Part 1: Honest Conversation about JJ
By Blazer Fanatic Posted in: Blazers
Let’s have an honest conversation about JJ Hickson. I love JJ’s energy and effort, and I want to be able to talk about his strengths and weaknesses to help fans understand, and even solicit answers from fans, as to what JJ’s real value is and what he is worth monetarily.
Not many teams were willing to give JJ much of a chance last summer. Portland ended up giving him a $4 mil/1 year contract. I want to look at qualities JJ brings or doesn’t bring to the court. My main focus is his rebounding, which he has done extremely well if we just look at box scores. He is currently 6th in the NBA in Rebounds Per Game (11), and 3rd in Double Doubles (20).
Neil Paine (Basketball Reference) came out with an article recently saying that since Portland won their only Championship (1977), there have been 165 instances where a player collected at least 16% of the rebounds for a previous team, and move to a new team. And of those 165 instances, only 103 times was there an improvement in team rebounding. His premise is fairly solid, that some of these 16% rebounding studs don’t increase the teams rebounding, because they are essentially “stealing” rebounds from teammates. Using advanced statistics, Paine listed Hickson as one of 5 overrated rebounders:
J.J. Hickson, Portland Trail Blazers
Superficially speaking, Hickson appears to be one of the league's best rebounders, averaging 10.8 boards per game (sixth-best in the NBA) with a 21.7 rebounding percentage (fourth-best). However, there's plenty of evidence that many of those rebounds have simply been stolen from his teammates, not opponents. Only Anderson Varejao and Reggie Evans have a bigger differential between their own rebounding rates and those of their teammates, but at least Varejao and Evans lead their teams to above-average rebound percentages while on the floor -- and improve their teams' rebounding when in the game. Despite Hickson's gaudy individual stats, the Blazers have a negative net rebound rate with him in the lineup, and they actually rebound at a better rate when he's not on the floor.
I have heard (and seen) instances of Blazers apologizing to Hickson for grabbing a rebound that they could have let Hickson get by not doing anything. I have also seen Hickson fight teammates for a board and even pull it out of their hands before it was entirely secured, although inevitable that it would have been secured by a Blazer either way. I’ve also seen Hickson not box out, only to lose out on a rebound, and giving up an offensive board to the other team. But I have some question regarding Paine’s premise.
1) Did any of these “16% rebounders” I’ll call them, or 10%, or even 8% rebounders leave the team, or have a significant reduction in minutes as a result of adding a 16% rebounder?
2) Players are more able to leak out on the break when they know there is a 16% rebounder under the basket that can secure the rebound. Can one argue that this does not help the team - when an advantage that did not exist before, now does? What about when the 16% rebounder is not in the game? Teammates in the game would crash the boards more rather than leak out, thus perhaps even INCREASING their rebounding rate, yes? Which begs the question… why would a player ever leak out on the break when there is clear evidence that they could get more rebounds if they did not? Did I just suggest that more people under the basket means more rebounds? I think I did.
3) Great rebounders often are in the game versus the other team’s best rebounder. It seems to reason that with both great rebounders out of the game, all things equal, there wouldn’t be an advantage. In other words, to what account does the opponents 16% rebounder take in this argument? If the opponents 16% rebounder was NOT in the game at any time, that team would be at a disadvantage when the other team’s best rebounder is in the game. Does this not play a factor in JJ’s situation where the Blazers actually rebound better when he JJ is not in the game? Can you say that the Blazers are a better rebounding team with both team’s best rebounder out of the game because the rest of Portland’s players are better rebounders on the aggregate than their opponent? And if so, then why would that say anything about JJ?
Despite these questions, I can concede that in terms of defensive boards, JJ’s numbers are inflated a bit. I cannot take that leap for his offensive rebounding numbers however, which are 5th best in the NBA (4 Offensive Rebounds Per Game). JJ gets offensive boards very well. My concern, or criticism, of JJ’s rebounding, has more to do with how he is rebounding on defense, and what he does with the basketball after he gets an offensive rebound.
On the defensive end, aside from the “stealing rebounds from teammates” argument, which has strong statistical support, JJ does not box out very well, if at all. My reasoning is that JJ is undersized, and in an effort to gain an advantage, he doesn’t box to gain mobility, poised to jump which ever direction the ball clinks off the rim. I don’t think that’s a very good excuse, but it’s the only reason I can come up with. Quite honestly, I don’t see any reason why JJ doesn’t box out more. It comes down to fundamentals. Cheating on boxing out is cheating your team out of rebounds in my opinion. I’m not harping on JJ being overrated, rather that I feel he could make the Blazers a better rebounding team by boxing out more.
Is JJ selfish? Is he overcompensating for his size? Are his teammates just trying to throw him a bone to keep him involved?
On the offensive end, I don’t see an argument for being overrated. The issue with JJ on the offensive side isn’t rebounding at all. The issue is what he does with the ball after he grabs one. JJ doesn’t always make good decisions once he gets the rebound. His instinct is to take it to the rim at all costs, often wasting a possession on a poor shot. A good example of this was the 3 on 1 at the end of the Miami game. He secured an awesome offensive board, but then he immediately took a horrible shot against 3 Heat defenders instead of just backing out and passing out to a wing. That Wolverine, Berserker Rage that allowed him to get the rebound, also causes him to lose control once he got it. His decision making once he secures the offensive board needs work. Some of the best decisions JJ makes with the basketball, aren’t his sick cuts to the rim for an ally oop, but rather, when he secures an offensive rebound and passes it.
Let’s be frank, JJ has never been accused of being a great passing big.
JJ passing the ball five feet over Pavlovic's head
This only exacerbates the problem of what occurs after JJ secures an offensive rebound. Even if he improves his decision making, to pass out after an offensive board, it is often no less a risky venture for him to do so. As a result, JJ is 20th in assists for Centers and averaging a single Assist Per Game. Compair his APG to the other 4 starters on Portlands Roster (Matthews 2.5, Aldridge 2.5, Batum 4.4, Lillard 6.5) and you start to get a better picture of how JJ is getting the scoring half of his Double-Double rampage.
JJ’s post defense is another concern I have. I’ll save that topic for another day, but I just wanted to provide some context as to why JJ may not be worth the $7.2 cap hold that the Blazers are facing come season’s end. (see Part 2: Honest Conversation about JJ)