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by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Terry Stotts has the Trail Blazers above .500 after 45 games in his first year as Portland coach.Terry Stotts and J.J. Hickson are creating an interesting dilemma for Neil Olshey.

Stotts keeps winning games in his first season as coach of the Trail Blazers, which puts Portland’s first-round selection in the June NBA draft in peril.

The Blazers’ first-round pick is protected from 1 to 12. That is, if they finish with one of the league’s worst dozen records this season, they retain the pick. Otherwise, it goes to Charlotte as part of the trade that brought Gerald Wallace from the Bobcats in February 2011.

The pick is protected for each of the next three years, then is unconditional in 2016.

Olshey, Portland’s first-year general manager, would love to keep the pick. That would mean, however, that the Blazers not make the playoffs.

After Tuesday’s rousing 106-104 victory over Dallas, Portland was 23-22 and ninth in the Western Conference, a game behind seventh-place Houston (25-22) and Utah (24-21). Eight teams in each conference make the playoffs.

The Blazers play Utah in back-to-back games Friday and Saturday and face Houston on the road next Friday. It’s extra motivation for the players, who desperately want to make the playoffs.

Olshey surely has mixed emotions. It’s a good thing for the Blazers, their players and their fans that they are winning games. On the other hand, it may not be so good for the future of the franchise.

The Blazers — no matter how hard they work or how strong their chemistry — are not a championship contender. They’ll be an underdog in any playoff series they play, if they play well enough in the second half to make the postseason. Olshey’s goal is to make the Blazers not a playoff participant this season but a championship team sooner rather than later.

The nucleus of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews is both solid and young. The oldest of the quartet is Aldridge at 27.

The bench, however, is dreadful — perhaps one of the worst in NBA history. Aside from rookie center Meyers Leonard and perhaps rookie guard Will Barton, all of the Portland reserves seem unlikely to return next season.

Another lottery pick for the Blazers would be beneficial as Olshey tries to maneuver somewhere between $11.8 million and $13.1 million in salary cap room after this season into acquiring a veteran (preferably a center) who can vault the club into title contention in the near future.

Which brings us to Hickson, the undersized, out-of-position center who signed a one-year, $4.4 million free-agent contract with the Blazers in the offseason after a successful half-season audition in 2012 and the club’s failure to land restricted free agent Roy Hibbert last summer.

The prevailing opinion was that Hickson — who shined when the Blazers were totally devoid of talent during the final two months last season — would be a stopgap measure this season. Warm the seat to eventually be taken perhaps by Leonard, or by a bigger, more defense-minded veteran.

Guess what? Hickson, 24, is averaging 12.9 points and ranks third in the NBA in double-doubles (25), seventh in field-goal percentage (.557) and eighth in rebounding (10.9) in just 29.5 minutes per contest. The 6-9, 240-pound Hickson has packed high energy nearly every game and been better than all but a handful of centers around the league — much better than the offensively challenged Hibbert.

Hickson is one of the league’s most underpaid players this season. There wasn’t a lot of interest in him on the free-agent market last summer, and his agent, Andy Miller, agreed to the one-year deal while gambling he would shine this season and be in line for a much more lucrative, long-term deal next summer. Hickson couldn’t have played much better through the first half of the season.

The trade deadline is Feb. 21. If the Blazers stay in the playoff picture, Olshey would be inclined to keep the roster intact and let Hickson go into free agency in the summer. If they fall out of it, though, he might look to move Hickson — in part to gain some value for him, in part to open more playing time to help with the 7-1 Leonard’s development.

But Hickson has veto power over any trade, and must waive his Larry Bird Rights — which allow him the possibility of making more money and a longer-term deal — to facilitate a deal with another club. Keep in mind, too, that Hickson’s salary-cap hold with Portland is $7.9 million, which means the Blazers would waive him before July 1 to maintain the room to acquire new talent.

If Miller works out an arrangement with a team that wants Hickson and promises a nice contract, it would be in Hickson’s best interest to OK a deal.

“I’m going to make sure any situation I’m in is right for me,” Hickson says. “I’m the one who is going to live and die with my situation. I can veto or OK any trade. I’ll make sure the situation is right for me, a place where I can help the team.”

Hickson is quite happy in Portland, playing for a coach he respects and with teammates he likes.

“I’d be lying if I said it’s not a different situation, but I’m happy where I’m at with this team,” Hickson says. “It’s a great group of guys. We all get along on and off the court. I’m pretty cool with the coaching staff. We’re a close-knit group. It’s one big, happy family of guys who have ups and downs with each other.”

Portland’s power forward spot is occupied by Aldridge, who has been named to his second straight All-Star Game. He is not going to be displaced by Hickson.

“I’m playing out of position at the 5-spot,” Hickson says. “Coach Stotts told me what the situation would be. I think I’ve done a good job accepting my role. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to play the 4. That’s my natural position.

“That’s another problem that comes into play. But I’m happy with this team. I can only control what I do on the basketball court and let the front office handle their part. I’m going to do my job and let them do theirs.”

The Blazers will know more about their playoff chances after a six-game trip that begins Monday at Minnesota and has stops in Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Miami and New Orleans. Olshey will then have another week to make a decision on Hickson and the direction the team will go the rest of the season.

For his part, Hickson will whistle while he works.

“I talk to Andy nearly every day,” he says. “He’s my man. I’m sure we’ll talk more once the trade deadline gets closer.

“But it’s nothing I stress over. I know stuff like that will take care of itself. All I can do is play basketball.”

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Twitter: @kerry eggers

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