point Guard

Depth chart: Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith

Options: Though Langston Galloway was signed primarily to play shooting guard and in large part because of his 3-point shooting ability, he’s played a lot of point guard in the NBA. He won’t rack up tons of assists, but he’s an able ballhandler who can get a team into its half-court sets and capably defend point guards. Ditto for Avery Bradley, who hadn’t played point guard for the Celtics since they traded for Isaiah Thomas and drafted Marcus Smart but had split time between the two backcourt positions early in his NBA career.

Flexibility: Stan Van Gundy talked about playing Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith together some last season – and it happened occasionally – but the plan was largely shelved by Jackson’s preseason injury that limited his effectiveness all season and necessitated heavy minutes for Smith at point guard. The motivation to pair Jackson and Smith was a desire to diversify the offense by putting more attacking ballhandlers on the court. Adding Bradley and Galloway accomplishes that without having to play both point guards simultaneously. No. 1` draft pick Luke Kennard gives the Pistons another player capable of making plays off the dribble.

Bottom Line: A return to 2015-16 form by Jackson would boost the Pistons offense more than any off-season addition, though the cumulative effect of adding the playmaking potential of Bradley, Galloway and Kennard plus the 3-point shooting all three bring in addition to the returns of Anthony Tolliver and Reggie Bullock should serve to lessen the burden on Jackson and Smith.

The Pistons were close last season – they finished 11th in defensive rating – and Van Gundy can tick off a fistful of ways for improvement. It starts with doing a better job of cutting off dribble penetration and with Andre Drummond becoming a menacing rim protector.

AUBURN HILLS – The pick and roll is the backbone of every NBA offense, a trend begun with Mike D’Antoni’s marriage to Steve Nash and the “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns.

No NBA team during the 2015-16 season was more heavily reliant on the pick and roll than the Pistons, no player more central to his team’s offensive performance than Reggie Jackson.

Stan Van Gundy has sought to diversify the Pistons offense, in part to lessen the onus on Jackson but mostly to make them better – and better able to counter whatever schemes defenses devise to blunt the impact of Jackson’s penetration and Andre Drummond’s capacity to inflict damage on defenses that overcompensate to shackle Jackson.

More ballhandlers and better 3-point shooting was the goal and Avery Bradley, Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard, Anthony Tolliver and Reggie Bullock were the result via trade, the draft and free agency.

But if you’re charting the most critical factors for the Pistons to improve upon last season’s 25th-ranked offense, Jackson recapturing his 2015-16 mojo would be No. 1 by a decided margin.

“We’ve said that all along. Internally, too, and talking with Tom (Gores, Pistons owner). There’s really no substitute for that,” Van Gundy said last month. “The guy was one of the best offensive players in the NBA and then had health problems, so getting him back would be the biggest improvement we could make.”

In the ever-shifting yin and yang between offense and defense in the NBA, it’s the turn of defenses to adjust to coping with the trend toward multiple pick-and-roll ballhandlers, spreading the floor and seeing the frequency of 3-point shooting increase to as much as 40 percent of total field-goal attempts by some of the elite offenses.

There might be times the Pistons have Jackson or Smith on the court with two of Bradley, Galloway and Kennard, giving them the ability to attack as many offenses do in this era – from points all around the floor. Van Gundy anticipates incorporating multiple pick-and-roll options into half-court sets as a significant component of the offense for the first time since he arrived.

“I think we can, certainly with Avery, Luke, Langston – all of our twos. I think Stanley (Johnson) can play in some pick and rolls. I think Tobias (Harris) can play in pick and rolls, handling the ball or setting the screen. We should be able to do more things.”

To more closely resemble the team that won 44 games and appeared on the upswing two seasons ago than the 37-win Pistons of a year ago who struggled to sustain anything at the offensive end, they need Jackson. But Smith showed last season, leading the Pistons to an 11-10 record despite an unfavorable early schedule before Jackson’s return, that they can survive stretches with him at less than full speed. In fact, you could make the case that no Pistons player did a better job of filling his anticipated role last season than Smith.

“Ish had a great year, I thought,” Van Gundy said. “He gives us an entirely different element of being able to push the ball and create easy shots in transition and things like getting our pace going. Ideally, he’s really made to be a guy coming off the bench and igniting you, but he’s certainly proven he’s more than capable of starting and playing big minutes if need be, too.”

Smith started 32 games last season and averaged 24 minutes, 9.4 points and 5.2 assists. He worked over the summer to improve his range after shooting .267 from the 3-point line, but Smith’s strengths are his ability to push the pace to facilitate transition baskets and his pick-and-roll potency. When Jackson’s right, the Pistons have two of the NBA’s leaders in shots at the rim per minute.

Van Gundy earlier this month spent time in Southern California with Jackson and says his recovery from last year’s bout of knee tendinosis is on track.

“He’s cleared now. He’s back doing basketball activities,” Van Gundy said. “He couldn’t go out there and play a pickup game now, but he’s back on the court doing his shooting, able to play a little. He’s back doing stuff, getting ready.”

If he’s ready to be the 2015-16 Reggie Jackson, the Pistons will enter the season poised to erase the sting of last season’s regression and make a mark on the Eastern Conference.

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