There was a moment during this All Star weekend that was a bit odd for me. You see, for a few hours during and after the D-League’s annual All Star game, Pierre Jackson became the Internet’s entire focus. If you’re a Pelicans fan, you know this is merely another moment where the diminutive guard has stolen the spotlight. Nevertheless, it still amazes me that a player outside the NBA can demand so much attention from national sportswriters. On the other hand, I don’t find it that surprising at all. Fans always love small explosive scorers like Jackson. They are just the easiest guys to get behind. Add to that Pierre’s personal charisma and never-give-up attitude and you have a guy you literally can’t avoid rooting for.
A few members of the national media took the All Star weekend as an opportunity to profile Pierre Jackson in a few short pieces. In most of these pieces, he was dubbed something like “best scorer not in the NBA” or “best player in the world not in the NBA.” I would probably agree. Fans flocked to social media and asked the obvious question: “well, why isn’t he in the NBA? I mean it isn’t like he is in some far corner of Europe shooting in a dusty old gym that most Indiana high schools would be too embarrassed to use. Who is keeping him out of the NBA?”
Though I didn’t find a piece that explicitly answered that last question, it was obvious that the New Orleans Pelicans (or more specifically, Dell Demps) are keeping Pierre out of the NBA. As a matter of fact, this may be true, however tone often matters more than the words. In the case of those All Star weekend articles, the tone seemed to be that the Pelicans were incompetent or that Dell was cruel for refusing to call up Pierre.
That is a good story. In fact, that story is probably good enough to pay 8 bucks to see in a theater. The problem, for me anyway, is that reality often isn’t as interesting as fiction. The stories almost refused to discuss the Pelican’s side of things entirely. There was little discussion of basketball economics, finances, the Pelicans’ long-term plan, or their current rosters. Those journalists told the truth, but the narrative they told was only from one perspective.
Narrative has been the sports journalism buzzword for a while. I genuinely like that word, but I’m tired of it getting used so often and so ineffectively. Still, this Pierre Jackson situation is all about narrative, which is why it has stuck with me for so long. In my mind, narrative is most effective when we think of it as the way we explain and the emotions we give to the facts and circumstances of a story. It is the tone of the story. Using this informal definition, let’s exam the facts of the Pierre Jackson situation.
Part One: The Acquisition
The exact circumstances of how Pierre was acquired are often forgotten. The Pelicans acquired Pierre Jackson in the Jrue Holiday trade (or the Pierre Jackson trade as it may later be known). We gave up that years first round draft pick (Nerlens Noel) and our 2014 draft pick for Jrue Holiday and Pierre Jackson. That is the simple fact. However, that is often how the story is told.
It is funny to me that the Jrue Holiday trade is so often slammed by the same journalists who are crying for the Pelicans to bring Jackson in to the league. In other words, which of these makes the Pelicans sound smarter, 1) a trade for Jrue Holiday or 2) a trade for Jrue Holiday and Pierre Jackson? All else equal, the second trade sounds better. Getting two assets in a trade is always better than one, as long as both assets have a positive value. Of course, you don’t often hear the Holiday trade described in glowing terms, because that would diminish the other major story of how the 2014 draft will be as awesome as crossing the streams of the proton packs at the end of Ghostbusters. So if you want to make trading a 2014 first rounder sound stupid, don’t mention Pierre Jackson. If you want to make the Pelicans sound stupid, don’t mention how they acquired Jackson as an afterthought in a much bigger trade.
Now, I’m not suggesting that any journalist have it out for the Pelicans or want to make us sound stupid, but every journalist needs to find a good story, something that grabs readers and keeps them reading. If that is what you need, hyperbole is a great way to go. Taking hard stances and making bold claims is much more likely to get a response from the public than nuanced analysis. That is why the Pelicans have been beaten into the ground so hard about the Holiday trade.
Part Two: Europe
This has to be the strangest part of the whole Pierre Jackson saga to me. A few writers have lamented about how the Pelicans will do nothing with Jackson, which has forced him to go to Turkey for what I assume is a higher wage than what he’d earn in the D-League. They seem to think this is some sort of unfortunate consolation prize for the NBA. . By all accounts, they were clear with their intention to retain his draft rights, but not call him up this season before they drafted him, and he was already in Europe. The Pelicans allowed him to go play for a French team, remember? He came home after a short stay due to homesickness. He didn’t want to be abroad. I’m not sure much more can be said here. He had a chance to play for more money abroad, and he didn’t want it. Now, he is going back, and I really hope it works out for him.
However, I’m not sure what the Pelicans have to do with this storyline. I’m not sure how he is forced to play in Europe, when that seems to have been an option he had all along.
Part Three: D-League Domination
So before Turkey and after France, Pierre goes to the D-League and begins to light it up. He is scoring at will and puts up a 50-point game. Things are going so well that he actually leads the D-League in scoring per game. Here is where the narrative choices get really interesting. Let me do something here. Let’s pretend we aren’t talking about the Pelicans, but we are talking about the Spurs. Here’s how I imagine the news reports of Jackson’s play might sound.
Pierre Jackson is looking downright amazing in the D-League, and I think it is safe to say that Popovich and the Spurs have done it again. They have found another second round guard that wasn’t on anybody’s radar and turned him in to a valuable NBA asset! Maybe they will develop him into an energy bench player, or maybe they will trade him for a missing piece to compete with OKC. At any rate, it is pretty incredible how efficient, intelligent, and effective the Spurs front office is.
That isn’t want we have heard about Dell. We have heard that unlike San Antonio, he has prevented the best non-NBA player from becoming the next Nate Robinson. His handling of the Pierre Jackson situation has been incomprehensible, idiotic, and at times down right cruel!
Of course, both narratives are incredibly ridiculous, but that isn’t the point here. The point is that in both of my examples have the same facts. The same facts and circumstances stayed the same, but I was able to construct two completely different stories based on the general public’s preconceptions about different teams. That is the power of narrative.
What Happens to Pierre Now?
I thought that Pierre’s draft rights might end up in a trade at the deadline, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he will finish out the season playing in Turkey. The Pelicans will reevaluate what they want to do with Jackson this offseason. No matter which narrative people choose to talk about Pierre, I think the missing element is that the Pelicans aren’t obligated to Pierre. The NBA labor market is constructed in such a way that the teams have control over the new players. The team doesn’t have to do anything, really. You can argue that isn’t fair, but that argument isn’t the discussion we are having.
Here is what will happen. The team is going to play out the rest of their games this season. During the summer, the front office will reevaluate where they are with Pierre Jackson. If they feel he can contribute to the team as a player, he will probably be treated as our rookie for next season as Dell has even suggested in the past. If they feel our team has too much depth at guard, they will probably trade him. I have no idea what they will get in return, but it probably isn’t going to be a whole lot of assets.
I have no idea how Pierre became such a storyline from the D-league. It seems like he was just the perfect media storm. At the end of the day, this story has probably taken a rest for this season. When I think back on this whole fiasco in a few years, I probably won’t even remember Pierre’s performances in the D-league. What I will remember is the way the story was told. I’ll remember how it was #FreePierre and not #GoDealerDell.
The thing about narratives is that they can change in a heartbeat. In a few years, someone might write a 7,000-word post on how Dell Demps turned the New Orleans Pelicans in to champions, and I highly doubt anything about Pierre Jackson will be mentioned. If it is mentioned, I guarantee you that it will be a different story than what we heard over the All Star break.