Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Lillard and Hickson Edition

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Blazer's Edge readers ask all kinds of questions about Damian Lillard and J.J. Hickson and Dave obliges them with an assortment of clever replies.

Yes! Off days! You know, for a non-lockout season the schedule so far has still been pretty regular. There hasn't been much time for mailbagging. But we'll change that forthwith! Here you go:

Dave,

We have a fantastic rookie. We all love him and national media is on board. He's performing fantastically and I feel a little bad even asking this question because of the negative connotations. How do you feel about most all of his production coming from the perimeter? Or, in other words, how should I feel about most all of his production coming from the perimeter?

-Ryan From just beyond the arc of Portland

A guy can't do everything at once. What do you look for when you first go out on a date with someone? Polite, decent conversation, probably gainfully employed at something, right? Finding out whether they can cook, give good foot massages, hold forth on the finer points of 16th century Spanish literature...you save that for the second date. It's pretty impressive that Lillard is able to do all the things he does right now.

That doesn't invalidate your point, however. Lillard might always be a perimeter-first player. There's nothing wrong with that, but you want to watch for two things. First, is he able to establish enough of a dribble drive and finish to keep defenders from guarding him for the jumper alone? No matter how fancy your step-back is, eventually the league catches on if you can't drive. At that point the shot gets harder. Even if it's a power-dribble pull-up, Lillard needs a go-to move off of either hand to be great. (And I assume "great" is what we're all shooting for since he's winning Rookie of the Year.)

The other big issue is free throws. Remember that huge 37-point outburst against Golden State? He shot zero free throws that night. Scoring that many points with no trips to the foul line is really unusual. On the one hand it points out his offensive potential...like doing it with one hand tied behind his back. On the other hand he's not going to be able to keep up a big scoring average unless he also gets to the line, which won't happen if he shoots only jumpers. Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Kyrie Irving...elite scoring point guards all get to the line more than Lillard is right now. Free throws are insurance against poor shooting performances and the vagaries of the jumper. Without them it's unlikely Damian will ever become an overwhelming scorer.

Our sparkling new rookie has plenty of time to develop this aspect of his game, though. Not all of those elite scorers shot more free throws than Lillard does now in their own rookie seasons. Watch for his free throw numbers to go up over the next two seasons. If we're still talking about this in his fourth year, then it becomes a worry.

Dave,

I'm curious what your thoughts are on Damian Lillard's 37 point effort against the Warriors. Does it concern you at all that on his "career night" he only had 4 assists? How much of that can we chalk up to the inefficiency of the rest of the lineup on that particular night (LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews having gone a combined 6 of 29 from the field, overall team field goal percentage 38%)?

--Ryan

I hasten to point out that this was a different Ryan from the first question. What are the odds of two Ryans with Damian Lillard concerns in the same Mailbag? It boggles the mind. (Cue Carl Sagan: Billions and billions of Ryans populate our universe...)

I am not concerned one bit. Not even half a bit. Even if the low assist total had nothing to do with the shooting of teammates--even if it was all Lillard taking charge--that's one heck of a way to take charge! Let's put it this way. Lillard currently averages 18 points and 6.5 assists per game. He cheated you out of 2.5 assists in that game but he gave you 19 extra points. That's like your grandma calling up and saying, "Dearie, I'm only going to send you three pairs of socks this Christmas instead of four, but I'm also giving you a trip to the Bahamas." Who in their right mind would say, "Awwww...I really needed that fourth pair of socks"? Seriously...way to go, Grandma Lillard!!! Woot!!!!!!

We all have to come to peace with the fact that Damian Lillard is not functioning, and likely will never function, as a pure point guard on this team. He's too good of a scorer and this team needs the offense too badly. This is part of why you've seen Coach Stotts running sets through Nicolas Batum's hands as well as Lillard's. Damian could average 12 assists a game and the Blazers wouldn't be getting everything they need out of him. My guess is they'll be quite comfortable with 6-8 assists and 22 ppg eventually.

Dave,

I believe it's time to examine the performance, the role and the place of JJ Hickson on this team. His performances are stellar but he gets little love from the bloggers on Blazers Edge. Why's that?

--Steven

I asked a question in a recent game recap: Do you love J.J. Hickson for what he is or hate him for what he isn't?

What he is: a great rebounder and (most nights) efficient scorer who's out there giving everything he has while playing out of position and thus the most consistently inspirational player on this team.

What he isn't: a true center, particularly on defense.

There's room for both sides to come out. The particular opponent will dictate how much of an effect his strengths and weaknesses have on a given night. I don't begrudge anyone highlighting either side when analyzing Portland's play, as both are true simultaneously. Given the expectations for the season and the complete lack of players behind J.J. capable of doing what he does, I tend to be in the positive camp. If this team were in contention for the Conference Finals my tune might change a little, as his shortcomings would get exploited eventually. But even then, that's not J.J.'s fault. He's being asked to do things for which he's not suited. I'm amazed that he's done so well. I did not expect him to be 4th in the league in total rebounds, 5th in rebounds per game, and 3rd in total rebounding percentage.

Dave,

What do you think of the recent article about J.J. Hickson being an overrated rebounder, only stealing rebounds from his teammates? It's bunk, don't you think?

--Zoe

I understand the numbers behind the assertion and in some ways I can even go along with the methodology. Could you replace Hickson with another good rebounder and get similar results if the rest of the lineup remained the same? I think you could...maybe not identical, but good enough.

However I think the analysis ignores important particulars about J.J.'s performance and this team:

1. The guy's averaging 4 offensive rebounds per game and more offensive rebounds per minute than he's ever averaged in his career. Whatever the fancy numbers say, my homespun basketball sense tells me that all offensive rebounds belong to the enemy. In other words, every offensive rebound started out as a defensive rebound that the percentages say should have belonged to the opponent, but for the work of the offensive rebounder. Since 4 out of his 11 total rebounds qualify, by my definition 4/11ths of his boards are not taken from teammates, but the opponent. I understand that statisticians will find flaw with my reasoning,as every team will get some offensive rebounds. But in this case I prefer my way of thinking. These aren't "I just happened to be standing here" rebounds. Dude worked for them.

2. If Hickson went down I don't believe the Blazers, either as a whole or in the person of his replacement, actually would make up the difference he provides. They're not deep enough. Opponents wouldn't have to respect the rebounding of Luke Babbitt or Jared Jeffries the way they have to respect J.J. this year. Not only would those replacements fail to average Hickson's numbers and impact, they wouldn't be occupying defenders the same way, freeing up teammates to also attack the boards with success. In other words, some of Portland's combined rebounding success is also due to J.J. and there's nobody else on this team who can have that effect. You could find a player to do that, but not on this roster.

Dave,

JJ Hickson- in your opinion with the assumption he is getting a healthy pay raise next year, why are reasons the Blazers would keep him, the reasons why Blazers would let him go, and what do you think will happen? I am going on the assumption that JJ is going where the $$ is so if the Blazers sign him to a new contract, they will have to pay market value for him.

--Matt

Reasons to keep him: everything we just said. The guy's playing his butt off for you, rebounding great, and playing a position you're going to have a hard time filling. When you get a combination like that it's hard to just let the guy walk.

Questions about keeping him: Is he going to be a long-term solution at center without hurting you? Would he be willing to come off the bench and play fewer minutes and if he did so, could he still give you this level of production? Will he still give you this level of production after he has a new contract? (That's no reflection on Hickson...unfortunately we've been forced to ask this about every NBA player.) How expensive will he be? Could you spend that money more effectively?

Those questions are serious enough to cast Hickson's future in Portland in doubt no matter how well he plays this season. His capabilities aren't going to change. He's not going to develop into the defensive center the Blazers need, nor will he grow 4 inches over the summer. Right now that doesn't matter because he's playing hard and the Blazers aren't in contention. By the end of his next contract they'll no doubt hope to be, which puts a whole new set of expectations on Hickson.

Ideally Hickson would be retained and become the primary substitute at power forward and center both, kind of like a third guard but in this case a third big. His price tag may exceed Portland's capacity to pay for that role. More importantly, paying him may cost the Blazers the chance to make a run at a legit 7-footer. Still, it's a tantalizing prospect. Whatever center the Blazers do make a run at, it's pretty much guaranteed they're not going to get a 40-minute per game starter. They need a 7-footer who can show credibly for 32 minutes and a strong reserve. That strong reserve could be J.J. if he were willing and if he came cheap enough. Personally I don't think either of those conditions will be met. I'm betting he won't be in a Portland uniform come fall.

Send in Mailbag questions to blazersub@gmail.com Please put "Mailbag" in the subject line. More coming soon!

Also don't forget to help us send kids to Blazer's Edge Night 2013. Here's the explanation: CLICK HERE

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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