One of the reasons that I felt it was in the Cavs’ best interest to make a move for a stretch four before the trade deadline is that JJ Hickson was playing some terrible basketball.
Hickson was inserted into the starting lineup after Anderson Varejao and Shaq failed to make it work as starters. Hickson had a few nice games, appeared able to make some of the mid-range jumpers that Varejao couldn’t hit, and became a fixture in the starting lineup. After his nice start, Hickson entered a very long stretch where he was not successful at making mid-range jumpers or playing basketball.
Hickson has a nice-looking stroke on his jumpers, but he is very bad at enticing his jump shots to go into the basket. Hickson is currently making 18.2% on his jumpers from 10-15 feet, and 23.0% of his jumpers from 16-23 feet. Those are not good numbers.
Going past the jumpers, Hickson’s effect on the starting lineup was absolutely toxic. I’ve mentioned this a few times in this space before, and I’ll mention it again; as of February 3rd, the Cavs’ starting lineup was one of their worst five man units, which is almost unprecedented for a contending team.
Hickson’s effect on the Cavs’ defense has been particularly unfavorable. As of February 3rd, the Cavs were 7.6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Hickson on the floor. When Hickson sat, the Cavs had a defensive efficiency of 101.2, which would be the fifth-best mark in the league. When Hickson played, the Cavs’ defensive efficiency went to 108.8, which would make them 29th in the league defensively.
The Hickson effect is everywhere; last season, LeBron James had the third-highest defensive +/- in the league. This year, the Cavs are actually slightly worse defensively when LeBron is on the floor. The fact that LeBron plays most of his minutes with Hickson instead of when Hickson sits is perhaps the biggest reason for this.
One final thing to drive home the point that JJ Hickson has been really bad at defense: Take a look at how the Cavs play defense by quarter.
In the Fourth Quarter, the Cavs are the third-best defensive team in the league.
In the Third Quarter, the Cavs are the second-best defensive team in the league.
In the Second Quarter, the Cavs are the fifth-best defensive team in the league.
In the First Quarter, which is the only quarter that Hickson has typically seen extended minutes (he’s generally gotten a pretty quick hook in the third), the Cavs are the 15th-best defensive team in the league.
Before the Laker game, I was more than ready to see the Hickson experiment come to an end. Get someone in a trade to replace his minutes. Get Powe healthy. Heck, I would’ve been somewhat okay with replacing Hickson with Jawad Williams. Anything.
Then the Laker game happened, and Hicksomania began. I don’t know how to explain it, but JJ Hickson has looked like a new man. He’s catching passes he was fumbling before. He’s making smart cuts to get baskets instead of trying to face up from 15 and dribble-drive to the rim. He’s shown much more discipline about shooting mid-range jumpers. His rebounding has noticeably improved.
In the nine-game stretch starting with the Christmas Day game against the Lakers, Hickson has scored in double figures five times. He’s shot 58% over that stretch, and 77% from the line. Both of those figures represent significant improvements over his season averages. He’s also averaging 6.8 rebounds per game over this stretch, which is over two rebounds per game better than his season average. Turnovers have continued to be a problem, as JJ is still averaging slightly over a turnover per game despite his limited minutes.
JJ is simplifying his game, and it’s paying dividends. He’s starting to understand how to focus on doing what the team needs out of him rather than using his possessions to explore the limits of his talents. Shaq said JJ could be "The next Cedric Ceballos” after the Minnesota game. It was an odd bit of praise, but on point. Shaq told JJ that he could be a successful player without needing anything run for him, and Hickson seems to have taken that advice to heart.
Best of all, Hickson seems to be making strides towards being a competent defensive player. He’s developing a nasty streak defensively, and seems to be playing both harder and smarter on the defensive end. The Cavs have been giving up an average of only 24 points in the first quarter of this stretch, which would be the 6th-best mark in the league.
Only the Lakers, Grizzlies, and Heat have scored more than 25 first-quarter points in the last nine games, and the Cavs have held their opponents to 20 points or less in three of the last five first quarters.
Danny Ferry has some tough decisions to make over the next nine days, and whether or not to give up on Hickson’s development is another one of those decisions. Hickson’s value is currently soaring, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to keep up this level of play for the rest of the season, let alone in the playoffs. On top of that, it’s hard to confidently project Hickson’s development as a shooter and playmaker when he’s shown very little aptitude in those areas so far.
On the other hand, Hickson is a tremendous athlete, is still very young, and is one of the few bigs in the Cavs rotation young enough to build around. And of course, the Cavs are absolutely firing on all cylinders with Hickson in the starting lineup. Add that to the possible complications in securing a buyout for Ilgauskas, and a Z/Hickson swap for a player like Jamison looks like much less of a slam dunk than it did a month ago.