On J.J. Hickson’s Uncertain Future in Portland

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I would love to re-sign here. As far as the guys on the court, as far as my teammates go, we all like each other off the court and we all get along too. Guys hang out off the court, and I think that builds a chemistry that leads to winning basketball. So I would love to come back here, continue to be a Portland Trailblazer, and help be part of something special that we’re building here. – J.J. Hickson

via SLAM Magazine, April 16, 2012

As we know, the Trail Blazers will enter this offseason with at least one and likely two lottery picks and somewhere in the $15-20 million range in terms of cap space. Re-signing restricted free agent Nicolas Batum will (and should) be Portland’s top priority, but one of the other players on whom they will have to make a decision is J.J. Hickson. Hickson is also a restricted free agent should they choose to extend a qualifying offer, and there’s no reason not to at least retain the right of first refusal on any potential offer. The question isn’t whether to extend Hickson the qualifying offer, but rather what he’s worth for his role, how replaceable his production is, and how high a priority keeping him should be.

Hickson’s numbers were terrific in the 19 games he played with for Portland this season after being claimed on waivers in March. As a Blazer, he averaged 17.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes, with a PER of 20.2 and a True Shooting Percentage of 56.8. In a vacuum, those are borderline All-Star numbers that would make locking him up long-term a priority. However, there are some pretty huge caveats to consider. The obvious one is sample size—he put up these numbers in 19 games, all of which came after Portland had essentially conceded its chances of making the playoffs. He started the final eight of those games, after LaMarcus Aldridge was shut down for the season with a hip injury. If Hickson is retained, it will be with the intention of using him as a backup to a presumably healthy Aldridge.

Hickson is a solid rebounder, but his defense leaves a lot to be desired. His defensive rating has never dipped below 101 points allowed per 100 possessions, and that career best was set during his rookie season, when he was playing 11.4 minutes per game for Cleveland. Since then, his defensive rating has climbed as high 109. His Synergy stats do him no favors either. The scouting service ranks him 256th overall as a defender over the course of his brief time in Portland, with his best work coming on spot-ups, where he ranks a thoroughly underwhelming 138th (0.9 points allowed per possession with a 33.3 field-goal percentage allowed). As an offensive-minded third big coming off the bench for Aldridge or Starting Center X, Hickson’s production is excellent. But his defense and the inflated, misleading nature of his Portland stats should give the Blazers serious reservations about getting into any kind of bidding war for his services.

Given everything else that’s up in the air with respect to the Blazers’ roster, it seems sensible to take a wait-and-see approach with Hickson. They absolutely should extend him the $3.3 million qualifying offer, because if they can re-sign him at that price or close to it, he could be an asset. But if the offer sheet he gets from another team approaches or eclipses the full mid-level exception, matching would be a shortsighted and potentially cap-killing move for a Portland team attempting to rebuild.