The Cleveland Cavaliers traded forward J.J. Hickson to the Sacramento Kings for forward Omri Casspi and a conditional first-round pick. [6/30]
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings beat the buzzer with the very final trade made under what are now the rules of the former Collective Bargaining Agreement. Hours before the NBA officially announced it would lock out its players beginning Friday, the Cavaliers and Kings swapped forwards Casspi and Hickson in a deal that better balances both rosters.
A week earlier, both the Cavaliers and Kings added newcomers that made the players they gave up expendable. Cleveland drafted power forward Tristan Thompson with the No. 4 overall pick, displacing Hickson as the team's four-man of the future. Sacramento reacquired swingman John Salmons from the Milwaukee Bucks in a three-team trade, creating a logjam on the wing. The Cavaliers were woefully thin on the perimeter, while the Kings had only Jason Thompson as a natural power forward, making the two teams obvious trade partners.
Where things get more interesting is in terms of evaluating the relative value of Hickson and Casspi. Conventional wisdom has it that Cleveland gave up the better player, which explains why Sacramento had to include a draft pick in the deal. There's a caveat here that the Cavaliers may never see the first-round pick, which is at minimum top-10 protected through 2017, at which point it converts into a second-round selection. At the very least, it's going to be a while before Cleveland makes good on the pick, which will never come back to haunt the Kings. Still, it certainly holds some value, which indicates that the market values Hickson higher than Casspi.
On the surface, this makes perfect sense. Hickson has started 139 games the last two years and once played a key role on a championship contender. His potential was so important as to help scuttle a possible trade for Amar'e Stoudemire at the 2010 trade deadline. And Hickson's conventional stats last season--13.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game--were impressive for a player who is not yet 23.
The further you dig, however, the less impressive Hickson looks. His improvement on the glass last season (he rebounded 17.9 percent of available misses, solidly above average for a power forward) was offset by a severe decline in his shooting percentage that can almost certainly be traced to the departure of LeBron James. Once one of the league's most accurate finishers, Hickson made but 46.1 percent of his two-point attempts. The percentage of Hickson's shots that were assisted also dropped from 77.5 percent to 63.4 percent, per Hoopdata.com. Hickson's dependence on his teammates to set him up makes Sacramento one of the worst possible destinations for him. The Kings handed out assists on just 53.4 percent of their made field goals in 2010-11, which put them 27th in the league.
Even when Hickson was making a high percentage of his shots, he was a liability to the Cavaliers at the defensive end of the floor. Historically, Hickson has fared poorly by both net and adjusted plus-minus. When Hickson split minutes with Anderson Varejao, a plus-minus star and elite defender, this could have been explained away. With Varejao sidelined much of last season, this excuse no longer applied and Cleveland was still noticeably better with Hickson on the bench (5.9 points per 100 possessions, per BasketballValue.com). Hickson's poor defensive instincts make it difficult to build a quality offense around him.
The upside is that Hickson is young and has shown improvement at the defensive end of the floor over where he started. His list of comparable players still shows some promise. The best comparisons, though, are probably players like Drew Gooden and Chris Wilcox who have spent their careers on the fringe between starting and coming off the bench.
For his part, Casspi too is young enough to have plenty of room for growth. While his lack of development between year one and year two in Sacramento is troubling, Casspi just turned 23 last week and his combination of age, size and shooting ability has historically been valuable. Players similar to Casspi produced nearly twice as many WARP over the ensuing three years than Hickson's comps. Even the worst players in the group--guys like Jumaine Jones, and to a lesser extent Vladimir Radmanovic--have enjoyed lengthy NBA careers.
From the Cavaliers' perspective, Casspi brings a skill set that was wholly lacking last season. Cleveland's small forwards were generally athletes in search of an outside game, like Christian Eyenga and Joey Graham. Casspi brings a complementary perimeter game as well as better results. The lone Cavaliers wings to rate better than replacement level were combo guard Daniel Gibson and aging defensive specialist Anthony Parker. If this is as good as Casspi gets, he'll still help Cleveland.
There's another subtle advantage to this deal for Cleveland, and that's salary--not next year, but in 2012-13. By then, Hickson will either have signed a contract extension or be eligible for restricted free agency while Casspi will still have a final season left on his rookie deal. Given that the Cavaliers could have cap room in the summer of 2012 if they stay their current course, the difference is meaningful.
Like Cleveland, Sacramento fills a need with Hickson. After trading Carl Landry at the deadline, the Kings had only Jason Thompson at power forward. With Samuel Dalembert headed for free agency, DeMarcus Cousins will likely be manning the middle next season, meaning there are more than enough minutes for both Hickson and Thompson at the four. Additionally, the salary difference is relatively unimportant to Sacramento, which already has more cap space than it can use.
As a result, this deal is far from zero-sum. There are reasons to like it from both sides. Ultimately, though, the notion that the Kings got the better player is not backed up by the numbers. By getting Casspi as well as a possible first-round pick, the Cavaliers made out very well with this deal.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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