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.