Throughout the season, I have not exactly made my disdain of J. J. Hickson a secret. I’m surprised myself, as I have made a Bedge career out of defending players like Travis Outlaw and Steve Blake. I gave Raymond Felton the benefit of the doubt (for a while). Was willing to put a positive spin on drafting Nolan Smith over Kenneth Faried. But Hickson? I have never liked Hickson.
I think that stems from what he did with the Kings. I like the Kings a lot. I like the city of Sacramento. In fact, if I get the chance to see a game live anytime soon, it will most likely be Kings-Blazers. And Hickson flat out quit on the Kings. There may be the excuse that the Kings are a dysfunctional team. And that is an astute assessment.
But Hickson didn’t even try. He fell out of the rotation, when he should have been the most talented player they had at PF. Cleveland wasn’t exactly sorry to see him go either. They shipped him out for Omri Cassipi and a first round pic so conditional, that they haven’t gotten it yet. (If the Kings tank long enough, they don’t have to give it at all, giving a second rounder instead in 2017). That price is pretty low.
That said, Hickson has done some things well for us. He has rebounded well. He has caught some good passes for easy points. In fact, he has been pivotal in some of the games we have won this season. Hickson is not a bad player. When he’s playing. Maybe Hickson has grown up. Maybe he’s matured. Maybe he’s turned into a player who can give it all each night. After all, he can’t fake it for a whole season. Perhaps. Or perhaps Portland is Hickson’s perfect storm.
The Blazers have a Greg Oden sized hole in our lineup. It’s been there since the 2007 draft. And we’ve had some players fill that hole. We’ve loved Joel Przybilla. We’ve loved Marcus Camby. When they were here, they looked like very capable players. In the top ten of rebounding whenever they started. When they left, they fell off of a cliff. And a lot of that can be attributed to age and injuries. Because Camby had been good at one point in his career. But how much of what they did is because of how Portland’s roster has been constructed over the Oden era?
In other words, anyone with decent rebounding ability, decent hands, decent center skills, is going to look good playing in Portland next to Aldridge and Batum on the front line? Ideally, if your starting center is in for rebounding, the team should be better at rebounding overall when the player is in, rather than when he’s out. Joakim Noah, a very good rebounder, increases his team’s rebounding totals by a solid +1.7%. Anderson Varejao is a freak of nature at +5.0%. Now, reflected in that is the quality of the backup. Taj Gibson comes in for the Bulls, and also rebounds well. Varejao didn’t really have a good backup.
Now we come to Hickson. Hickson does not increase the Blazers’ team rebounding. The percentage goes down by -0.4% when Hickson is in the game compared to when he’s not. Which means that the Blazers get more of the rebounds when he’s off the floor than when he’s on. Maybe if he had a solid backup, those numbers would make sense. But this is the Blazers’ bench we’re talking about. Meyers Leonard may be good at some things. But rebounding sure ain’t one of them. And apart from Maynor, he’s the best player we have on the bench.
It’s players like Luke Babbitt and Will Barton who are increasing the team’s rebounding total. When Luke Babbitt having Luke Babbitt on the floor is getting your team more total rebounds than your rebounding ace, you start to wonder about your rebounding ace. Still, Hickson averages over ten rebounds a game. How many would a half way decent rebounder average? You know, a rebounder who had a positive effect on team rebounds? I’d like to see.
Defense is also one of Hickson’s great weaknesses. But I do have to give him credit. He has improved as the season has gone on. I wouldn’t call him good by any means. Just not embarrassingly bad. The Blazers are near the bottom of the NBA in paint defense and post defense. And the center combo of Hickson and Leonard can take a good deal of blame for that. Even though they do have good excuses. Hickson just isn’t big enough to play center. Leonard is a green rookie who was never trained how to play post defense in the first place. It’s not who they are. And that’s okay. But realize it still needs to be addressed at some point.
All said, I don’t think we need a star playing at center. Just someone who can fill the paint. The rebounding will come. The scoring might not be as nice. But a solid middle man is just what this team needs. Is it the first priority of needs? Probably not, actually. So I’m not going to be surprised to see this hole still here next season.
But Hickson’s value to the Blazers is just not that high. Yes, he’s putting up some neat stats. Yes, he’s showing hustle and trying. Yes, he has been valuable to this team this season. But he isn’t doing anything that can’t be replaced. In fact, in a couple of years, I expect Leonard to exceed what Hickson has done this season. Particularly on offense. Maybe not rebounding. Because that’s not Leonard’s thing so far.
But bringing Hickson back? It just doesn’t make sense for the Blazers. Hickson’s cap hold is $7.6M. Waiting to see if we can use his Bird rights cuts our cap space from a potential $11.6M down to $4M. At that point, we’d be better to stay above the salary cap and keep our exceptions. Just like we did last season. But more cap space can be used to either get a better player, or multiple players to fill our numerous holes. It shouldn’t be too difficult to trade out of the first round, if we want to get back up to $13.1M in cap space. Maybe we can even get a team to take Freeland + cash as the price of the first round pick, freeing up even more.
Keeping Hickson is to guarantee more of the same. We’re already 33-42. Improvements at a couple of bench positions doesn’t get that record into contention, no matter how bad it was. I think our best shot is to go for as much cap space as possible. And use that cap space of the best player we can get. Forget position. Just get someone great. Trade later to fill in the gaps. We’re not fixing the Blazers in one offseason. But we do only have one shot left of that cap space. Make the most of it.
I have to admit. Hickson exceeded my expectations. He’s still flawed. Seriously so. In all the wrong places for the Blazers. But he does have strengths. And some team will pay him for those strengths. There are 12 teams going into the offseason with at least $12M in capspace. Five or six of those teams will have enough to offer two max contracts. I think it’s fair to say that Hickson is probably a top ten free agent. And while teams are very leery of the luxury tax. They’re leery because of the high penalties. There are no penalties to spending your salary cap space. So you do the math. Personally, I’d put the line on Hickson’s new contract at $11M a year. Maybe it’ll be more, maybe less. But it’ll be close to that. And I believe Olshey is smart enough to let that contract go. I might not say that I’ll miss you, Hickson. But give credit where credit is due.