Yesterday, I wrote about how J.J. Hickson has remodeled his game and is operating at a career-best efficiency as a result. Considering the rather lackluster effort the Blazers showed for much of the night in their loss to Cleveland, my timing…perhaps left something to be desired, but I promised to expand on my argument that Hickson has turned into something of a franchise barometer for Portland, so expand I shall.
In a way, last night’s game is demonstrative of what J.J. means to the Trail Blazers. Somehow amidst the low-energy wreckage of last night’s game, he emerged with a double-double. That seems great, as does his posterization of Alonzo Gee. Less perceptible from the box score or highlights, however, were the balls fumbled out of bounds, the passes sailed into the stands because Hickson pulled up on his cuts, and the wide-open looks Tristan Thompson got at the rim. It was a reminder that, even when producing more and more efficiently, Hickson is no centerpiece for a winning team.
So how much good from Hickson is a good thing? I’ve been quietly swimming against the pro-tanking stream this season, and I’m increasingly of the belief that the organizational relief that comes from grinding out wins far outweighs the benefits of marginally increasing the team’s draft chances. It’s hard not to be charmed on the non-rational level by a team running its starters 38 minutes a game to likely fall short of the playoffs; there’s a certain purity and commitment to the obstinacy that, frankly, I much prefer to the cynical and luck-baiting “blow it up” approach to teambuilding.
So in that sense, freeing Hickson up to do as much damage as he’s able is a commendable flexibility and offensive ingenuity, two qualities it’s safe to say are emerging as Stotts hallmarks. This roster necessitates that a coach not get too hung up on its limitations—the Blazers are basically running out a max of three players who don’t have some major gap in their games. So Stotts, to his credit, has this team focus on what they can do; in Hickson’s case, what he can do is work as a roll man operating with more space than he’s accustomed to because of LaMarcus Aldridge’s presence.
But what’s the end goal? Before I had considered that Hickson’s Bird Rights and trade veto muddied the waters for the team potentially moving him, I figured the Blazers were trying to ship him to a contender for a late first round pick. Now that that’s less likely, harnessing Hickson’s oft-spastic play seems less directly beneficial to the franchise, and brings up the question of when one night’s win makes tomorrow’s less likely.
The Blazers, in all probability, are not staying in the playoff chase. They have never been as good as their record, and the past four losses have seen probability catching up to them. And yet, as they keep scrapping their way into close games with their limited roster, the possibility that they are gearing up for a stab at the postseason becomes ever greater. At the center of this is Hickson. If they’re going to keep him, and keep reaping the benefits of his double-double streaks, they’re a flawed team with a puncher’s chance in any game. If they win enough to just fall short of the postseason, they will risk losing their first-round pick, top-12 protected property of the Bobcats from the Gerald Wallace trade. If they defy the odds and make the playoffs, they’ll part with their pick and hope the growth value of getting waxed by a higher seed exceeds a middling pick in a weak draft.
None of this is an argument against playing Hickson, or for trading him, or anything like that. But the Blazers are a team with serious deficiencies, finding a way to cobble together improbable wins. Hickson is a player with serious deficiencies, finding a way to produce just enough to offset the holes in his game. As the two lean on each other—Hickson to stay relevant in the NBA, the Trail Blazers to stay among the ranks of the winning—they make you wonder how much wins are worth.