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What if Reggie Jackson was a defensive stopper?

In part one of our series on the skills that could elevate the games of a few crucial Clippers, we take a look at Reggie Jackson’s defense.

Los Angeles Clippers v Phoenix Suns - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Inspired by ESPN’s piece titled What If? Skills that could change the games of four NBA stars, we’re taking a look at what could change the games of some Clippers, perhaps elevating them to big-three consideration. First up: Reggie Jackson.

At the very least, you knew Patrick Beverley was going to make life difficult for his man. He might not be consistently effective, but the Clipper-turned-Grizzly-turned-Timberwolf was consistently hell-bent on making his man’s life hell. Just ask Russell Westbrook, Those cats hate each other, primarily because Beverley has consistently — if not always intentionally — put Westbrook in harm’s way, and naturally, Russ has taken exception. Russ is a better player than Beverley, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t know a banana from a cucumber. But Beverley is better at one thing, something that often gives him an edge: he’s a better nuisance. And perhaps his biggest skill? Knowing how effective a nuisance he truly is.

What do we know Reggie Jackson brings to a team? If last season’s playoff run proved anything, it’s that at times, he can be an elite-level offensive producer. He tied his career-high playoff average in points per game with 17.8; he also averaged that with the Detroit Pistons in 2018-19 when they were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks. A notable reminder: Jackson and Blake Griffin were the lone two playmaking forces on that roster.

It’s most notable given that, while they certainly weren’t the only two playmaking forces on the Clippers, Jackson and Paul George were left to do much of the heavy lifting on offense in the Western Conference Finals when Kawhi Leonard went down. They stepped up; George underwent a well-deserved reclamation of respect in the public eye, and Jackson got paid.

He signed a two-year, $22M deal to return to the Clippers this offseason on the heels of that playoff run; he returns, primarily, because his offensive output helped his value to skyrocket. But what might Jackson be worth if he was even a quarter the irritant that Beverley remained throughout the entirety of his time with the Clippers? That’s not to say Jackson should begin playing like the guy who tried shoving Chris Paul back to Phoenix in a losing effort in the dying embers of the WCF; but what if he showed shades of pestering defenders the way Beverley could in his prime?

This is undoubtedly the thing he lacks the most — defensive prowess. He’s shown ability to be a true point guard with a scorer’s mentality (mainly with Detroit and as a backup with Oklahoma City early in his career), and now a secondary scorer on a team in dire need of consistent offense if they wish to contend. But he’s been middling at best when it comes to proper rotations, defending lengthier opponents, and on-ball dexterity. He borders on being a liability at times, making it difficult for him to be trusted as a both-ends player late in pivotal contests.

Now, as Clips Nation’s Alicia Rodriguez wrote at the end of last season, “Jackson’s defense flags at times, but... [when] compared to how bad his defense was in the playoff bubble, his defense was pretty solid [in 2020-21], and his confident play on offense seemed to help fuel an improved ability to defend. In other words, he was not a consistent weak link on defense for the Clippers.” Which is all true; Jackson isn’t necessarily a consistent weak link on defense. He is, however, inconsistent on defense as a whole.

It’d be less foolish to classify him as a bad defender than a good one. He’s far from All-Defense, and he’s just as far from being considered one of the old reliables on that end of the floor. As evidenced in the video above, he tends to miscommunicate with his teammates on defensive assignments, fill the lane improperly on fast breaks, and other times, simply ditch his assignment in order to force an ill-advised double team that turns into a wide-open shot for his former man.

It’s a decision-making issue, for the most part, one that if properly remedied, would pay dividends to him and his team. Last year, Jackson ranked 86th in the NBA in defensive real plus-minus, 150th in defensive win shares, and 238th in individual defensive rating. Imagine if he was even marginally better. For a defense that will undoubtedly miss Kawhi Leonard this season — who wouldn’t? — a new-and-defensively-improved Jackson would be immense.

Jackson has areas in which he must improve for this contract to seem worth it. And it starts on defense. On the ball, he can become more of a pest, therefore making life tougher for his opponents (à la Beverley, or other players of Bev’s ilk). The 6’3 Jackson has a 7’0 wingspan, which is more or less unheard of for guards his size. He should be forcing more deflections — he had 56 last year, which was less than Seth Curry, Jeff Teague, and Dean Wade, all of whom are among the league’s lesser defenders not known for their activity in passing lanes. Off the ball, Jackson has to be more adept at reacting to his man’s movement, better at switching on a dime, and more communicative.

The offensive boom is nice. But, like everything else, it’s gravy. Complete players are the ones who truly make the difference. Reggie Jackson has a road map to becoming far more complete; should he get there, both he and the Clippers can elevate drastically.

Next week: What if Luke Kennard was a slasher, not just a shooter?