Western Conference home teams are 5-0 in playoff games so far, after Chris Paul's buzzer-beater lifted the Clippers to a thrilling Game Two win over the Grizzlies last night. The Nuggets will look to make it six straight victories for favorites in the West tonight against the Warriors. While we wait for that game, let's check out some items from around the conference:
While the Trail Blazers' 13-game losing streak to close the season wasn't pretty, it did help the team load up on draft picks for the coming summer. The Blazers' first-rounder is top-12 protected, which means they'd only lose it if three of the four teams below them in the draft lottery standings jumped up into the top three. In addition to that first-rounder, the Blazers will also keep their own second-rounder (No. 40), and acquire second-rounders from the Timberwolves (No. 39) and Celtics (No. 46). Here's more out of Portland:
According to a report from The Oregonian's Jason Quick, the Trail Blazers and center J.J. Hickson, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, will part ways at the end of the season.
With roughly $11.8MM in cap space this summer, Portland is preparing to spend it on a defensive-minded starting center. Hickson isn't that player, according to the team's general manager Neil Olshey.
“For us to make a jump next season, J.J. can’t be our starting center,’’ he said. “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 J.J. will command, when clearly there are other positions that need to be upgraded? Probably not.’’
Conversely, Hickson would like to be a starter somewhere, and at just 24 years old he'll also be looking for a pay grade increase from the $4MM he's making this season.
The odds were against them, but the Blazers managed to stay in the playoff hunt until late March and in doing so, showed promise for the future. Portand didn't do it with flashy upgrades either. They added just one player at the trade deadline, point guard Eric Maynor, at the cost of a $2.2MM trade exception. Recently, General Manager Neil Olshey sat down with Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune to discuss the state of the club. Here's a look at the highlights..
Would you judge this season a success?
It went well. We had a good season. We stayed in the playoff race longer than anybody thought. Our young guys have all gotten better. We've won close games, which is a testament to how (coach) Terry Stotts has managed the games. The assistant coaches have done a great job with the development of rookies like Victor Claver and Meyers Leonard. We fell short of our hopes to get into the playoffs. But based on preseason prognostications, for how long we remained competitive with how young we were and how limited our bench was, we had a positive year.
Where must the team improve?
I don't think we're talented enough right now. It's not position-specific. The first player acquisition vehicle after the season is the draft. You have to hone into whether (acquiring talent) means using your pick to select a player or to construct a deal that involves the pick. But we have to add talent to this team. We win a certain number of positions each night, but we lose a lot more than we win. We have to shore up areas on this roster through the draft, trades and free agency, where we can compete one through 15 against teams that have more depth in their talent base.
What is on the docket once the season ends?
After our exit meetings with players, we have the Nike Hoop Summit in town (on April 20). I'll stay for that. Then on Monday (April 22), myself, (assistant director of scouting) Joe Cronin and (assistant general manager) Steve Rosenberry are on a flight to Europe to cover all the European guys. I haven't had a chance to scout them yet, because I've been focused on our team and the American players.
Can you get the center you want with your first-round draft pick or through free agency, or might you move the pick to swing a deal for a veteran?
I'm open to anything. Every move we make this offseason has to be made where we maximize our flexibility. Every penny of cap room. … the mini-mid level, our draft pick, our second-round picks. It's not just about adding one player. We're not deep enough right now. We're not talented enough. We have to make moves that increase the talent base at least one through nine. That's what we have to get to, no matter how we go about doing that.
What are the odds on keeping J.J. Hickson?
We have J.J.'S Bird Rights. He has a very high cap hold ($7.98MM). It's not just a question of whether you bring him back. It's within the context of … what positions would you not be able to bring in if you sign him? We are the worst team in the NBA in points in the paint and protecting the rim. We've been disguising J.J., who has been a warrior and played hard all year, but there's a certain reality to playing a 6-8 power forward as your 5-man. That's not an indictment of J.J. He has played out of position and done all we've asked him to do. But we've become a 3 (small forward) and rim type of league. We have the 3-man down. Now defensively, we have to protect the rim better.
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.
The Pistons were inactive on deadline day, having already been involved in their lone trade last month, when they acquired Jose Calderon from the Raptors. But that doesn't mean that Detroit wasn't exploring its options leading up to the deadline.
According to Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News, the Pistons spoke to the Trail Blazers about swapping J.J. Hickson and Jason Maxiell. However, Portland wanted the Pistons to include a first-round pick, which Detroit was unwilling to do. Maxiell also drew some interest from the Spurs, reports Goodwill.
Besides Maxiell, another Piston on an expiring contract, Will Bynum, received a little interest. The Thunder inquired on Bynum before eventually trading Eric Maynor to the Trail Blazers and acquiring Ronnie Brewer from the Knicks, says Goodwill.
THURSDAY, 12:14pm: A Hickson deal looks increasingly unlikely for the Blazers, even if the big man were willing to approve a deal. Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports (via Twitter) that Portland doesn't have one offer on the table that makes sense, while Ken Berger of CBSSports.com tweets that there may not even be much interest if the team downgrades the asking price to a second-rounder.
WEDNEDAY, 1:27pm: J.J. Hickson has been the subject of a few trade rumors in recent weeks, but unlike most trade candidates, Hickson has the ability to veto any deal he doesn't like. Hickson didn't negotiate a no-trade clause into his contract like Kevin Garnett, but because he re-signed with the Trail Blazers on a one-year pact and would lose his Bird Rights if he were moved, the big man can block a deal.
As Joe Freeman of the Oregonian observed while speaking to Hickson, it doesn't make a ton of sense for the 24-year-old to approve a deal that would strip him of his Bird Rights, reducing his leverage in free agency as he enjoys a career year. Hickson agreed with Freeman's assessment of the situation.
"There you go then -- you just said it," Hickson said, laughing. "You just answered all your questions."
While Hickson didn't entirely rule out the possibility of approving a trade, he told Freeman that he's focusing on playing for Portland right now. And if the club comes to him with a trade for him to consider? "I’ll deal with it when I cross that path."
Ben Golliver of Blazer's Edge noted earlier today that the presence of other available big men such as Marreese Speights and Jermaine O'Neal on the trade market was softening Hickon's value. And given the year Hickson is having so far, if the Blazers can't even find a good offer for the N.C. State product, it's unlikely they'll consider a move.
With the deadline less than five hours away and trade rumors picking up steam, here are a few miscellaneous rumblings from around the league:
The Bobcats engaged in talks with the Nuggets for Timofey Mozgov and the Trail Blazers for J.J. Hickson, but neither discussion gained any traction, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports (via Twitter). Wojnarowski reports that Gerald Henderson would have been an outgoing piece for Charlotte in both scenarios.
This isn't the first time we've heard about the Bobcats attempting to deal from their shooting guard depth in an effort to land a big man -- the club reportedly explored a Ben Gordon/Kris Humphries swap with the Nets, though those talks didn't get serious. Gordon and Humphries both have one more expensive season remaining on their contracts, while Henderson, Mozgov, and Hickson are all on expiring deals.
Despite the fact that Mozgov and Hickson are heading for free agency this summer, it appears neither player will come cheap in a trade. The Nuggets reportedly turned down an offer from the Timberwolves for Mozgov that included a first-round pick. Meanwhile, Hickson has the ability to veto any trade, so it's probably unlikely that he'd be willing to give up his Bird Rights to be sent to the NBA's worst team.