There was a time early in this season where questions about the Los Angeles Clippers were being lofted in constant flurries of pessimism, almost incessant to the point of irritating. To the naked eye, it likely appeared as though the sky was falling, and everyone in the world with any sort of connection to the
Staples Center’s soon-to-be-Crpyto.com Arena’s other occupant had to find a bed sheet that was big enough to disrupt its fall. Of course, there’s no such bed sheet, so the well of solutions for the Clippers 1-4 start ran as dry as Death Valley on the Fourth of July.
It’s a wonder that no one bothered to take stock of the fact that the Clippers two best players from last season’s playoff run — Paul George, and primarily, Reggie Jackson — had yet to hit the stride everyone expected them to hit straight out of the gate. George was scoring, but he was inconsistent to a fault, to his own detriment and that of the team’s. Jackson, on the other hand, averaged 14 points on 31 percent shooting from the field and 29 percent from three through the aforementioned five-game stretch. He entered this season with a fresh contract and fresh expectations, the chance to alter the trajectory of his legacy. His slow start had folks asking questions; some were fair, and some were hasty.
Then came the Clippers' sixth game of the season, a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, one in which Jackson hardly set the world on fire. He scored 15 points in a whopping 39 minutes, shot 29 percent from the field, and turned the ball over as many times as he dealt it to a teammate for a bucket of their own.
But he had a moment. One that he could point to and say it felt like he was finally on his way to uncovering what was missing before that game. Let’s even go so far as to call it the moment of the season for Jackson, when he drove past Kenrich Williams and lofted a floater towards the cup. It bounced a few times and fell, giving the Clippers a 95-92 lead, and a grasp of the game that they wouldn’t relinquish.
Jackson’s friend and teammate Paul George ran over and embraced him. Not with the typical teammate back-slap, but one of true appreciation and love. Jackson said postgame that he needed that hug. The Los Angeles Times’ Andrew Greif summed it up on Twitter: “When Paul George embraced Reggie Jackson, it was about more than one big shot — the pressure Jackson has put on himself, confounding shooting struggles and PG sensing the weight on his friend.”
Their embrace wasn’t about winning a game. It was about overcoming something so much deeper.
Post-hug, Jackson has maintained an offensive explosion that would be hard for anyone who watched his first five games this season to associate with Jackson at all, not even tangentially. He’s scoring more (20.3 points per game), and doing so more efficiently (45 percent overall and 38 percent from deep). He’s stayed consistent as a passer, averaging 4.1 assists per game over the course of his team’s last 12 games.
During the Clippers' seven-game win streak, which began with that win over the Thunder, he was even better — 21.3 points per game on 47-39-93 shooting splits as his team surged back into relevance toward the top of the West. They haven’t necessarily sustained that success to this point — they’ve lost four of six since the streak ended — but it happened, and it put the league on notice. “Last season’s playoff run was no Kawhi-less fluke, and Jackson is a legitimate top-flight offensive player,” they shouted from the rooftops of Los Angeles. You’d have been a fool to do anything but believe them. And yet, despite Jackson’s goodness as a scorer, his team continues to struggle offensively; the Clippers rank 23rd in offense, a rating of 105.3. No matter what Jackson brings to the table, things need to improve across the board.
With Jackson, it’s no secret that his broad appeal is all about his scoring, his ability to create offense for himself. But were we to eliminate that, what would remain? His ability to distribute the ball is the epitome of fine, with Cleaning the Glass spotting his assist percentage at 17.6; that would be the worst regular-season mark of Jackson’s career, and it’s among the 44th percentile for combo guards this season. Again: fine, but hardly the good or great he needs to be in order to elevate as an all-around player.
Defensively, he’s as disciplined as ever with a 1.8 percent foul rate and an average of 1.5 fouls per game (third-fewest of his career). But is that discipline more indicative of his shortcomings as an on-ball defender? His box plus/minus, -1.7, is the second-worst of his career.
One more thing: Late last week for The Athletic, Law Murray pointed out that Paul George has had a down year in terms of getting to the line. He wrote, “Paul George only had two games last season where he didn’t attempt a free throw while attempting at least 20 field goals. He already has four games this season of at least 20 field-goal attempts and no free-throw attempts. Only five other players even have two of those games this season, and unfortunately for the Clippers, George’s teammate [Reggie] Jackson is one of those five players.” In other words, Jackson doesn't get to the line. When you’re a team’s secondary offensive option, that’s a problem.
That Jackson is playing, scoring, and shooting more than he ever has in his career is one thing. That a gobsmacking 8.8 — 8.8!!!! — of his 17.1 — 17.1!!!! — shot attempts per game come from three is a testament to his limitations. Even if said limitations are few and far between in the grand scheme of things, they are glaring. And the fact that the Clippers could almost certainly own this season as a consistent contender makes them more than worth addressing.
Much of the early chatter about these Clippers has been about their ability to stay afloat without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup, particularly as it relates to Paul George’s borderline MVP season. And Jackson deserves his fair share of those plaudits, but now it’s about taking the next step. It’s about looking in the proverbial mirror, assessing his game, particularly where it may be lacking, and refining those drawbacks to the point where they are no longer the subjects of possibly unanswerable questions. If Jackson does that, he’ll have made a $22 million contract look like highway robbery. Without it, he may end up yet another flash in the playoff pan, a concept the Clippers — and their fans — are sick and tired of stomaching so often.
Jackson knows this; he’s said it himself. “Even for myself, I feel like I gotta be better. I gotta do better to get the ball moving, popping, not letting guys be stagnant. Because the basketball brings energy, even if you’re not taking shots, making shots, just feeling it, I understand that, just touching throughout the offense allows you to feel confident in shots later. So there’s a big discrepancy in our shot chart, I gotta do better at getting guys involved.” The sooner he does — and by his own admission, he will — the better for everyone involved.