OKLAHOMA CITY -- Reggie Jackson stood at his locker, wrapping his iPhone earbuds around his neck before he picked up his "baby" as he calls it: a heavy basketball that he carries around darn near everywhere he goes.
Jackson was next to newcomer Dion Waiters, as their lockers are now side-by-side in the Oklahoma City Thunder locker room in an awkward twist. With cameras and reporters all huddled around the two, Jackson turned to leave inconspicuously, which left Waiters to speak with the assembled media. It was Waiters, after all, who closed the Thunder's 99-94 win over the Jazz by hitting an important 3-point dagger on a kickout from Kevin Durant with 30 seconds left. Waiters played 27 minutes in his home Thunder debut, including the final eight, while Jackson saw only 15, tied for the fewest this season and matching a blowout over the Hornets in which he sat most of the fourth.
"It's not Dion over Reggie," coach Scott Brooks said after the game. "It's Dion was playing solid defense and competing and pressuring the ball and not giving up anything easy, so he got the minutes tonight."
All those things Brooks said Waiters was doing are things Jackson doesn't do with any consistency. His on-ball defense is a constant issue for the team and a significant liability for an otherwise stout defensive team. Jackson's 103.9 defensive rating is the worst among regular rotation players on the Thunder. With him off the court, it drops to 96.4, easily the biggest gap on the team. If Brooks picked Waiters in crunch time over Jackson for those reasons, it's likely to happen more often.
"Going forward, minutes are earned," Brooks said. "Those bench minutes are going to be very competitive. But I like [Waiters'] intensity, I like his commitment to stopping the ball. That's been a problem of ours, and we have to get better with that, and I think he did a good job of it tonight."
A restricted free agent this summer, Jackson hasn't been shy about his desired role. He's made it abundantly clear over and over again that he wants to be a starter. He wants the captaincy of a team, the responsibility of being the primary option.
Early in the Thunder's season, he got his wish in stepping in for Russell Westbrook for a month, and he performed impressively. In 13 starts, he averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds, numbers that look at awful lot like Westbrook's. The Thunder, though, went 3-10.
But on Friday, not only did Jackson not start, but he also saw his current role cut into substantially. The pitch to Jackson from the Thunder -- and to James Harden before him -- is it doesn't matter who starts but who finishes -- except Jackson might not even finish games now, at least not consistently. Following the game against the Jazz, Jackson tried to take the diplomatic stance but just complicated things even more.
"Nah," he said when asked if he was surprised he sat the final eight minutes, letting a sly grin creep across his face. "Not at all."
He paused awkwardly, like he had more to say, but that was it. Asked if he wanted to elaborate, Jackson chuckled quietly to himself.
"Nah," he said again. "Just smile."
As he walked away, he cryptically said, "In due time," which suggests ... something.
The Thunder have a history of not letting players enter restricted free agency, fearing an offer sheet outside the realm they're comfortable matching. They traded Harden right before the 2012-13 season started and Jeff Green before him at the 2011 deadline. Jackson and the Thunder failed to reach an extension agreement in October, and according to sources, those talks were never all that close.
The money is important for Jackson, but not because he wants to be rich. It's because it could be his ticket out of town, his way to get to the role he so badly wants. Thunder general manager Sam Presti has made it clear he intends to pick discussions back up with Jackson in the summer after the season and has called the 24-year-old point guard a "core member." The Thunder hold the leverage and are able to match any offer made to Jackson, unless that offer is bigger than they're comfortable matching.
The addition of Waiters has complicated not only Jackson's present but also his future. It gives the Thunder extra leverage and the ability to to call any bluff in the offseason, as well as trade Jackson for return on investment now if they fear he's beyond keeping. You know, like they did with Harden.
Before acquiring Waiters, the chances of the Thunder dealing Jackson seemed slim. He's a player the team needs, a dynamic creator and attacker who can fit alongside Westbrook in the backcourt, providing the Thunder that third perimeter scoring option they prefer. On the rare occasion Westbrook and Durant are off, Jackson has the talent to fill the void, like he did in Game 4 last postseason against Memphis, when he saved the series for the Thunder by scoring 32 points.
Now, the chances of a trade before the Feb. 19 deadline appear at almost even odds. The Thunder still could use Jackson because he gives them a powerful second unit, one that could potentially be as potent as any in the league, along with a glut of matchup options. A functioning combo of Jackson and Waiters could be a starting backcourt for maybe half the league. But Jackson's increasing attitude issues, and the fact that Waiters could fit better with Durant and Westbrook in closing lineups, the Thunder have the option to pull the plug. With the team sitting at 18-19, the front office is more open to trades than in past seasons, when there was hesitation in shaking up a successful team and upsetting chemistry. In this case, moving Jackson could actually improve the team's chemistry anyway.
With teams knowing Jackson wants a way out, the Thunder will have a hard time getting good value in return. But here's something relevant: The Waiters trade put them a little under $2.3 million over the luxury tax. Jackson is making $2.2 million this season. To get Waiters, the Thunder had to give up a future first-round pick, an asset they typically value greatly. Maybe getting one back -- preferably in or around the lottery -- is all they'd want. The Knicks are reportedly interested in Jackson, but would they offer up their first-round pick for him? Surely not, right?
It's too early to know if Waiters will be the right fit -- he is still Dion Waiters, you know -- but the Thunder are extremely high on his potential. If he produces even somewhat consistently like he did against the Jazz -- on both ends of the floor -- he could be a better long-term answer, anyway. If he becomes the preferred option over Jackson, how much do you really want to spend on Westbrook's backup? Not $12 million a year, that's for sure.
In November, while he was putting up big numbers in his preferred role, Jackson seemed to hint at the writing on the wall. In talking about how he doesn't want to be a temporary starter, he did some possible foreshadowing.
"I'm just trying to fill my role while I'm here," he said.
With the deadline nearing and his situation becoming more uncomfortable, that might not be much longer -- in due time, or something.