It's a caveat you hear quite a bit in NBA circles, but it rarely is applied. A newly bought-out player can become a free agent "if he clears waivers." And, with most teams stuck over the salary cap or close enough to it to where the addition of a free agent's already-agreed-upon salary would make claiming someone on waivers NBA-illegal, most players clear waivers. Mostly because the sorts of players stuck in these would-be transactions are veteran luxury types, like Derek Fisher who cleared waivers and signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
J.J. Hickson is a veteran, but he's young enough at age 23 to be both coveted as a potential project to work with, and a disappointment because of his lacking play on the defensive end despite four NBA seasons to his credit. The latter is why the Sacramento Kings, though rebuilding around youth, dumped him last week. The former is why the Golden State Warriors wanted to sign him; and why he was on the court with the team as they prepared for a game in New Orleans, ready to take part in a shootaround, when he was told that he didn't clear waivers, and that the Portland Trail Blazers signed him instead, and that he had to get on a plane to Oregon. Way to be presumptuous, NBA.
Here's how Hickson recalls it, as quoted by the Oregonian:
"I was walking out to go shoot, get some shots up before the game, and they (previously) said I couldn't go on the court until the deadline," Hickson. "So I was going out to go out and get some shots and they told me I couldn't go on the court because I didn't clear waivers."
The "deadline" Hickson is referring to is the 48-hour period where 29 other NBA teams are asked to consider taking his full contract on, denying him the chance to clear waivers. It rarely happens in this league, even for players featuring relatively minimal rookie deals like Hickson's $2.35 million deal for 2011-12. J.J. would have been afforded minutes and the opportunity to score in Golden State, but he'll get the same on a rebuilding Portland team that is essentially running next fall's training camp right now.
The problem is that Hickson was afforded that chance in Sacramento, and declined to do too much of it.
The athletic forward can score, he's shot over 50 percent twice in his career, and is just a year removed from averaging 17.6 points for every 36 minutes he spent on the court in Cleveland. He fell off considerably in Sacramento, though, managing just over half of last season's per-36 mark and shooting 37 percent from the floor.
What compounds that is the fact that Hickson is one of the league's poorest defenders at his position, continually out of place in rotations and often with his head turned. That level of production sustained, with the Kings, making him wholly expendable to Sacramento. The Warriors and eventually the Trail Blazers, presumably, are hoping he can at least find the scoring touch that made him a valuable commodity in his first three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Because they have League Pass, we're assuming the Blazers and Warriors are aware of his defensive shortcomings.
Well, the Blazers at least.
Hickson, to his credit, was in good spirits following the surprising addition. It's not the worst thing, to be allowed to play professional basketball in Portland and make a good deal of money doing so, but it can't be sloughed off that Hickson went from being free to choose his employer to being essentially and surprisingly traded to the Trail Blazers (in a sense) within the span of an afternoon.
Here's a clip of J.J. re-telling his curious Wednesday: