So much of the intrigue surrounding Reggie Jackson is about potential. Indeed, Jackson’s production alone wouldn’t have prompted some teams around the league to believe that the point guard would receive offers of between $13MM and $14MM a year in restricted free agency this summer, as Adrian Wojnarowski reported at the start of the season. The 24-year-old Jackson believes he can become a star, and evidently he’s not alone. The questions the Thunder face are whether there’s truly enough evidence to suggest he’ll do that, and whether it’s worth paying a premium to see if there’s any way that Jackson and Russell Westbrook can co-exist as elite performers in the backcourt. If GM Sam Presti concludes the answer to either is a no, he’ll encounter the sticky quandary of whether it’s worth keeping him for a run at a title this spring with the knowledge that he can sign elsewhere come July. One of those teams that’s so high on Jackson could come forward with an trade offer that affords the Thunder with enough compensation in return for Jackson to make Presti think long and hard about trading yet another highly regarded backcourt reserve.
The James Harden trade haunts the Thunder, though few would have predicted that Harden would have become quite the prolific scorer he is now for the Rockets. Westbrook didn’t miss a single game during Harden’s tenure with the Thunder, but he’s missed 59 combined regular season and playoff games with Jackson on the team, giving Hinkie a glimpse at Jackson in the lead role that he never had with Harden. The Thunder are 31-27 all-time when Jackson plays and Westbrook doesn’t, though to be fair, Kevin Durant wasn’t around for all of those games, and with a healthy Durant in tow, Oklahoma City was 25-11 with Jackson and without Westbrook last season.
Still, the Thunder would almost certainly plan on having both Jackson and Westbrook around if they were to retain Jackson long-term, since Westbrook’s deal doesn’t expire until the summer of 2017. The Thunder have a net rating of plus 4.4 when Westbrook and Jackson share the floor this season, according NBA.com, and they’re only a plus 1.0 as a team, though the latter figure includes the prolonged absences of Westbrook and Durant. Last season, the Thunder were a plus 7.1 and an eye-popping plus 17.8 with Westbrook and Jackson together, though that’s a sample size of less than 400 total minutes. They only played 161 minutes together across 82 games in 2012/13, and the Thunder’s net rating with both of them on the floor was plus 7.5 compared to plus 11.0 overall.
The track record isn’t vast, and it isn’t conclusive, although Jackson figured Presti had already drawn his conclusion when the point guard thought he was part of the Thunder’s three-team trade with the Cavs and Knicks amid erroneous reports. That swap nonetheless had significant implications for Jackson, since it brought Dion Waiters to town. Waiters, though more of a shooting guard, seems primed to take over the sixth-man role that Jackson has held, and there’s been speculation that Waiters, who’ll still be under his rookie scale contract in 2015/16, is insurance in case Jackson bolts. Durant had some harsh words in response to the assertion that he should help Jackson adjust in the wake of the trade, implying that Jackson should take a mature, professional approach to the reality that confronts him. The most recent dispatch regarding the ever-headstrong Jackson indicates that the Aaron Mintz client is open to signing his qualifying offer this summer to reach unrestricted free agency in 2016.
That wouldn’t necessarily be the worst-case scenario for the Thunder, since that would keep Jackson around for no more than $4.434MM next season and align his free agency with Durant’s, allowing the team cap flexibility in case Durant leaves. Still, the threat of a bloated, player-friendly offer sheet from another team looms, even if the Thunder threaten to match any offer, so Presti can’t count on having Jackson back under any particular terms.
The Knicks, who tried to make Jackson part of the three-team swap, are expected to again attempt to acquire him, as Ken Berger of CBSSports.com recently reported, adding that the Thunder are resisting the idea of trading the guard. That could change as the February 19th deadline draws closer, though the Knicks probably don’t have the assets to make it worth Oklahoma City’s while. Another large-market team with a need at point guard possesses a few more assets, but the Lakers don’t appear to be especially likely trading partners, particularly if it would mean helping out the Thunder, a team the Lakers envision competing with should they return to contention anytime soon. The Rockets are without a long-term solution at the point, but the optics of trading another sixth man to GM Daryl Morey‘s team would probably be too much for Presti to bear.
The Nets, with whom the Thunder had serious talks regarding Brook Lopez, provide a better avenue. Brooklyn reportedly left negotiations with Oklahoma City unwilling to give up Lopez for a package with Kendrick Perkins as its centerpiece, but Jackson and Perkins together might make the Nets think again. Jackson would serve as a ready replacement at point guard should the team trade Deron Williams, and the Thunder could upgrade without tinkering with their starting five. Still, Jackson’s name hasn’t come up in Lopez talks, so it seems Presti would first have to warm to the idea.
The sticking point for the Nets would probably involve Jackson’s upcoming free agency and the amount of money it would take to retain him, and that’d surely be an issue in any trade the Thunder might explore involving him. It’s tough to get a fair return for a player who might be no more than a rental, even given the right to match offers that’s incumbent with restricted free agency. That’s why Presti has to weigh the needs of maximizing this season against maximizing what he can reap from Jackson in a trade. Oklahoma City still hasn’t risen into the top eight teams in the Western Conference, and while any franchise with Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka has a realistic shot at a title, it’d be an especially difficult task this time around. The Thunder are probably better off taking back a decent return for Jackson if there’s one to be had and if it can enhance their chances of winning it all next season, even if it makes their title odds that much longer for this year.
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