By Jason Quick, The Oregonian
There are no hard feelings and no regrets, but it appears these are the final days that JJ Hickson and the Trail Blazers are together, with both sides acknowledging this week that the writing is on the wall.
The Blazers, who have given up the most interior points in the NBA, want to find a more defensive-oriented center next season, while Hickson - a power forward who bit his tongue and played as an undersized center for the Blazers - wants to start, and is eager to test his market value when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Blazers general manager Neil Olshey this week said he is not ruling out keeping Hickson on the roster, but he doubts the team will have the role, and the money, to pacify Hickson’s desires next season.
“For us to make a jump next season, JJ can’t be our starting center,’’ Olshey said, referencing the Blazers’ 47.4 points allowed in the paint per game, an NBA high. “I’m not saying he can’t be part of the roster. But we need to find a starting-caliber center who protects the rim and gets defensive rebounds at a high rate and that has a presence. And we have to do a better job at defending the paint. So you have to ask: Is it likely there is enough minutes to commit the kind of dollars JJ will command, when clearly there are other positions that need to be upgraded? Probably not.’’
The Blazers figure to enter the offseason with $11.8 million in cap room. A large chunk, if not all of that money, will likely be used to lure a defensive-minded starting center or to absorb the contract of a starting center in a trade. That leaves Hickson on the outside looking in when it comes to meeting his desires to find a team that can both give him chance to start as well as award him a raise from his $4 million salary this season. If he stayed in Portland, Hickson would play behind franchise player LaMarcus Aldridge, who plays close to 40 minutes a game.
Andy Miller, who represents Hickson, said Olshey hasn’t flat-out told him Hickson is not in the Blazers’ plans, but Miller said he is under the impression that the Blazers will move in a different direction than Hickson.
“I think Neil has been fairly candid to me as far as where they stand,’’ Miller said. “I don’t feel confident about the situation. Earlier in the season there may have been mood swings and perspective swings where I felt the tide swinging, to where I felt that this would be more than a rental for both sides. But lately, I haven’t felt that way at all. He definitely hasn’t misled me.’’
It figures to be a controversial decision for the Blazers. Although the 6-foot-9 Hickson was undersized for his position and often an overmatched, or unwilling defender, the fanbase embraced his high energy play and relentless pursuit of rebounds. In the process, the 24-year-old has put together a career year in his fifth season, with averages of 12.9 points and 10.6 rebounds while playing 29 minutes a game. He leads the Blazers in rebounds and field-goal percentage (.567) and ranks sixth in the NBA with 40 double-doubles.
Olshey said he realizes his decision will be met with some resistance from Miller and fans, but he said he has to take emotion out of the equation.
“I don’t think Andy necessarily agrees with it, but he sees our perspective,’’ Olshey said. “Now, he may think we are wrong - and maybe we are wrong - but at the end of the day, we are going to do what is best for the organization.’’
In the end, it was probably a win-win scenario for Hickson and the Blazers. Hickson, who was picked up off waivers last March after Sacramento released him, got an opportunity to resurrect his career, while the Blazers found a capable center to buy time for rookie Meyers Leonard to develop.
“I think JJ has had a remarkable season,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “He showed a lot of people what he can do. The most important thing is he sustained a certain level, for the most part of the season, with his energy and his rebounding. The mid-range jump shot, I think, is the biggest area where people questioned whether he could make it, and he turned into a very capable mid-range jump shooter. And he accepted his role. I didn’t call a lot of plays for him and he found his offense through the flow of the game. Although it was frustrating at times for him he accepted it and thrived in it.’’
Hickson, who is questionable for tonight’s game against the Lakers because of a sore back, said he likes the Blazers organization and his teammates, but he understands personnel and financial decisions have to be made.
“If we part ways, it would be no hard feelings, and if we decided to stick together, it would be a great thing also,’’ Hickson said. “But at the end of the day, it’s always business. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t miss my teammates and the organization, because they took a chance on me by picking me up off waivers. I can’t thank them enough for that. But I think I have paid my dues with all the hard work I have put in all season.’’
Hickson said having a chance to start will be at or near the top of his offseason priority list.
“That’s just me being a competitor,’’ Hickson said. “I think everyone in this league wants to start, so of course I want to start, of course I want to play a lot of minutes to help my team as much as possible. That’s definitely one of the factors going into free agency - whether I start or not. Other than that, I’m just looking to win ball games and have fun doing it.’’
Hickson is not sure it would be fun playing center again next season. He said it was difficult enough playing the position this season.
“It was hard to play center. but I took it with a grain of salt and did what I had to do for the team,’’ Hickson said. “I felt like I laid it all out on the line. I definitely was playing out of position, but I sacrificed my position for the coaching staff and my teammates to play a position that my body is not made up for. And we all knew that going into the year I was an undersized (center) and that I would have to play that much harder to make up for what I didn’t have physically.’’
The intrigue will be what Hickson commands on the free agent market. If he gets more than $5 million a year, he will probably be out of the Blazers price range. If he doesn’t, and the Blazers strike out in their free agent pursuits, there’s a chance he could return.
“All I know is JJ has earned the right to test the market,’’ Miller said. “He has put in the time and the effort to show that his game and body of work has matured. I know he has enjoyed his time in Portland, but now he gets a chance to see what else is out there.’’