Jerry West once said that being right 51 percent of the time means you’re doing well as an NBA general manager. With a team that has overachieved in the first half, Portland GM Neil Olshey has beat those odds, but will be faced with a difficult decision come February regarding center JJ Hickson.
For starters, Hickson brings two things: rebounding and scoring. On the surface, it appears that Hickson is an invaluable member of the Blazer lineup and that the success had during the first 41 games of the season would not be possible without him. To an extent, that’s true. In total, Hickson is up 4 rebounds per game over his prior three season average. Is Hickson making a drastic progression at age 24? Or is he simply in a contract year? I’ll answer that question with another question:
Does that matter?
In the first 25 games of the year, Hickson was quite good. But so too was the schedule less difficult, Damian Lillard exceedingly dazzling, and Meyers Leonard… less foul-y. JJ has rebounded the heck out of the ball, but other factors have contributed to the Blazers success alongside his stats.
And about those stats.
The Blazers are in the lower third of the league in terms of FG%. It’s even worse when you consider they are a top 10 team in terms of 3PT shots taken, but 27th out of 3PT%. Basically, the Blazers can’t shoot (or they have poor shot selection, take your pick). That inherently leaves more rebounds for Hickson to scoop up. In fact, he’s averaging almost 4 offensive rebounds per game this year. During his time as a Blazer, Hickson has had a 2 ORB per game spike compared to his last three seasons in Cleveland and Sacramento.
Then there’s his defense. Although he puts in good work offensively, his defensive rotations are, at best, below average. His synergy stats lie on defense, which show him as a decent post and pick-and-roll defender. As is the issue with the majority of the Blazers roster, it’s on the third and fourth pass where Hickson fails to rotate properly and gives up out-of-position buckets to cutters.
And while it would be comparing apples to oranges regarding aggressiveness, polish, and plays run, you might be surprised to learn that Meyers Leonard has better PPP synergy stats than JJ Hickson. Looking at Portland’s most recent losing streak, it doesn’t appear that Hickson’s averages in rebounding (10.5 REB) or scoring (12.8 PPG) during that stretch affected the Blazers enough for it to matter as the rest of the team struggled. Again, when the few great pieces on the Blazers fail, Hickson’s play isn’t valuable enough to have a discernible impact relative to what someone is going to have to pay him this summer.
Therein lies the problem with signing JJ — not just for the Blazers but for any team. When the Blazers gave Utah a mid-level gamble to Utah in 2009, Paul Millsap ended up getting $7.7 million the first year of his new contract. Factor in Hickson’s 2012-2013 campaign, the continued inflation of NBA salaries, and a comparison of Hickson’s numbers to Millsap’s and it’s likely that he will end up with a similar contract (Hoops World thinks so).
That would place Hickson as the third highest paid Blazer over Wesley Matthews. I find it hard to believe any Portlander could swallow that lump with a smile on their face. It would put Portland in the same position as this year, with similar cap space but needing to fill out a bench with pocket change and expired coupons.
The inequities the Blazers have on defense wouldn’t be solved in a year’s worth of development for Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard, either. The Blazers are faced with the option of either trading JJ, or letting him walk with no compensation. Even looking at teams with cap space, a roster need, and a chance at winning, only Atlanta and Houston meet all those criteria (and even then, only Atlanta can offer immediate draft picks or a first round choice).
It’s not just Portland who is at odds with JJ Hickson, it’s the entire NBA. Quite frankly, I’m not sure what system in which Hickson thrives save for one in which the rest of the team plays all-star caliber defense and he scoops up easy buckets and gets more shots for the scorers. There’s only one system like that in the NBA, and Hickson isn’t taking his talents to South Beach. For the moment, it seems, there’s a good chance that the only person happy with the outcome of his contract dealings is going to be Hickson himself. As for the Blazers and the team that signs him? I’m not so sure.