Through no fault of his own, James Jones has found himself near the end of the Heat's bench.
We’ve all been there before. One day it seems you have all the momentum in the world going for you. And then, without a moment’s notice, the floor drops out from beneath you.
That’s what it’s been like for James Jones on the basketball court. Less than one month ago, Jones won the 3-point competition at All-Star Weekend, beating out prolific shooters Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Durant, among others. He was a fixture in the rotation of one of the best teams in the NBA.
Now, he’s fortunate to receive minutes during garbage time. During Saturday’s game against Memphis, Jones watched from the bench as the Heat blew out the Grizzlies for the team’s second win in a row. The deficit in Saturday’s game swelled to 35 points before Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called for Jones to enter the game. There was only five minutes remaining in the contest.
But at least Jones actually got into the game on Saturday. Jones received a DNP-coach’s decision during Thursday’s battle against the Lakers and hasn’t played double-digit minutes in any of the Heat’s past seven games. Heading into the All-Star break, Jones averaged just more than 20 minutes per game.
“It never gets easier,” Jones said Sunday about accepting a lesser role. “It’s always frustrating. But there’s only two things you can do: become paralyzed by it or keep working. My drive and my competitiveness pushes me to continue to try to get better.”
The All-Star break is nothing more than a nominal place-holder in the 82-game season. Jones didn’t necessarily play himself out of the rotation during the weekend and it’s not like Spoelstra is somehow punishing Jones for his 3-point crown.
Real on-court factors have contributed to Jones’ squeeze, and they just so happened to coincide with the season’s intermission. Namely, the recovery of Mike Miller and the addition of Mike Bibby have made the 3-point specialist from Miami not feel so special anymore.
“James [Jones] has given us so many productive games earlier in the year,” Spoelstra said Sunday after practice. “Then Mike [Miller] got healthy and we added Mike Bibby so [Jones] has been caught up in a little bit of a numbers game right now.”
Jones understands the new circumstances that have left him out of the rotation, but he isn’t letting it get to him.
“I’m not an excuse guy,” Jones said. “Some people take consolation in the fact that it’s out of your control and you get the short end of the stick. But at the end of the day, if you get the short end of the stick, you still get the short end. Why you get it or when you get it, the reasons are irrelevant.”
Jones filled in admirably for Miller, who was shelved with a thumb injury for the first two months of the season. Jones did his job as the Heat’s spot-up shooter and found himself among the league leaders in 3-point field goals for much of the season. His 41.5 percent 3-point field goal percentage is the second-best mark of his career and was good enough to be selected to the 3-point contest -- a contest that he won.
Jones was a mainstay of the Heat’s “second unit” when he substituted for LeBron James, typically early in the second quarter. With his 3-point arsenal, Jones stretched the floor and helped to stabilize the offense, which tends to become isolation-heavy with LeBron and Dwyane Wade sharing the court.
When he wasn’t nailing 3-point shots, Jones was providing excellent help defense on the other end of the floor, routinely stepping in for charges and using his length to cover ground. When Jones has been on the court, the Heat have allowed 101.0 points every 100 possessions, which ranks as the best on-court defensive efficiency for any individual on the Heat. When Jones steps off the floor, Heat opponents have scored 3.5 points more every 100 possessions.
Despite Jones’ strong plus-minus and prolific 3-point shooting, Spoelstra has preferred Miller recently in that second unit. Miller can provide Jones’ 3-point proficiency --Miller has upped his 3-point shooting to 40 percent after a rough start -- but his skill set doesn’t end there. The former Gator supplements his downtown game with playmaking ability and ballhandling. Unlike Jones, Miller isn’t completely dependent on others to create shots for him. Jones has been assisted on all but one of his 115 field goals this season for an assisted rate of 99.1 percent. Miller’s assisted rate stands at 85.5 percent, which is still high -- but not Jones high.
But while Miller boasts more versatility than Jones, the scoreboard hasn’t shown that Miller is an upgrade yet. On the season, the Heat have been outscored by four points (1,134-1,138) with Miller on the floor. Heat lineups that feature Jones have posted far better results, outscoring opponents by 8.7 points every 100 possessions.
Why hasn’t Miller been more effective? With Miller, the Heat are trotting out damaged goods. Miller admitted that his thumb won’t be fully healthy until next season, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The 31-year-old has battled head injuries and leg injuries all season, seemingly always hampered with a noticeable limp. Spoelstra’s decision to play Miller at significantly less than 100 percent health over Jones shows how much confidence the coach has in the player the Heat handed a five-year contract in the offseason.
Miller and Bibby have displaced Eddie House and Jones in the Heat rotation, even though the latter tandem didn’t play themselves out of it.
“We know we’re still two of the best shooters in the game,” Jones said about House and himself. “At the end of the day, it’s up to coach and it’s up to the people in management to decide who plays, how much and when.”
In basketball, sometimes even the best isn’t good enough.