Portland Trail Blazers forward Derrick Jones Jr. will officially be a Blazer next year (as of right now) after taking his player option worth $9.7 million dollars. In an offseason that has left Blazers fans worrying quite often about how things will transpire, the first domino of franchise reconstruction has fallen with Jones being the first Blazer to be re-signed.
Jones had what most would call an interesting year. He didn’t exactly thrive as a starter, and he was almost completely out of the rotation by the end of the year. So why would Jones take the player option and what does it mean for Portland?
Why would he take it?
The obvious answer here is that he probably couldn’t have made more money anywhere else. Jones signed a two-year deal worth $18.9 million last offseason. It was a move that most considered an overpay for a player who played a fairly significant role in the Miami Heat’s regular season success but was promptly deemed unplayable in the playoffs.
Despite that, President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey gave him a significant deal, and the results were mixed. Jones’ start to the season was good enough; he still lacked any true offensive ability and wasn’t a lockdown defender, but he was better on the wings defensively than anyone on Portland’s squad last season and allowed Robert Covington to play a more team-defense oriented role by taking on the toughest assignments.
The numbers for Jones from this season aren’t particularly kind. Beyond the pedestrian box score stats (6.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per game with a slash line of 48/32/65), he didn’t exactly help Portland prosper. He posted an efficiency differential of -7.9 per Cleaning the Glass, which puts him in the 18th percentile among wings. Portland averaged seven points fewer per 100 possessions with him on the floor and gave up almost a whole point more defensively.
The numbers confirm what the eye test told us; Jones was not a threat on offense. He actually shot well from inside the arc with a field goal percentage on two-point shots of 61.8%. But he was never a threat from outside, couldn’t create shots of his own consistently, and he failed to create for others. His assist percentage of 4.9% ranks in the fifth percentile. Not exactly ideal when your starting wing is a non-factor offensively.
As the season progressed, Jones started to fall more out of Terry Stotts’s favor. When Portland traded for Norman Powell at the trade deadline in March, that was just about the nail in the coffin. Powell brought a dynamism to the offense that Jones simply lacked, and the gap between the two players defensively wasn’t sizeable enough that it negated Powell’s clear offensive advantage. When Stotts decided to tighten the rotation, there was little hope for Jones.
Jones ended up riding the pine for most of the season’s final games and it seemed like Olshey had yet again spent money on a player that should not have been spent. When you’re in a position like Jones and your options are “take a risk in free agency and hope a team likes you enough to take a chance” or “take the money,” it’s pretty easy to take the money. That’s exactly what DJJ did here.
It’s not that Jones isn’t good enough to play in the NBA. He absolutely can add some value to a team with his ability as a help defender at the very least. It’s just that he didn’t silence any skeptics who doubted his ability after seeing him benched for most of Miami’s spectacular bubble run. Jones showed he wasn’t too different from the guy he was before, so he simply did what was in his best interest: get the best deal he can.
What does it mean for Portland
The reality is that Jones probably should have never gotten that good of a contract in the first place. Again, he was deemed unplayable in the playoffs with Miami because he was so bad offensively and not nearly enough of a positive defensively. Jones would be great to have on a low-cost deal in probably the $5 million range. As a player, he doesn’t provide much more value than that.
In a weird way, Olshey’s overpay could actually benefit the Blazers. Jones’s contract falls into a sweet spot salary-wise for trades. Contracts nowadays usually operate in extremes. They’re either bloated to the extreme, with guys making upwards of $20 million annually despite not playing like $20 million players (see: the contract Gary Trent Jr. will most likely get this offseason), or they’re weirdly low, with guys like Bobby Portis averaging double-digit points in the playoffs on a salary of only $3.5 million annually.
With Jones making just under $10 million, he could work excellently as salary filler for a trade involving a bigger superstar. When I think of salaries like this, I think of players like Meyers Leonard. Before he blew up his career with anti-Semitic comments made during a Call of Duty match, Leonard had signed a contract with Miami that was worth just under $10 million. His contract was concocted purely as a way to manufacture a trade. These kinds of contacts can be invaluable to the trade-happy GM.
Jones doesn’t quite have enough value to carry a trade — at least one that would bring in a significant haul — on his own, but he is a fine player to tack on as an additional asset in a trade. If the Blazers were to move on from someone like CJ McCollum by trading him for a near All-Star level talent, then adding Jones could help make salaries work. Olshey’s mistake in giving Jones that contract could actually prove to be a saving grace for Portland.
That is all dependent, however, on how Olshey uses Jones. It is very possible that Olshey sees Jones re-signing as another opportunity for the forward to try again in Portland. That’s not totally unreasonable, with the argument being that a new coach in Chauncey Billups could utilize Jones more effectively than Stotts did. Is it highly likely? I don’t think so. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Whether Jones starts and finishes next season in a Blazers uniform remains to be seen. It was certainly not the season that Jones — or anyone — had hoped for, and Portland’s future hasn’t exactly gotten much clearer. Can Jones revamp his career under a new coaching regime? Or is he destined to be shipped off to who knows where as a part of a trade yet to come to fruition? Only time will tell.