The JJ Hickson Issue

The losing streak may be over, but for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the season itself is far from over. Even amongst the talk of trades, draft positioning, and draft prospects, for the franchise itself, taking stock of which players have value moving forward should still be a priority. Beyond simply weighing who should or should not be included in trade discussions, the team needs to know for itself exactly how to proceed into the future and which players have a role in that rebuilding process.

Perhaps nowhere is this as confusing as in the case of JJ Hickson and Anderson Varejao. If Varejao is the team’s best overall player, then you can consider Hickson the team’s most confusing and difficult to understand from a performance point of view.

There’s no question that JJ’s performance on the court has been outstanding, for the most part, in recent weeks. It would appear that coach Byron Scott has helped JJ achieve a real breakthrough and he’s given Cavs fans something to feel good about with regard to the future of the franchise. However, none of this means that questions don’t still linger.

I think most would like to think that JJ’s early struggles this season were part of his adjustment to a post-LeBron existence on the floor and an existence where NBA defenders actually began to pay attention to him and play some help defense on him. I think most would like to credit Coach Scott for getting through to JJ. Those factors are almost certainly a big part of the equation, but they don’t tell the whole story.

The biggest question that lingers still is the issue of JJ’s pre-Varejao injury performance and his post-Varejao injury performance. More specifically, is part of Hickson’s recent surge due in part to the absence of Varejao. And if so, what implications are thus implied for any future coexistence between these two players?

It’s easy to look at JJ’s numbers both with and without Varejao and see that he has played much better without Varejao, at least in terms of individual production. Hickson has had 9 games with a GameScore above 15 this year, and 7 of them have come after Varejao’s injury. In the 33 games Hickson played before Varejao’s injury, he averaged 10.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 0.3 blocks per game with an average GameScore of 5.58. In the 20 games he has played in since Varejao’s injury, he is averaging 15.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 1.25 blocks with an average GameScore of 11.53.

We don’t know if Hickson’s presence has any effect on Varejao’s performance, but it appears at first glance that Hickson’s improvement has come with Varejao on the bench in street clothes. But causality can be a tricky thing to prove. It’s possible, maybe even probably, that other factors are at play.

Varejao’s ability to rebound may have stolen a lot of rebounds from Hickson, so it would make sense that Varejao’s absence could explain Hickson’s leap in rebounding. However, it’s harder to explain Hickson’s jump in scoring and blocked shots. I’m quite sure some of it is simply his development and maturity as a player, but I suspect that the position switch from power forward to center may explain some if it as well.

Hickson has now spent a significant amount of minutes at both positions this year, making it easier to compare his performance at both. He is certainly undersized to play center, but his quickness and athleticism at that position have proven to create some problems for some opponents. The Cavaliers score 85.6 points per 100 possessions with Hickson at PF while that number jumps to 98.6 points per 100 possessions with Hickson at C. Conversely, of course, the Cavaliers give up almost 12 more points per 100 possessions with Hickson at center.

Herein lies the issue the Cavaliers are going to face. Obviously Hickson is not a viable candidate for the starting center position moving forward, but is there a way to play Hickson and Varejao together? The main problem is that Anderson Varejao is not a true center either, and he himself might be better suited for the PF position as well. It’s possible that Hickson’s leap in production is simply a matter of the light bulb going on, but we’ll never know until we see Hickson consistently perform at a high level at the PF position with Varejao active.

Before this begins to sound like a suggestion of getting rid of one or the other, let’s consider that there are always other options. Part of a coach’s job in the NBA is to figure out how to mix and match the pieces he has to get the most out of each individual so as to best benefit the team as a whole. Positions and roles are not written in stone in some kind of basketball constitution.

Perhaps the Cavs could get creative and use Hickson at the 5 and Varejao at the 4 on offense, and then switch the roles on the defensive end. It would be nice to be able to have a true center to rely on and then have Hickson and Varejao split minutes at the 4, but in reality, there probably aren’t enough minutes for each to split the position.

A lot of this really depends on what JJ Hickson’s true ceiling is. As fans of this team, we have been on the Hickson roller coaster for a few years now, and we know how maddening his inconsistency can really be. Every time we’re ready to either write him off or else proclaim him a future impact player, he starts doing something to make us second-guess ourselves.

So the most important thing for the Cavaliers organization, then, is to not overreact to the recent play of Hickson. Instead, they should take a measured, analytical approach to his game and try to decide how to best make Hickson and Varejao work as cohesive pieces of the puzzle. If that can’t be done, then a decision on one or the other is going to eventually need to be made.

I, for one, am hoping that we are witnessing reality and not illusion and that the real JJ Hickson is blooming before our eyes. A future with Hickson and Varejao both playing impact roles on the team could give fans some hope to cling to.


Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

  • Rick

    I like Andy an awful lot, but by the time this team is going to be ready to contend how old will Andy be? 32? 33?

    I don’t really want to see Varejao go, but I think that the Cavs can get real value for him in the coming years at the trade deadline.

  • masonjarjar

    If the Cavs are going to keep Andy around, then something has to be done, because I’m afraid JJ will return to his wandering ways if/when he gets put back at PF (Assuming Jamison will be gone). The idea of switching 4/5 between offense and defense is interesting. It just seems to me, for some reason, JJ feels more freedom to be aggressive at the 5 than at the 4..

  • Andrew

    Yeah, Rick, I kind of agree. The Cavs will never contend while Andy is still in his prime (most likely not, anyway), but I think the Cavs still need to weigh what he might be able to give as veteran leader 4 years from now with the value of what you can get in return. It’s certainly not easy.

  • Gren

    Andy has done a lot for us / a lot more than any of us expected when we traded for him. (anyone else in the we just got a foreign player, he must have great hands and shooting ability… errr camp ?)

    I think we need to do the right thing and send him to a contender. It’s the least we can do for a man who has done so much for us. (See Antawn and Butler)

  • Shamrock

    So now people don’t like or value Varejao? When Ferry spent Gilbert’s allowance to overpay Anderson people were saying he was worth every dime not to mention an All-Star. Newsflash people Varejao was overrated before it just took an injury for you all to wake up. With every posting and comment I can’t blame LBJ for leaving.

  • JNeids

    Hey Captain Negativity, why don’t you take off your whatever-the-opposite-color-of-rose-is colored glasses before reading every posting and comment. Nobody said anything about not liking Andy – this was an article discussing the possibility of him coexisting with JJ, with the emphasis on JJ, not Andy. And just because someone suggests we should trade Andy doesn’t mean they don’t like or value him. I seriously don’t know why I even bother…but if you made like an LBJ-tree and got outta here, nobody would blame you either.

    I was coming down here to compliment the article. I never really thought about the coexisting issues all that much until now. I agree with the points Rick made, followed up by Andrew – it really is quite the dilemma. If we got good enough value for him, I wouldn’t be completely upset if we traded Andy. Like Red, I would just miss my friend.

  • ryan

    why don’t we trade andy? andy for jeff green….then green could play his natural position at the SF

  • Shamrock

    Goneids YOU and all Cleveland fans over value your players you especially did it with the Cavaliers. Gibson, Varejao, Williams, Hickson, Parker, Moon, Powe and on and on and on. Meanwhile the glue (LBJ) gets tarred and feathered. Even worse he supposedly quit despite putting up numbers meanwhile Mo Williams disappears faster then your date at the prom and nothing is said. Ah what’s the point you people will never see the light just like your teams. But hey don’t worry my Celtics will make sure LeBron stays equal to the Cavaliers in championships. ZERO!!!! Deuces.

  • Dave

    Depending on how you measure, Andy was worth every dime paid for him. For instance, according to Wins Produced ( Andy was 44th among all NBA players in 2010 in getting wins, and the second-best player on the Cavs. Which puts him at approximately the same level as Dirk Nowitzki, Tyreke Evans and Amare Stoudemire.

  • John

    I vote to boot Shamrock. More negativity and backlash is the last thing a CLEVELAND FAN WEBSITE needs. If you are a Boston fan, why are you wasting time talking about developmental players in Cleveland? Honestly, let us mourn our 26 game losing streaks and our lowly franchises alone. Your comments just go to show how classless Boston fans are that even when all your sports teams are on top, you still have to go rub it in everyone else’s faces. Win with some pride and dignity for once. Oh and don’t blame us for giving Boston fans bad reputations, you just asked for it in your last two posts.

  • JM

    “But hey don’t worry my Celtics will make sure LeBron stays equal to the Cavaliers in championships. ZERO!!!! Deuces.”

    This could be the most intelligent thing Negative Ned ever posted.

  • coach g

    Could be simple. Get a stud center in the draft and play Anderson at Power Forward. JJ backs up at both Center and at Power Forward and all 3 play a lot of minutes. or just stick to teaching players how to do their jobs on the floor. I think from an athletic standpoint it could be hard for many other teams to play against Wildthing at C, JJ at 4, and Eyenga at 3. Talk about freakish speed and athleticism…

  • Shamrock

    Boston is lame.

  • Cooley Ford

    A Boston fan acting like a classless dolt? INCONCEIVABLE!

    I’m actually all for using hickson/varejao swap on offense/defense. I think that might actually be ok until a better option presents itself if we can get a true point guard that can play decent D. Mo is getting older, and has never been good defensively, and is more of a combo guard. Sessions might be one of the worst guards in the league for defending the pick and roll, but he’s young, and is more of a distributor than Mo.

    Basically, I think we need to draft Kyrie Irving. If we do, at least a few things may sort themselves out organically.

  • 5KMD

    Coach g,

    Please put a name to that “stud center” you talk of in this draft and I’m on board. Unfortunately, those don’t really exist anymore. So i say go for Irving, assuming good health.

    As for Shamrock, I’ve said before the only thing that this site is lacking is one of those “ignore” features. In the meantime, just skip past his comments. The only thing he ever “contributes” is statements about how he was always right in the past tense.

  • ben

    IMO we are getting what you’d expect out of a 19th overall pick.

    On an unrelated note; I’m disappointed that we will likely have one of the first 3 picks int his off-season’s draft and it will be one of the weaker drafts in recent years.

  • 5KMD


    If it makes you feel better that probably means the Cavs will have another top 3 pick next year and could combine 2 high end players with JJ and AV, etc.

  • Jason

    JJ is talented, no doubt… probably could be the next Amar’e Stoudamire (or at least a poor man’s version).

    If losing 26 in a row wasn’t enough evidence, I think we have gaps in every position. I like these guys and I know they have good hearts, but our team is simply lacking the talent to be competitive right now. Therefore, I believe the cavs will take the best player available when their turn comes, regardless of position.

    Time to forget about Lebron and move on.

  • RonaldLouiPhD

    Hey, I don’t really care who you call C and who you call PF. Fact is, you have to mix and match a front line as you rotate and respond to opponent substitutions, foul situations and injuries. This team does not have enough legitimate big men. So even if AV and JJH have the lowest +/- 2-combo in history, which I seriously doubt, you want both on your team. Samardo is only 6’8″, and Ryan Hollins needs to bulk up. Powe is undersized, and AJ plays like a 3. So I’m not sure this “issue” has a legitimate premise.

  • Joe Boggs

    I agree with Jason, you take the best player available in the draft (Kemba Walker? Possibly Sullinger – hope not, he needs another year of college hoops).
    I’m a big JJ fan, he can be as good as he decides to be. Basketball has so much to do with effort (as opposed to “only” talent). This is what has made Verajo so good, does anyone in the NBA play with that much intensity?? Having said that, I’d like to see Andy traded to a contender. Let’s face it, everyone in Cleveland loves the guy, but we are kind of starting from scratch. Andy deserves to be on a playoff team, and we need some up-and-comers.

    PS, what the heck is wrong with that Shamrock dude??

  • Karess

    I’m not easily impressed. . . but that’s irmspesing me! :)