J.J. Hickson had a chance to show the Portland Trail Blazers what they lost out on by not re-signing him this summer. Instead, he played poorly against his former team, shooting 2 of 13 from the floor for 5 points, to go with 9 boards, in 22 minutes. He was his usual energetic self, fighting for rebounds, but his energy seemed to work against him, as his shots were blocked multiple times by his former teammates.
Hickson was the Blazers undersized, yet offensively effective, starting center last year. He was a double-double machine, for the Blazers, logging 40 of them in the 2012-13 season. Good for seventh in the NBA. He also shot 59 percent from the field. He brought energy and all-out hustle to the Blazers starting lineup, and was a huge fan favorite because of it.
His matador defense, however, was one of the Blazers biggest weaknesses. Hickson was horrible defending the pick and roll, below average at contesting shots, and had a hard time boxing out. His “Olé” defense led Blazer GM Neil Olshey to go in a different direction in the offseason, trading for Robin Lopez. More on Lopez later.
To be fair, the 6’9″ Hickson was far too small for the center spot. He is a natural power forward, who played out of position for the Blazers because he was their best option on a thin roster.
In Denver, he is playing the four spot, and he is not being asked to defend opposing centers. However, Denver already has a player in the mold of Hickson, with the younger, more athletic Kenneth Faried. Both are monsters at corralling offensive boards and play with intensity, but they leave much to be desired on the defensive side of the floor. Unless, Denver can trade Faried, whom they have been rumored to be shopping around, these two will steal minutes from each other all season.
So, how has J.J. Hickson’s replacement Robin Lopez done so far? Not too great. In his first two games, opponents are still feasting on the Blazers at the rim. In the Blazers season opener, the Phoenix Suns torched the Blazers for 52 points in the paint,and Lopez made opposing center Miles Plumlee look like an All-Star. Lopez finished the game with just 3 points and 2 rebounds. Last night was better, but Denver was still able to effectively score inside. Lopez finished last nights game with 2 points, 5 rebounds and 5 personal fouls, but 2 blocks to salvage the statline.
Robin Lopez sat out much of the second half, due to foul trouble, and newly named backup center Joel Freeland played most of crunch time. Freeland performed admirably, in Lopez’s absence, with smart defense, and timely rebounds. Lopez has looked slow and plodding through the first two games of the season. If he can’t pick up his defensive play, it looks like the Blazers will have a different formula, but the same result as last season.