Less than an hour after General Manager Chris Grant finished explaining in a conference call why the Cavaliers had traded J.J. Hickson, the long-expected statement finally came down from the league: The owners were officially locking out the players at midnight.
The two items, at least from the Cavs’ perspective, are related.
The Cavaliers traded Hickson to the Sacramento Kings on Thursday for small forward Omri Casspi and a future first-round pick. Casspi fills an immediate need and is expected to step into the starting lineup when basketball resumes — whenever that might be — and the Cavs alleviated a potentially messy situation with Hickson, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Once they took Tristan Thompson fourth overall in last week’s NBA Draft, it became clear Hickson’s time in Cleveland had ended. One of the reasons was the uncertainty surrounding the collective bargaining agreement, which expired at 11:59 p.m. Thursday.
With the owners and players far apart and seemingly drifting even farther, the Cavs were going to be forced to either let Hickson leave as a free agent next summer and get nothing for him, or make a significant financial investment in him. Since there is a real possibility most, or even all, of next season will be decimated by the lockout, the Cavs’ sample size on Hickson wasn’t going to get much larger. And the history they’ve had with him was inconsistent at best.
Hickson averaged 13.8 points and 8.7 rebounds last season, but 16.8 points and 10.8 rebounds after the All-Star break. All of those games in the second half were without Anderson Varejao and most of them came without Antawn Jamison, making it difficult to project what his numbers would look like with NBA-caliber big men around him again.
For as many monster nights as Hickson produced last season, there were enough spotty performances in his first three seasons to irritate two coaches — Mike Brown and Byron Scott.
Hickson’s mental lapses led to Scott ripping him in the preseason and throughout the early part of the regular season. He was temporarily removed from the starting lineup and ultimately, after the two had clashed long enough, there was a clear-the-air session with Scott.
Although those problems were eventually worked out, it was clear Hickson wanted to cash in big on his next contract. Sources close to the process confirmed that part of the reason for the initial falling-out between Hickson and Scott was Hickson’s infatuation with shooting long jumpers, believing a consistent 16-foot jump shot was the missing piece to a maximum contract (or close to it). Scott wanted him to spend more time in the paint collecting rebounds.
Hickson told the Beacon Journal in March he believed he was the best power forward in the league, so it’s a fair leap to assume he wanted to be paid as such next summer. He made a little more than $1.5 million last season, but Grant said talk of an extension never came up with Hickson.
“At no point did we have any conversations about contract extension or price with J.J.,” Grant said. “This is a move about Casspi.”
In Casspi, the Cavs are getting a tough, physical 6-foot-9 small forward whom they have followed for years. The Cavs liked him two years ago when he entered the draft, but the Kings selected him with the 23rd pick. The Cavs followed by taking Christian Eyenga seven picks later.
Casspi, 23, is the first Israeli to ever play in the NBA. He is an athletic wing who averaged 8.6 points and 4.3 rebounds last season, his second in the league. And he still has two years remaining on his rookie contract. That was also appealing to the Cavs, who continue trying to build a nucleus of young players who can grow and improve together while preserving valuable cap space in uncertain times.
Casspi is shooting 43 percent for his career and just 37 percent on 3-pointers, but Grant said Casspi shoots 47 percent from the corners on 3-pointers.
“He’s got some nastiness about him and some fight in him,” Grant said. “He’s a willing defender who’s a fighter.”
Casspi’s numbers were better his rookie year than last season, something Grant credits to the presence of Kings point guard Tyreke Evans, who was injured most of last season. Grant thought Evans got the ball to Casspi in spots where he would be successful and believes the Cavs’ stable of point guards, led by Baron Davis and Kyrie Irving, could do the same thing.
When he spoke to Casspi for the first time Thursday afternoon, Grant said, “he was as fired up and excited as the two young kids [Irving and Thompson] we just drafted. He’s really looking forward to getting here and excited about the opportunity.”
Similar to how the Cavs had a logjam at the power forward position with Hickson, Thompson, Jamison and Samardo Samuels, Casspi was also caught in a numbers crunch with the Kings.
He had bounced in and out of the starting lineup in each of his first two years and seemed to be pushed out entirely when the Kings reacquired small forward John Salmons in a three-way trade on draft night last week.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Casspi said. “I wasn’t worried about it because it’s nothing I could control.”
Casspi laughed at Grant’s label that he has a “nastiness” edge to him.
“Sometimes I play hard,” he said, “and sometimes I might play too hard.”
Casspi will play for the Israeli national team this summer and compete in the European championships in Lithuania in September. After that, he’ll join every other NBA player, waiting and wondering when the lockout will end.
The Cavs beat the deadline with the last major move before it began.
“We’ve had a list of seven to maybe 10 young wing players we’ve been targeting since the end of the season we felt strongly about. Obviously, Omri was one of those players,” Grant said. “Whenever we could make the right deal that felt good, we were going to pull the trigger, whether that’s today, yesterday or two months from now.”
The draft pick from the Kings is lottery protected next season (1-14), meaning the Cavs would get it only if the Kings make the playoffs in the Western Conference. They were the second-worst team in the West last season.
The pick is protected 1-13 in 2013, 1-12 in 2014 and top 10 protected every year through 2017. If the Cavs do not acquire the pick within the next six years, they will receive the Kings’ second-round pick in the 2017 draft.
As for the Cavs’ $14.5 million trade exception obtained in the LeBron James deal, it has temporarily expired. The lockout bans any movement among teams, but the Cavs have 11 days remaining on the exception. They aren’t expecting to hear from the league until after the lockout is lifted whether they will get an extension to use it.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.