Blazer's Edge Mailbag: Rule Changes, Free Agents, and Why Hickson Ain't Coming Back

USA TODAY Sports

The Blazer's Edge Mailbag opens for questions about rule changes, various free agent possibilities, and all the reasons J.J. Hickson isn't returning to the Blazers.

We're going to take a one-day break from the roster review because I'm not quite ready to tackle Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews yet. Also I have a huge backlog of Mailbag Questions from the season and I promised myself I'd get to them before the summer got too old. This one's mostly about free agency with a little rule-change action thrown in.

Dave,

What's your take on stiffening penalties for grab fouls and breakaways that your friends at Truehoop have taken up? Should players be penalized more for the wrap up foul?

Skyler

I've heard plenty of people say it's not fair, nor good for the game, for any old schlep to wrap their arms around a great scorer and prevent a bucket. Beauty of the game...injuries...blah blah blah.

I'm not sure that more rules will prevent this kind of thing. My guess is most such incidents are instinctive. "Oh no, the guy's getting away!" Grab. It's not like a player started out the possession planning to get into that situation and defend that way. If he did, well...he can do it a maximum of six times a game, right? With coaches pulling players in early foul trouble, the actual total will be less.

Also I'm not sure the game gets any more beautiful when a defender goes, "I'm beaten. I want to grab him. Ooops! New rules! Hands off, let him score." That seems cheap.

I haven't seen a ton of teams intentionally wrapping players to slow down the game or frustrate the opponent. Hand checking rules already help perimeter guys and have transformed the game significantly from the old Knicks-Pistons thuggery days. Is this problem really that widespread that we need a whole new set of rules and judgment calls to deal with it?

Even so, I could live with the extra rules if wiser minds than I think they'll make a difference. But I want one thing in exchange: get rid of the star system. To me the two go hand in hand.

Let's face it, these rules suggestions aren't there to benefit the average player. Does anybody recall the wave of moral outrage sweeping across NBA nation when the Lakers' Trevor Ariza blasted Portland's Rudy Fernandez in the head from behind on the break a couple years ago? I don't. Sure, the play made Sportscenter. Everybody remembers it. But it was a curiosity, an "Oooh...look at that!" moment. But let LeBron James or Kobe Bryant get wrapped up and all of a sudden everybody's wringing their hands about "destroying the beauty of the game".

You think stars are more likely to get free and thus are more prone to this kind of foul? Fine, protect them. But you don't get to favor them in other ways then. That's double dipping. You're going to end up with a system where you can't get anywhere near the superstar when you're in front of him and you get doubly penalized for touching him when you're behind him. That's not beauty of the game, that's six tons of plastic surgery creating a grotesque Barbie clone in an L.A. uniform.

With the star system in place my first urge is to tell non-star players to get the most out of their fouls. Every time I see Kobe initiate contact by leaning in, bump his man out of the way, then get an easy and-one I want to throw up my hands and say, "Next time he drives in just flatten him to the floor. The whistle blows either way but at least you don't give up the bucket." Those are the choices the system forces you to make. Frankly I think it's to the credit of opposing teams that you don't see more superstars get knocked off their feet. I don't know about you, but if I'm Golden State and the refs are up to 42 fouls in the game headed to 50, at some point I'm saying, "What the heck? Why not?"

(It's worth noting that Bryant's injury occurred in the normal course of the game without such contact, so no need to get sanctimonious about that. Although the refs did whistle that he was fouled on the play anyway...)

If the league levels the playing field and stops giving out Kobe fouls I'll be all for preserving the beauty of the game and the rights of its best players. Until then I don't think the scales can afford to get tipped any further that direction no matter how noble the cause seems on the surface.

Dave,

I see quite a few thoughts on adding a Center in the off season, I'd like to suggest another idea. Recently we saw that the best plus/minus line-up was 4 starters plus Babbitt. Basically, an open floor game. I suggest using cap room to go after Paul Millsap. I know he is a smallish 4, but he's a terrific rebounder. Lots of other teams run converted forward systems. Having a 4 with quickness and brawn would give us a fighting chance to play with them.

Charles

I don't hate the idea. The Blazers once liked Millsap enough to make an offer sheet for him. He's a consistently good offensive player, he's in his prime, and his defense has improved over the years.

On the other hand he's undersized and not at all a rim-protector, as you have identified. A couple points of order: his rebounding isn't that terrific nor is he a stretch forward like Babbitt. He actually plays a mid-range game like Aldridge does...a few more close shots but not that many. The Blazers need a presence in the paint at both ends and Millsap isn't it.

My stance is that the Blazers need to accumulate assets, period. Although they're different players Millsap and Aldridge overlap too much for my tastes and Millsap doesn't fill enough holes to make me comfortable with the fit long-term. It'd make the most sense if you could get him cheap and you could later plan to package him in a trade or just trade Aldridge instead. It's a plan but you have to believe it's at least Plan D on the Blazers' list.

Dave,

Is Kevin Martin someone the Blazer would be interested in going after in the off season?

Philip

He'd start at shooting guard, he's developed into an amazing three-point shooter (albeit with a couple other pretty good players to distract the defense for him), and you have to believe he's got more left in the tank than he's showing for Oklahoma City right now. A couple years ago this guy was just sick and he's still pretty impressive. The Blazers could do worse.

On the other hand he doesn't penetrate on offense, he's not a ball-handler who can take pressure off of Damian Lillard, and his defense has been panned for years. The clincher is that he's making $12.5 million this year. Even if he's tempted by Portland's offer to start, how much less would he take? A sign-and-trade for Wesley Matthews is about the only scenario that would allow the Blazers to get Martin and another major asset. That would be an exciting deal but you'd also have to consider whether the Lillard-Martin backcourt could sustain enough offense to balance out their defensive deficiencies.

Dave,

With the recent news of Andrew Bynum being hurt again, do you see the 76ers resigning him? If they don't, would the Blazers make a run? I know with all the pain we went through with Greg Oden this is unlikely. However, Bynum is a beast and if he is available. What price would be worth paying?

Jeff

He's got the wrong character for this franchise, a bad approach to the game, would be an unconscionable ball hog in a system that doesn't allow for such, and his injury status makes him a huge risk. Chances are good he'd be an albatross. It's probably a bad idea.

It's not a merit-free idea though. He's huge, he's talented, he's a real, live center like you dream of. It'd be a home run swing for a team that desperately needs a home run to vault back into relevance. If it worked out it'd be the shortcut of shortcuts, a masterful stroke. Comparing an operative Bynum to even the best that Chris Kaman or Samuel Dalembert could offer throws the move into stark relief.

My initial reaction is no. That could be modified depending on how many other teams have interest in Bynum and therefore what he costs. I wouldn't be looking directly at him but I might glance out of the corner of my eye. If nobody else wants to take a flyer on him and the bidding gets ridiculously low, I'd get my name in there just for the heck of it. He's making almost $17 million this year so I assume that wouldn't happen, but you never know.

Dave,

How much do the Blazers really have to spend on trades/free agents next season? We have heard Olshey say that Allen is willing to spend for the right deal and we have heard that the Blazers have anywhere from $13 to 15 million to spend up to the $58 million cap; however, other teams go over the cap all the time and the Luxury Tax doesn't kick in until around $70 million. So what prevents the Blazers from spending over the cap but under the Luxury Tax threshold to acquire a good center, a solid sixth man and some bench depth?

Philip

We're not going to have an exact number until we know what the new cap is. Also keep in mind that the Blazers might want to use some of that space to facilitate trades. They could end up south of $12 million or north of $14.

The part of your question needing clarification is "Why don't the Blazers just exceed the cap?" You can go over the cap line and fall short of the luxury tax threshold without incurring extra penalties but there's only certain ways you can achieve that under league rules. I'm going to simplify them for you here, knowing that our resident cap gurus are going to want to add significant details in the comments. But for our purposes, this will do.

1. You can exceed the cap to re-sign your own free agents using what's known as the Bird Exception.

2. You can use a mid-level exception to make signings up to $5 million-ish even if you are over the cap.

3. You can make trades that bring in more salary than you send out by a certain percentage.

The important thing to remember is that these only come into play if you are over the cap already. If you start under the cap then the money you use to sign free agents simply counts against your cap until the cap is full. Cap holds prevent you from signing up other people's free agents and then using the Bird Exception to sign your own guys last. Trade imbalances don't matter as the new salary simply takes your cap space. Plus you don't get the mid-level exception if you're already under the cap by more than that amount.

The only two fudges you get if you're under the cap are a $2 million "room" exception to sign extra players once you're capped out and the ability that every team has to sign minimum-salary players even if the team is over the cap.

The Blazers will be more than $5 million under the cap when the new year begins. They can sign and/or trade their way up to the cap level. At that point they'll be working with that $2 million and signing minimum-salary guys.

Next year, assuming they're over the cap, they'll be able to work slightly-imbalanced trades, use Bird Rights, and sign people with their mid-level exception.

Teams that are currently operating over the cap currently have already done those things over the course of years. You're going to see the Blazers do this too eventually. They just can't right now.

Dave,

The whole JJ Hickson deal intrigues me on many levels. He's still young and I see his "Holes". I also see that we really need a center...

Hermistonmelons

This question has come up a ton in the last couple months. To understand the chances of the Blazers keeping him you have to refer to the last question we covered.

To prevent teams from signing everybody else's free agents up to the cap level and then signing their own players to go over the cap, the CBA institutes cap holds. This is an amount charged against your cap space that sits there until your player is either released or re-signed. It's like a credit card hold when you check into a hotel or pump gas. The fuel company will hold $75 of your total credit line until the actual amount you pump goes through the system. Then that $75 hold goes away, the $40 you actually spent gets charged, and the $35 difference gets put back into your available credit line.

J.J. Hickson's cap hold this summer will be $8 million. The Blazers will not be able to use that money to sign free agents or facilitate trades until Hickson signs an actual contract with them or is released. $8 million is a HUGE chunk of the $12-14 million the Blazers will probably have available. That hold would hamstring them.

If the Blazers did want to keep Hickson only a couple scenarios would make sense. They either sign him immediately for a low contract, thus replacing the $8 million with a much smaller number, or they release him to clear the cap hold and then sign him at the end of the process for a low number. (Keep in mind they cannot go above the cap to make that signing after they release him. They lose his Bird Right when he's cut.) The common denominator in both of these scenarios is "low number".

First you have to ask whether the Blazers even want Hickson back given his shortcomings and their needs. If you assume they do, then you have to ask whether Hickson will agree to sign a lowball offer the instant free agency hits without testing the market at all in order to return to a team that no longer wants to start or feature him. Would you do that?

I suppose there would be an outside chance that Hickson gets no serious offers around the league, feels some affinity for the Blazers and how he was able to play here, and the Blazers happen to have $4-5 million sitting around at the end of free agency. If all of those things come to fruition then maybe I could see the relationship continuing. That's not going to happen though.

Keep those questions coming to the e-mail address below and be sure to put "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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