The numbers have always indicated that the Indiana Pacers’ Roy Hibbert is a bad rebounder. For one, he has never averaged more than 8.8 rebounds over the course of an entire season. For a 7-foot-2, defensive-minded center — and one of the premier defensive bigs in the NBA, at that — that’s not a statistic to be proud of. To add more fuel to the fire, in the 2013-2014 season, 20 centers — ranging from Samuel Dalembert and Enes Kanter to Joakim Noah and DeAndre Jordan — averaged more rebounds per game than he did. And finally, out of players who appeared in at least 10 games during that very season, Hibbert ranked 127th in rebounds per 36 minutes.
To a large extent, though, those numbers are skewed and Hibbert’s seemingly inept ability to grab a rebound is not only overblown but can be understood. Quite simply: the Indiana Pacers don’t rely solely on Hibbert to hit the glass, and that is by design. The way they rebound as a unit and play defense — funnelling players into Hibbert, giving up long twos instead of open threes and looks at the rim — plays a big role in explaining why his rebounding numbers, especially last season, were low.
The Pacers’ second-half collapse last season is well documented, as is Roy Hibbert’s. Heading into February, he was on pace to walk away with the Defensive Player of the Year award; however, following the All-Star Break, his numbers fell off a cliff. He went from averaging 11.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game to 8.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, which greatly impacted the Pacers’ hopes of competing with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, as Hibbert was at the centerpiece of whatever advantage they held.
A lot of the criticism Hibbert got in those final 30 games — whether or not it was just a result of verticality taking a toll on his body — was deserved. For someone who was the anchor of the defense and a much needed presence inside offensively, Hibbert’s absence left a gaping hole in the Pacers’ attack. His defensive rating plummeted as the months wore on, which was the most concerning factor of it all.
However, the Pacers’ rebounding numbers during that time remained the same, which, given his drastic fall in his numbers, is surprising on the surface. And although 4.7 rebounds per game for a starting center is incredibly low and disappointing, the fact that it didn’t impact the team in any negative way — as the chart below indicates — says a lot about their overall approach.
Rebounding wasn’t a problem at all for the Pacers in 2013-2014. In fact, they were one of the best rebounding teams in the league all season long, even amidst their post-All-Star break collapse. Their 44.7 rebounds per game ranked eighth in the NBA; the 41.2 rebounds per game they gave up to their opponents ranked fifth; their +3.5 rebounding differential ranked third; their rebound rate (percentage of missed shots a team rebounds) of 52.0 percent ranked third; and their defensive rebounding rate of 76.8 ranked second, trailing only the Charlotte Bobcats.
If Hibbert’s low rebounding numbers were a problem, the team would’ve suffered. Yet, instead, the team rebounded at a higher rate with Hibbert on the court (they grabbed 52.5 percent of all available rebounds), as apposed to when he was off (51.2 percent).
Even with his numbers free falling, the Pacers didn’t miss a step, which indicates that the concerns were slightly overblown.
The reason the Pacers were so successful defensively last season was because of their scheme. In a nutshell, they looked to force teams into taking contested mid-range shots — the least valuable shot in basketball. In pick-and-rolls, the Pacers would drop Hibbert back in an attempt to entice guards from settling for long twos, and while it pulled Hibbert out of the paint, it wasn’t so far to where his presence was negated. In other situations, Hibbert was the intimidator, protecting the basket and forcing guards to kick the ball out to the perimeter instead of going up for layup.
In terms of rebounding, Hibbert didn’t look to simply attack the glass when a shot went up; instead, he used his big frame to box out the opposing big. While that was going on, the rest of the team — Paul George, Lance Stephenson, David West and George Hill — packed the paint and went after the rebound.The result was that the team’s opposing big (be it Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan) was taken out of the play. It was a big reason why the Pacers ranked in the top tier in opponents offensive rebounds per game (that is, they didn’t allow many offensive boards) and it’s why Hibbert was valuable even when he wasn’t pulling down rebounds.
No team in the NBA sends all their players into the paint to get an offensive rebound because it makes it easy for the opposition to fastbreak off of it. For that reason, neutralising a team’s big man, who is closest to the rim on the majority of shots that go up in a game, is half the job in securing defensive rebounds. Even when Hibbert doesn’t jump for a board, simply putting an arm on a big is enough to inhibit their ability to crash the glass. Hibbert is, after all, a big body — 7-foot-2, 290-pounds — and having him lean against a player makes it hard to jump straight up to grab a board. It’s also a nuisance, which will deter some players from continuously chasing rebounds as the game wears on.
Hibbert did have his moments last season where he was a force on the glass — statistically — but very little changed in his approach during those games. For example, on December 4th, 2013, he pulled down 14 rebounds against the Portland Trail Blazers. The difference in that game, as apposed to the ones in which he struggled to secure even five, was simple: the ball just went in his direction.
As you’ll see in the video below, Hibbert did the exact same things — get in help position, contest the shot (if needed), run to his man and box him out. That much remained the same, yet the ball simple bounced in his direction rather than in George’s or Stephenson’s.
On all of those rebounds, Hibbert didn’t try and out-jump anyone to grab them. When a shot went up, he turned his body, faced his man, and then cut off their lane to the basket by bumping into them. It took them out of the play, and had he not been the one to grab them, someone else on the team would’ve been able to.
That does hurt the team from time-to-time, though. Because of his tendency to box out his man and not go directly for the rebound, it can result in players being left open underneath the basket if there is a breakdown defensively. Take this play as an example:
There was a miscommunication between George Hill and David West, which left Zach Randolph wide open underneath the basket. When the shot went up from Mike Miller, Hibbert found himself in-between his man, Marc Gasol, and Randolph. However, instead of going into the restricted area and fighting Randolph for position, he boxed out Gasol. The result: Randolph got two offensive rebounds and found Gasol wide open for a dunk. Had Hibbert helped out, George would’ve been able to take Gasol (who wasn’t really a threat from that far out, anyway) and the Pacers could’ve secured the rebound.
Hibbert isn’t a great rebounder, that much we know. Anyone who averages 6.6 rebounds in 29.7 minutes isn’t good at that facet of the game. (Also, for comparison’s sake, Hibbert ranked 41st amongst centers last season in offensive rebounding rate. That’s not good). However, that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of making plays that benefit the team.
If anything, Hibbert is a smart rebounder. Trying to get around a 7-foot-2 behemoth is no easy task, and jumping over one is even harder. He knows that. Simply using his body to box out the opposing team’s best offensive rebounder does more than enough in helping the Pacers secure boards. With the center battling for position with Hibbert and four other Pacers in the paint, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for anyone else to get involved, and that’s why their scheme worked.
We chastise players for padding their stats in the NBA, but don’t praise ones who focus on the fundamentals at the expense of their numbers. In the case of Roy Hibbert, he doesn’t jump after every rebound that comes his way. He could easily, but that wouldn’t necessarily have the same effect. Instead, his focus on boxing out his man — the opposing team’s center — clears the paint and creates space for the rest of his teammates to grab an uncontested rebound and push the ball.
It doesn’t show up on the stat sheet but it’s just as important.