What a difference a year can make. On March 19th, 2012, the woeful Kings waived J.J. Hickson amid a disappointing season for the former first-round pick. It was quite a comedown for a young player the Cavs once viewed as a centerpiece of their future, but Hickson was averaging just 4.7 points and 5.1 rebounds for Sacramento. The Warriors were poised to sign him when he cleared waivers, but the Blazers pounced with a claim, bringing Hickson to Portland, where he has regained every bit of his promise, and then some.
The Blazers made Hickson a focal point of their offense late last season when LaMarcus Aldridge was injured, and he responded with 15.1 points per game, which would be a career high if it were extended over a full season. He's come close to matching that production in 2012/13, notching 13.1 points and 10.7 rebounds per game as the starting center alongside Aldridge. He's one of nine players in the league to average a double figures in both points and rebounds this season, and aside from Nikola Vucevic and DeMarcus Cousins, who are on rookie-scale contracts, Hickson, on a one-year deal worth $4MM, is the lowest-paid member of that group. Omer Asik is making $8.37MM this year, and the other five double-double guys are drawing eight-figure salaries, so it seems Hickson is in line for quite a raise in the offseason.
The 24-year-old N.C. State product was frequently mentioned in trade rumors, even though he had the right to veto any swap since he was on a one-year deal and will qualify for full Bird rights with the Blazers this summer. It probably wouldn't have been to his advantage to accept a trade, since his Bird rights wouldn't have carried over to his acquiring team. Still, the Pistons, Bobcats and Nets were linked to Hickson in the month leading up to the deadline. Charlotte was also in on Hickson over the summer, around the same time the Warriors appeared to once more be frontrunners for his services.
Assuming Hickson can command an annual salary that's at least as much as Asik's, which seems reasonable, he'd be too expensive for any team without cap room to sign him outright, unless it's the Blazers. A team that's over the cap but under the tax apron could engineer a sign and trade, but teams above the apron, who can't acquire players via sign-and-trade under new CBA rules, would be out of the running. That essentially eliminates the Nets as a possible destination, since Brooklyn is committed to about $84.5MM in salary for next season. The Warriors, depending on the decisions made by the four players on their roster who have player or early-termination options, will probably wind up close to the apron, making another pursuit by Golden State tricky.
The Pistons and Bobcats will have plenty of cap space, so of the teams other than the Blazers who've been linked to Hickson in the past year, they appear to have the clearest paths to sign him. Still, I'd be surprised if there aren't plenty of other teams ready to make a bid for Hickson in the summer. The combination of his youth and the numbers he's putting up this season figure to make him a sought-after commodity, even if there are concerns he could revert to his form in Sacramento. In an ESPN.com Insider piece, Amin Elhassen points to inconsistency and poor defense as reasons why Hickson should get no more than a four-year, $30MM deal. Yet Elhassen cautions that his projections are based simply on the player's on-court value, and not what he can get on the market. Centers are routinely overpaid, and though he might be too short to be a true center at 6'9", I think an annual salary in the ballpark of $10MM seems like a reasonable bet.
The Blazers, with only $43.24MM in commitments for next season, are set up with plenty of cap room to get a deal like that done, but they may prefer to use their space to sign others and exercise their Bird rights on Hickson to re-sign him once they're over the cap. Doing so would maximize their ability to bring talent aboard this summer, though a $10MM deal for Hickson if they're already over the cap would put them close to tax territory. In any case, the Blazers also have the power to spread Hickson's guarantee out over five years instead of the four that other teams are limited to, which could give them an advantage. I'm not sure Hickson, given his youth, would want to tie himself up for an extra year for the same amount of money, but it's clear the Blazers have some flexibility regarding how they can approach his free agency. Much can happen between now and July, but the Blazers will enter the process with a built-in edge.