The J.J. Hickson Mistake

I’m a diehard Trail Blazers fan and have been for quite some time. I actually started off as a Shaquille O’Neal fan when I was younger, especially through his Orlando Magic days. I’m sure my obsession of him must have started because of his fantastic showing in the hit film “Kazaam” but either way, I was fan of the dominant center.

As I grew older, I moved onto bigger and better things (well, maybe not bigger). I became a Portland Trail Blazers fan around the year 2000. The Y2K scare had come and gone, and many people were forced to pick up the shambles that the catastrophe had left behind. That led me straight to a love for my home town team.

I survived the Jail Blazers years, waited out Zach Randolph and Darius Miles’ ridiculous contracts, excitedly stood by for the Greg Oden era that would never be, and watched Brandon Roy light up the league before his knees began to deceive him. I made it through all the tumultuous twists and turns of the last 13 years and as we stand here today, watching the rising stars of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, I can’t help but feel…concerned.

Don’t get me wrong. I, for one, couldn’t be more excited about players such as Lillard, Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum. Lillard is obviously heading into “next great point guard” territory while Aldridge continues to put up All-Star numbers and Batum is having a career year (and he certainly is making sure we don’t regret that ridiculous contract we gave him in the offseason).

I’m absolutely ecstatic about our seemingly minor trade for Eric Maynor. The guy can play ball and will be a crazy good upgrade over the current bench point guards we had been marching out every night (looking at you, Ronnie Price). He’s by no means a superstar, but after being buried on the Thunder bench every night, fair or not, he should be looking for an opportunity to show he can make a difference for an NBA team. Coach Terry Stotts absolutely has to give him 15-20 minutes a game in order to delay Lillard hitting that rookie wall for as long as possible. The moral of the story is that I like the upgrade we got in Maynor, especially since we gave up barely anything to acquire him.

So like I said, it’s not like we don’t have plenty to cheer for this year with the Blazers. They’re in the playoff hunt (no matter how small the chances are at this point) and they seem intent on playing this season to win as many games as possible. It’s hard to find complaints when they’re in the middle of a rebuilding season.

But then I think, are we in a rebuilding season? If we are, then why in the world is J.J. Hickson still on our team? He’s a guy who plays hard every night, even though he can be just woefully overmatched at the center position. It’s tough not to love his style of play, but the truth is that the guy is not made to be a center and because of that, he’s not a long-term solution for the Blazers. We had a chance at the trade deadline to find a suitor for him and do our best to get fair value for him. Most experts talked about Hickson being on the trade block as far back as November, and it seemed to only be a matter of time before he was sporting the jersey of another team. But as the deadline came and went, Hickson stayed.

Here’s the honest to goodness facts about J.J. Hickson:

–          He’s not a center.

–          He’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

–          He’s far outplayed his measly $4 million dollar contract and will almost definitely be searching for a multi-year deal somewhere and the likelihood of that deal happening in Portland is slim to none, because…

–          Hickson’s natural position is currently occupied by two-time NBA All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge (Man, it felt good to type that).

–          Hickson was originally acquired via the waiver wire. That means another team decided that Hickson was no longer good enough to play for them. And that team was the Sacramento Kings. Let that sink in for a minute. I know Hickson has had a good run in Portland, but both of the last two years could be described as contract years. Those are not the types of players the Blazers can afford to take a risk on and throw a bunch of money at.

Hickson should have been dealt at the deadline and my reasoning is two-fold. First of all, any and I mean ANY value we could get for him would have to be considered a win. Hickson is a guy that could be coming off for the bench for a playoff contender, so I can’t imagine that we couldn’t have at least snagged a late first round pick for him. Even a trade where we could have brought back a young player or two should have been explored. I just can’t believe that GM Neil Olshey couldn’t find a deal out there that could have capitalized on Hickson’s value.

My second point might irk some of you a little bit and that’s ok if it does. I don’t believe in teams tanking and coaches sending in second rate players while their stars ride the bench. I don’t believe teams should give up halfway through the season and do everything in their power to lose and ensure themselves a better pick in the NBA lottery. With that being said, the Blazers aren’t heading anywhere this season. If we had a better, more experienced bench, I could picture us making at least a small push for the number six or seven seed and maybe even making a first round upset. As fate would have it though, we happen to have the worst bench in the NBA. I could throw a bunch of stats at you, but I think the eye test is the best way to examine the state of our back up players, and it is not a pretty sight.

With that being the case, there’s absolutely no reason to be playing for this season. We can still play our best players and let the chips fall where they may, but with no chance to win now, we need to have plans in place to win later. Higher draft picks and younger players getting minutes and experience are invaluable at this time. A player like Hickson who doesn’t factor into to be in the future plans of the Blazers isn’t helping to develop for the future. Failure to capitalize on the Hickson situation is a complete and utter lack of planning by the front office.

It’s time for management to pick a course of action and follow with it. The injuries of Greg Oden and Brandon Roy pushed us back in a way that we might not fully recover from, but we can’t continue to have years labeled as “rebuilding” when in fact we’re just putting enough of the right types of players on our team to make sure we keep our head above water (and more importantly don’t lose money on ticket sales). I don’t want to just make the playoffs every year to be bounced in the first round. I don’t want to land in the upper half of the lottery every year either. I’m not willing to settle for that kind of team. I want a championship. And so should you.  

Steve Emerson is on Twitter. Follow him at @stevelikesports

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