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Getting Defensive About Roy Hibbert

You know what upsets me? When people say that Roy Hibbert is overrated. Their argument tends to be based something along the lines of his woeful 44.8 percent shooting from the floor last season, which even I’ll admit is pretty shoddy for someone who’s a walking giant. He’s also averaging 6.8 rebounds per game over his career, which, again, isn’t ideal for a 7-footer. But defensively? Oh, man. That’s his bread and butter and it’s the reason he’s a one-time all-star.

The first thing that stands out is the blocks. Through eight games this season, Hibbert has been protecting the paint better than anyone in the NBA, blocking a total of 35 shots. Crazy thing about that is, only 12 teams have blocked more than 35 shots on the young season, making Hibbert a one-man wrecking crew on the defensive end. And in those eight games, he’s blocked five or more shots five different times.

The thing with Hibbert is that he’s not an explosive leaper, à la DeAndre Jordan, nor does he hunt opponents down from the weak side…à la DeAndre Jordan. He’s just smart. His timing is incredible. He’s quick off his feet. Actually, he doesn’t really need to leave his feet. He uses his gigantic wingspan to reach way above the rim. He’s comfortable blocking shots with either hand. And one of the most impressive stats: 68.6 percent of his blocks this season have ended up in the hands of one of his teammates, according to nbawowy. Those aren’t skill that are going to make him a regular on SportsCenter, but the Pacers sure aren’t complaining.

However, history says that Roy Hibbert won’t keep blocking shots at this impressive rate, since only six players have ever averaged more than 4.4 blocks per game over an entire season, and the last time it happened was 1995-1996. But even if that number drops to a more realistic 2.5-to-3.0 per game, Hibbert will still be a leading candidate for defensive player for the year, thanks to the amount of shots he changes on a nightly basis. For example, so far this season, Hibbert is giving up 10.1 field goal attempts per game at the rim – among the most in the league – but he’s holding opponents to 33.3 percent shooting in those situations, which is simply incredible. Sure, we’re basing that on a small sample size, but given the Pacers’ commitment to defense, it’s likely he’ll be hovering around the number for that entire season.

It’s worth noting that Hibbert’s teammates are instrumental in Hibbert’s effectiveness on the defensive end. Players like Paul George, George Hill and Lance Stephenson are fantastic defenders and do a great job of funneling their opponents to the key. However, watching Hibbert hedge on pick and rolls, push post players far away from the basket, disrupt easy looks in the paint by keeping his hands up and using the most of the verticality rule is what makes him stand out. He also has a great sense of where to be by helping out in the right situations, yet also preventing his player from getting good looks at the basket. As you’ll see in the block-chart below, Hibbert is capable of stepping outside of the restricted area or away from his man underneath the basket, which makes his presence even more terrifying.

But to illustrate that further, let’s take a look at what he did on Saturday night against the Brooklyn Nets. Although Hibbert only blocked two shots, tied for a season-low, he held Brook Lopez to 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting – his worst shooting night of the season. His presence alone changed a number of shots in the paint, forcing players like Deron Williams to hesitate or second guess themselves en route to the basket. Finally, he had the biggest play of the game when he left Brook Lopez to contest Kevin Garnett’s shot right at the rim, which would’ve cut the Pacers’ lead to one with 40 seconds left had he not air-balled it.

For the most part, defense isn’t fun to watch. Given the choice, I’m sure most of us would rather tune in to watch the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry work their magic on offense instead of watching Roy Hibbert change shot, after shot, after shot on the defensive end. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we should value them less.

Since joining the Houston Rockets last summer, James Harden’s sieve-like defense has been well documented, yet we continue to give him a pass because he puts up gaudy numbers on the other end of the court. But when it comes to players like Hibbert, who often struggles to score around the basket, we lash onto them, saying they’re overrated, forgetting how valuable they truly are.

Truth be told, if you were to take Hibbert out of the Pacers’ lineup, they wouldn’t be holding opponents to 47.3 percent shooting in the paint – the best in the league – and they certainly wouldn’t be undefeated. You know that old cliché: “offense wins games, defense wins championships?” While Paul George is leading the way on offense, putting up MVP-calibre numbers, it’s Hibbert who’s their defensive anchor, which is what makes him the most valuable player to this Pacers squad.

We don’t know whether or not Hibbert will be named the defensive player of the year this season, but right now, he’s certainly on pace to accomplish that. There’s a lot of basketball to be played between now and April, but one thing that won’t change is Hibbert’s commitment to the defensive end and that is what will help the Pacers stay at the top of the NBA. It’s time that earned a little more respect.

All stats via NBA.com/stats.

Scott Rafferty

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  • Zeke

    Unfortunately there probably won’t be a practical way to compare the way the Pacers’ defense operates without Roy HIbbert in the lineup. If he went down with injury it would be kind of cool to see how offenses attack them with the same other four starters but someone else at center. I think that would give us a pretty excellent measure of how much value Hibbert brings to that D, but I doubt we can convince Frank Vogel to alternate between him and Mahinmi getting the starter minutes to give us the data we’d need.

    • Scott Rafferty

      Thanks for the comment! There is some data available to look at that. For example, based on stats from last season, the Pacers gave up 99.5 points per 100 possessions with Roy Hibbert on the court and 102.4 with him off the court. Also, in 35 games, a lineup of Hill, George, Stephenson, West and Mahinmi allowed 48.2% shooting from the floor, 39.2% from the three and averaged 0.4 blocks and a +0.4 per game. Comparatively, in 64 games, a lineup of Hill, George, Stephnson, West and Hibbert allowed 47.6% shooting from the floor and 39.0% from the three (not much different, although a much larger sample size), but averaged 2.6 blocks and a +4.4 per game. Moving beyond stats, though, the Pacers’ playoff series against the Knicks and Heat were a good indicator of how valuable he is defensively.

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