First, let me preface the rest of this post by saying two things: One, JJ Hickson can go out in the next ten games and play lights out at the PF slot therefore voiding this entire post. If that happens, I’ll happily eat my forthcoming words. Two, I am operating under the assumption that a team that has JJ Hickson guarding Centers is never going to be a good defensive squad, and therefore never an elite squad. If you disagree with that line of thinking and in fact think Hickson will be able to effectively guard centers in the future, then ignore the rest of this post.
Last night, JJ Hickson was forced to move back to the PF slot. He didn’t fare well. He had one of his poorer rebounding games in quite some time and only shot 3-10 from the field. This was to be expected by anyone who had paid attention. All of Hickson’s improvement over the last couple of months has come with him playing nearly all of his time at center. But simply playing at center does not change the match-ups one gets. No, as much as we liked to hate him, Antawn Jamison was very necessary to Hickson’s success on the offensive end.
For whatever reason, Hickson seems to be more comfortable being guarded by opposing centers instead of power forwards. Because Antawn Jamison plays on the peremiter so much, it was in the opposing team’s best interest to play their center on Hickson, giving him the match-up he so favored. Not only that, but Jamison’s spreading the floor gave Hickson more room to operate in the paint. Thus, one can conclude that Hickson is best suited playing next to a power forward that can stretch the floor. That is if you are only considering the offensive end of the spectrum.
Hickson + Jamison has been a disaster on defense. This is the conundrum I speak of. Hickson, to be an effective offensive player and maximize his offensive potential needs to be paired with a player like Antawn Jamison. However, at the very same time on defense, he needs to be paired with a guy who is long enough and strong enough to guard centers, allowing Hickson to guard the PF spot. Look around the league and find that guy for me. You won’t see many, if any.
So, let’s imagine Hickson with a stretch four who, at one time, was a fairly decent defender. Rashard “steroid” Lewis fits that bill. Would Hickson and Lewis be a good enough front court to compete and eventually contend (I am speaking of the Rashard of a few years ago, not the one today)? I say no. The reason is stated in the first paragraph. Lewis is not nearly strong enough to guard centers, which forces Hickson to do it. I simply do not believe a player of Hickson’s size is going to be able to do that effectively enough for a team to become a contending team.
If we look at this year’s list of contenders, there is one thing that they all have in common (sans Miami); elite interior defense. From the length of the Lakers’ front court to the defensive stoppers in Boston and Orlando of KG and Dwight Howard, interior defense is a necessity for teams that want to contend. The Thunder only recently started being considered contenders after trading for Kendrick Perkins, a guy who is thought of by many as one of the best defensive big men in the league. The only team that escapes that formula is Miami. Cleveland can escape that formula too if they manage to land two of the three best players in the world one day. But, because we can’t count on that, we have to think about building well-rounded teams like the rest of the contenders this year. It is my humble opinion that interior defense is the single most important factor separating contenders from the rest of the league.
So what does that mean for Hickson? It means a couple of things. First of all, we can go on a scavenger hunt searching the globe for a guy who is strong enough and long enough to guard centers and block shots on one end, and then able to genuinely stretch the floor on the other. Honestly, only one guy comes to mind in recent years that was able to do that and that guy is Rasheed Wallace. There simply are not many of those types of players around. Also, the problem with this option is it would require us to basically scrap all the big men that currently make up this roster. None of them fit what I just described. That won’t be easy to do.
The other option is that Hickson learns to play the four. I have always believed he was going to have to do that, but there is no denying his best success has come at center. But at what cost? The cost has been interior defense. Tell me, has this team been better with Hickson at center than it was with Andy at center? The answer is no. Defense matters. A lot. At some point or another, Hickson either develops a reliable jump shot, learns to dribble the with some control, or he simply can’t be part of the future of this team..at least not as a starter anyway.
I’ll finish with this. Hickson has given me hope. I gave up on the kid a few months ago, but his play of recent has caused to me at least pause and think. Maybe he does have the work ethic to develop the areas that will eventually need to develop if he wants to be a main piece on a contending team. Just maybe…