The Denver Nuggets quickly used their mid-level exception after losing Andre Iguodala, agreeing to a three-year, $15 million contract with former Portland Trail Blazers big man J.J. Hickson. The contract is reasonable and there are a lot of things Hickson does very well. Problem is, those things are qualities the Nuggets' current big men also possess.
If you looked just at the offensive side of the court, Hickson was a monster last season. He was deadly efficient (59.1 true shooting percentage) and a dynamic offensive rebounder (he snared 13.2 percent of Portland's missed shots while on the floor last season, a mark only bested by Reggie Evans, Roy Hibbert, Tyson Chandler, Zach Randolph and Kosta Koufos). He's slowly cut out his tendency to settle for long jumpers, taking less than one shot per game from 16-23 feet last season after attempting 1.4 per game in 2011-12 and 2.8 per game in 2010-11. That explains why his shooting efficiency took a big jump once he got to Portland.
But Hickson's gaudy statistics are often empty because he falls short in more subtle areas that help teams win games. He doesn't box out consistently, offers almost no resistance when defending the pick and roll and doesn't really do a good job of contesting shots. The Blazers were outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions when Hickson was in the game last season, per NBA.com, and that's no accident.
Perhaps the best indicator of Hickson's empty stats come when looking at the Blazers' rebounding numbers when he's on the court. Hickson himself was an excellent rebounder statistically, snaring nearly 21 percent of available missed shots while on the court. However, the Blazers as a team grabbed a significantly higher percentage of available defensive rebounds (75.1 percent, to be exact) when Hickson was on the bench than they did when he was on the court (72.1 percent), per NBA.com. This is not a one-year thing, as there was a similar difference with the Kings in 2011-12 before Hickson was traded. This confirms a lot of what we see when Hickson plays: he's great on plays where he can make a nice individual effort, but fails to consistently box out other team's good rebounders in a way that would allow a teammate to grab the board.
In a vacuum, the price for Hickson is fine. Any big man that only gets the mid-level exception is bound to have weaknesses. We know that Hickson is a very good offensive rebounder and scorer around the rim, and we also know that he's a bad defensive rebounder and pick-and-roll defender. The entire package is worth $5 million on the market.
However, it's strange that Denver of all teams would pursue Hickson given the presence of Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee in its frontcourt. All three have the same strengths -- athleticism, offensive rebounding, efficient scoring around the rim -- and the same weaknesses -- pick-and-roll defense, boxing out, general defensive fundamentals. The Nuggets traded the yin to all of these players' yangs, Kosta Koufos, to Memphis for Darrell Arthur on draft day. Unless another trade is coming, teams are going to roast the Nuggets on the pick and roll and the offensive glass, especially with the team's best perimeter defender in Iguodala also gone.
I guess it's not the worst thing in the world to have three athletic big men, because at least they're tradeable. That said, I don't quite understand why new Nuggets GM Tim Connelly didn't pursue someone that would have addressed the team's weaknesses more obviously.