January 15, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Portland Trailblazers center J.J. Hickson (21) during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 115-111 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Trade Rumors: J.J. Hickson **CORRECTED**

As almost everybody is aware, the NBA Trade Deadline is Thursday February 21 at 12:00 PM Pacific Time. That of course means that Twitter is a buzz with trade scenarios and rumors. Many of these rumors are unfounded and will fade off into the sunset once the deadline passes. Others, though, are based firmly in reality, and will play out just as they have been predicted.

The guessing, the second guessing, and the race to be the first to break news is what keeps the NBA rolling through the post All-Star Weekend hangover and right into the stretch run.

Last season at this time, Portland did what we all wanted them to do, they blew it up. Nate McMillan got shown the door (not really the expected first move but probably the right one), and he was followed in quick succession by Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace.

This season, there will be no blow up (you don’t do that kind of thing two seasons in a row), but that doesn’t mean the Blazers are going to be excluded from trade talks, trade scenarios, or even actual trades.

There’s one deal to be had, and if General Manager Neil Olshey wants to back up the big game he’s been talking, the game of building a long-term winner that will compete year after year, that one deal needs to be made.

And what is that deal? Shipping J.J. Hickson.

I’ve been wanting to write about J.J. Hickson for awhile, ever since he emerged as one of the major question marks of the 2012-13 season. J.J. hasn’t been a question mark in the traditional sense, he’s been a question mark in the sense that right now every element of Portland’s rebuilding process and schedule seems to fall into place expect for him.

Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum are the core around which the Blazers will continue to build. Wesley Matthews is playing at the contract he was given, and is likely to be re-signed as the fourth cog in Portland’s starting five. Joel Freeland and Victor Claver, due to the constrains of their international contracts are here to stay for awhile. Meyers Leonard is a long-term project, but he’s the Blazers’ long-term contract. Everybody else is expendable. Hickson is part of that everybody else, regardless of the fact that he starts and has a tendency to reach double digits in scoring and rebounds on most nights.

In fact, it’s that double-double tendency that both clouds the future for J.J. Hickson and gives him the potential to provide his team with more than his actual value. Right now, Portland is on the hook with J.J. for no more than this season. He is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. His improved play over the course of 50+ games has probably earned him a decent mid-sized contract. It has also upped his trade value.

My guess is the Blazers are unlikely to sign J.J. in the off-season, he is going to command more than he is probably worth, plus he still doesn’t fit into Portland’s long-term building plan. Hickson is out of position playing at the five, he takes minutes that could be very well used teaching and growing Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland, and he’s pretty miserable on the defensive end.

If Portland elects not to re-sign J.J., they will get nothing for him. That’s the cardinal sin of taking a flier on a relatively cheap player. Hickson came to the Blazers off the wire after being waived out of Sacramento. He was dirt cheap, and possibly one or two league minimum type stops from playing in Europe. Portland gave him a contract for 2012-13 as a reward for the work he did during the Blazers’ tank-fest to close out 2011-12. That reward has paid off for both parties. To not then take advantage of Hickson’s improvement in the form of a trade would be dereliction of the duties of a General Manager.

More than just not wasting money to sign Hickson to a multi-year deal (which the market will say J.J. is worth), moving J.J. would actually be a positive influence on next season’s growth. With Hickson out, Meyers Leonard would finally have the chance at extended minutes that he hasn’t had all season. Extended minutes might not turn Meyers into an All-Star, but it might give the young center the incentive he needs to prove he’s the seven-footer LaMarcus Aldridge has been waiting to play with. And if Leonard doesn’t turn out to be that center of the future, nobody can legitimately fault Olshey and Co. when they go out and buy an established center and bury the 11th pick in the 2012 Draft on the bench.

More than just making room for Meyers, flipping J.J. will be form of protection for next season’s draft. As it stands, Portland loses their first round pick if they end up outside of the top 12. Some speculate that tanking is in order to get Blazers to a point where they don’t punt their pick to Charlotte, but for my money tanking isn’t in the cards. Forget for a minute that no professional basketball players are going to lose on purpose and that no professional basketball coach is going to game plan for how to best lose games, Portland is 25-28 and in 18th place overall according to Basketball-Reference. Barring a big run of wins and a Playoff berth, the Blazers are keeping their pick. **NOTE**

But if the Blazers make that run, they are going to need some kind of protection. Turning J.J. into protected picks, something that is a serious possibility, enables Portland to continue to chase the Playoffs without worrying about the repercussions should something incredible happen and the Blazers find themselves first in line to get swept by the Spurs (or the Thunder but probably the Spurs).

So how does a Hickson deal go down, and who is going to make it happen? That’s the real question. If I’m Olshey, I move J.J. for protected picks only, the more the better. I avoid taking on salary at all costs, but if there’s a package that makes sense and includes a serviceable vet plus a nice protected pick, there’s no reason not to jump.

Who shows up to give Portland the best deal? My guess is the Nets. Brooklyn needs a better power forward than the ones they’ve got, and they’ve got a couple nice picks that might be up for grabs. They are unlikely to part with first rounders, but that’s what I’d push for. If Prokhorov is interested in only giving up second rounders, than it might not be a bad idea to ask for a guy like Reggie Evans in return. Evans won’t stick in Portland, or if he does it won’t be for much, but at least bringing in a player will appease the fans who are going to pissed to see the Blazers’ double-double machine bounced to a contender for basically nothing. And Reggie Evans plays defense.

So far nothing has come through about where Portland will go as far as trades are concerned. Olshey has maintained that the Blazers are standing pat. Moving Hickson isn’t without it’s problems. He can veto any possible trade, and likely will since getting traded negates his Bird Rights (meaning that he can sign a bigger and healthier contract with Portland than he could with some as of now unknown other team). The Blazers’ move is either to convince J.J. they have no interest in signing him long-term, thus negating his Bird Rights altogether since he doesn’t get them if Portland doesn’t sign him, or make a deal exclusively with a contending team, sweeten the pot by putting J.J. on a roster headed toward the Conference Finals or maybe beyond.

That could be a tall order for the brass, finding the right combination of scenarios and parts to turn J.J. Hickson’s Most Improved Player season into something valuable for the long-term. Even so, all things being equal, there’s almost no reason for Portland not to at least try to flip Hickson and try very very hard.

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

**NOTE**

Portland’s pick situation is a bit confusing, so much so that I confused myself while writing about it. Portlnad loses the pick to Charlotte if they can’t fall far enough to end up in the top 12 on next season’s Draft. My contention is that the Blazers are unlikely to be able to lose enough games to get down into the bottom of the league’s basement (there are a number of teams with fewer than 20 wins and a couple of teams that are going to use the post All-Star Break stretch to race to the bottom for probably the only really decent picks in the Draft). Because of that, unless Nolan Smith starts every game the rest of the way (which won’t happen since Damian Lillard still needs to keep getting professional reps) Portland is basically punting their pick in every single scenario.

As for the impact that will have on a potential J.J. Hickson trade, moving Hickson for a pick with protection more favorable to the Blazers is basically mandatory. Portland not only needs to protect against a possible run that gets them in the Playoffs, they need to protect against the fact that the damage of winning prior to the All-Star Break is unlikely to be undone in the final 30+ games of 2012-13.

 

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