It was one of the mysteries of the bubble, how Miami Heat wing and NBA slam dunk champion Derrick Jones Jr. could go from defensive stopper and helpful rotation piece to often out-of-sight and out-of-mind as the playoffs progressed.
And the reduced roll was inauspicious timing for Jones, who is entering unrestricted free agency during an unstable NBA economic period.
Keep in mind that among forwards who played in at least 50 games this past season, Jones was fifth best, from a defensive perspective, in shooting percentage by the player he was guarding (40.8), behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Kyle Anderson and Pascal Siakam. Among small forwards, Jones was No. 1 in that metric.
Players defended by Jones shot considerably better overall (45.6) than they did against Jones, a credit to his defensive prowess.
Jones was close to that defensive-field-goal percentage in postseason — 41.4 percent — and shot well (4 of 9 on threes, 8 for 17 from the field overall) - but yet his minutes plunged.
Yes, there were two regrettable fouls on three-point shooters — resulting in four-point play opportunities — but Jones didn’t lose playing time because of any shooting slump or egregious lapses in effort.
So why did he go from playing in every regular-season game since November to a non-factor for most of the final three rounds of postseason?
Among the reasons:
▪ Erik Spoelstra ultimately had more trust in Andre Iguodala because of his savvy, experience playing in six consecutive NBA Finals, timely clutch shooting in the past two postseasons and a resume that Lakers coach Frank Vogel called Hall of Fame caliber.
▪ The removal of Meyers Leonard from the starting lineup led to more minutes for Jae Crowder, which subsequently contributed to fewer minutes for Jones. Tyler Herro also played more, and Spoelstra decided to use fewer players overall, especially in the Finals.
▪ Jones lost about seven pounds from his playing weight in early March, partly a byproduct of losing his chef, who left South Florida during the pandemic. So his body changed, but not necessarily for the better because he already was lean enough.
▪ He was sidelined in June workouts because of COVID-19 and we’re told the bubble experience took something of a mental toll on him.
There was also the frightening fall and neck sprain in the seeding game finale against Indiana, which led to him being removed on a gurney.
▪ He sprained his ankle in the playoffs against Indiana and was never 100 percent after that.
But above all, this was a case of Spoelstra deciding to ride with Iguodala, play Herro even more and shorten his rotation.
After missing time early in the season with a groin strain and bruised hip, Jones played in every Heat game beginning Dec. 1, averaging 8.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 23.5 minutes per game in 59 appearances for the season, while shooting 52.7 percent overall and 28 percent on threes.
He logged 13 and 12 minutes in the first two playoff games but reached double figures in minutes only one other time and was a healthy scratch in six games, including Games 4 and 5 of the Finals.
He logged just 14 minutes in the series against Milwaukee, 30 minutes against Boston and 10 minutes against Los Angeles. Miami was outscored by 22 in those minutes against those teams, but plus/minus is often not a good measure of a player’s contribution and the Heat was already playing poorly in several of those games.
Jones’ final playoff averages: 1.5 points and 6.5 minutes.
And so the NBA’s 2020 Slam Dunk champion enters the offseason with some measure of uncertainty, unclear if Miami will try to re-sign him.
Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta are among the teams expected to have interest in Jones, according to a source. He likely will generate some interest on the open market because of his athleticism, defensive acumen, youth (23) and the belief that he hasn’t reached his ceiling offensively.
Still, a return to Miami isn’t out of the question. But if it did happen, it assuredly would be only on a one-year deal, and likely only after Miami explored other options with its mid-level exception.
THIS AND THAT
▪ Add Jerami Grant to the list of players expected to interest the Heat this offseason. Grant is expected to opt out of his $9.3 million player option with Denver, but it would be a coup if Miami could land him with its $9.3 million mid-level exception.
Grant, a 6-8 swing forward, averaged 12.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 26 minutes and shot 38.9 percent on threes in 71 regular season games, including 24 starts. He averaged 11.6 points during Denver’s postseason run, starting 16 games and coming off the bench in three others.
Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix reportedly are expected to have interest.
It’s doubtful Miami will offer more than one year to any free agent, which makes a Grant pursuit seemingly unlikely to be successful. Another Denver free agent (Paul Millsap) or the Clippers’ Marcus Morris could be more realistic targets with Miami’s mid-level exception.
▪ According to a source, the Heat requested a Zoom session with Maryland 6-10 forward Jalen Smith, a versatile big who can block shots and hit threes.
Smith — projected to go to in the mid-teens in some mock drafts — averaged 15.5 points and 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in his second season at Maryland, while shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 36.8 percent on threes (32 of 87).
Miami has the 20th overall pick in the Nov. 18 NBA Draft.
▪ According to a source, Heat assistant coach Dan Craig made a strong impression during his Friday interview for the Indiana Pacers head coaching job. New Orleans Pelicans associate head coach Chris Finch is still considered the favorite to replace Nate McMillan, who was dismissed after his team was swept by the Heat in the first round of the playoffs.
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