J.J Hickson: Apologies for the Conspicuous Lack of Stripper References in Article

Last post, I pondered why LaMarcus Aldridge has been shooting from farther away this season. After posting, I noticed something interesting about J.J. Hickson’s stats. Check out his scoring efficiency by true shooting percentage and points per field goal attempt over the past three seasons.

Year TS% Pts/FGA
2010-11 50.3% 0.92
2011-12 50.1% 0.93
2012-13 61.1% 1.16
Career 54.5% 1.02

Defensive Positioning

Hickson was awful during the 2010-11 season, and he was awful again during the 2011-12 season. Power forwards need to score well above 1.00 points per shot, and I don’t need to explain to you that 0.92 < 1.00 < Good. During that 2011-12 season, he only played 19 games with Portland, and much of that time was spent filling in for the injured Aldridge. Needless to say, Hickson didn’t get to play with Aldridge a lot before this season.

When this season rolled around, Hickson became a model of efficiency. He is currently ranked right behind the ever-efficient Steve Nash and well ahead of guys like Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard when it comes to true shooting percentage. Hickson has played a vast majority of his minutes with the L-Train this season, and you might recall that Aldridge is staying outside more this season than during the past few seasons. Hmmmm…things are starting to come together…but one last thing to check: Hickson’s shot distribution.

Year Inside Pts/FGA
2010-11 45% 1.19
2011 (SAC) 33% 0.98
2012 (POR) 46% 1.27
2012-13 58% 1.20

In those first 19 games with the Blazers, Hickson didn’t look all that different from his previous season in Cleveland. But with an entire off-season to work with Portland, and Aldridge specifically, Hickson’s offensive approach has changed. Though his efficiency inside has stayed pretty constant, he has definitely started going down low with more frequency.  It is perhaps no coincidence that Aldridge moved outside more this year, taking a noticeable hit to his own scoring effectiveness. The Blazers might actually be reaping the rewards of Aldridge’s flexibility in the form of Hickson’s migration down low.

None of this information alters my opinion that Center is the number one starting position the Blazers should be looking to upgrade. In fact, if Aldridge truly is making Hickson look better, then that should encourage replacing Hickson even more. His contract is up at the end of the year, so why not go shopping for a big man that can play a little defense? I mean, if Aldridge’s flexibility can help improve almost any big man’s scoring, then we can reap those same rewards with someone known more for his defensive ability.

Though Basketball-Reference deems Hickson to be the top defender (Drtg) on the Blazers this season, that’s more a commentary as to how bad the Blazer’s defense is. Across the league, Dtrg rates Hickson similarly to Markieff Morris, Troy Murphy and Luis Scola—not exactly defensive stalwarts. And there’s even some controversy as to Hickson being that “good” at all. 82games.com rates his defense as the worst of the Blazer’s starters. Now that just leaves us confused.

Defense is inherently hard to measure. Simply using blocks and steals hides far too much information, so I’m forced to do something laced with bias: use my eyes. In multiple games that I’ve watched at the Rose Garden this season, I’ve taken bits of time to specifically watch Hickson on defense. I would describe his awareness and positioning off the ball as mostly nonexistent. His athleticism seems to occasionally make up for it, but I watched the likes of Marcin Gortat take any position he wanted inside for an entire quarter, and I can’t get that image out of my head.

I would consider myself in the camp that wanted to trade Hickson while his value was high. But the deadline passed, and the Blazers lost an opportunity to find some new talent for an expiring contract. I get the feeling that not all of Hickson’s improvement is his own doing, and that Aldridge makes him look a little better than he is, so I’m down to get another Marcus Camby-like defensive juggernaught and let Aldridge do his thing, circa 2010.

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