Monthly Archives: January 2013

JJ Hickson herp

The Problem With Paying (or Trading) JJ Hickson

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.

Damian Lillard dunks on the Oklahoma City Thunder

Looking at the Second Half of the NBA Season for the Portland Trail Blazers

Come playoff time, there will doubtless be a segment of Portland fans that will bemoan the second-half downfall of their team. As Lillard “fatigues” and as the bench shows its true colors, the Blazers will start to unravel and the surprising first-half .500 mark won’t seem so surprising. At least not when they finish somewhere around 34 wins. Why does this seem like such an inevitability?

Two gigantic road trips at inopportune times

The Blazers have to spend two weeks playing the likes of Miami, Utah, Minnesota, LA, Memphis, San Antonio, Chicago, and Oklahoma City during road trips in February and March. The Blazers are already .350 on the road during the first half of the year and that’s with everyone (mostly) healthy and without having much film to study on how Stotts’ offense works or Lillard’s tendencies. Having to play good teams on the road? It’s going to be miserable.

The home games aren’t any easier

Portland doesn’t get to play Sacramento eleventy times like they did in December. I could name all the good teams the Blazers are going to play at home in the second half of the season but instead I’m going to pick out the three games against bad teams: Houston, Detroit, and Phoenix. That’s it. The Rose Garden is a tough place to play, but even then the Blazers are on a three-game home losing streak.

Stotts will rest some starters

Playing your starters lots of minutes is great, except when you realize that 82 games is a really, really long season. You and I can’t even play pickup basketball two nights in a row, and these guys are playing 38+ minutes a night for seven months. Sooner or later, Stotts is going to have to give Lillard and Batum some rest, and I suspect it will be on those road stretches where they’re going to be overmatched anyway.

Teams will have some film on Portland

It takes teams a while to adjust, to learn their own system, and then prep for their opponents. It helped the Blazers that no one knew how good Damian Lillard was or exactly how Stotts was going to use LaMarcus Aldridge in his offense (including Stotts, as LMA’s role has evolved over the course of 40 games). You can’t stop great players, and both Lillard and Aldridge will get theirs. But I will look for Lillard to struggle as he has to make adjustments to his game as teams start to defensively remove his favorite options.

This is a good thing

Because Portland owes a first rounder to Charlotte this year unless they make they bomb the last half of the season. The pick is top-12 protected. Basically, if the Blazers want to continue to build through the draft they need to continue to be lower-third-level bad.

Ronnie Price

Ronnie Price Manages, Doesn’t Hurt the Blazers

Before the season started, it was a running joke around Portland that you knew the season was already heading downhill when the Blazers were patiently waiting for Ronnie Price, dribbling enthusiast and part-time backup point guard, to return from injury. While some playoff teams in the Association get to run out Darren Collisons, Eric Bledsoes, and Benos (whatever that is), the Blazers were left with the guy who made Jazz fans want Deron Williams to average 48 minutes a night.

When looking at a backup point guard, especially for a bad team like Portland (don’t let the projected playoff standing fool you) it’s important to consider what is a realistic expectation. Certainly, Price isn’t going to average big points, or provide one easily recognizable benefit. In years past, the Blazers were subbing in Sergio Rodriguez (fastbreaks! turnovers!) and Jerryd Bayless (crossovers! turnovers!) and you knew what you were looking for. With Price, it’s a little different.

Part of the reason could be the change of pace from a clear All-Star in Damian Lillard. The rookie has been taking a huge scoring load, especially considering his position, and when Price subs in for him it’s an obvious change of strategy offensively for Terry Stotts. What Lillard does well – shoots threes, creates shots, hits long twos – Price doesn’t do at all. In fact, Price is shooting just 25% from 3-point range and 34% from the field in total.

Despite the obvious inequities, Price is providing some value. While overall neither Price nor Lillard are spectacular defenders (Synergy has Price ranked just below a block of wood at defending any screen or rotation play) it seems that the backup point guard has been able to produce turnovers via steals in key situations, including a third quarter steal during a LeBron James crossover Thursday night. And in fact, Synergy has Price ranked as a better defender than Lillard so far this season.

For the Blazers, it’s not about performance, it’s about need. While many teams are looking for a strong backup point guard to lead their sixth man forward during breaks for the starters, the Blazers really just need a game manager. That means no turnovers and more assists. Price, surprisingly, has stepped his game up for Portland this year. He’s above his career average in AST% and down in turnovers. He’s got a better assist/turnover numbers than Norris Cole, who is starting for the team who will most likely win the championship. He even has a positive win share, which the Heat guard can’t attest to.

And really, that’s Ronnie Price as you see him this year. Because the Blazers are so terrible, we’re quick to look at him in a poor light. His comparative numbers are marginally better than some starters who are also terrible, but that’s kind of the point. He’s not as bad as he could be, and in fact, he’s filling a role quite nicely for Portland. If he stopped shooting the ball, you could even say he’s serviceable. At this point, I think that’s the best the Blazers are going to get.

Better than Nolan Smith, anyway.