Indiana Pacers Proving Throwback Centers Still Rule NBA Playoffs

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 12, 2013

Roy Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers dominated the New York Knicks in the paint, notching an 82-71 victory in Game 3 of the two teams' Eastern Conference semifinals series. It solidified, once and for all, the notion that old-school, fundamentally sound big men are still a devastating weapon when it comes to NBA playoff basketball.

Hibbert logged a playoff career-high 24 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, including eight on the offensive end. He didn't block a shot, but his presence in the lane forced more than a few misses by Knicks players who were clearly still reluctant to take him on after his equally dominant five-block showing in Game 1.

In short, Hibbert absolutely took it to Tyson Chandler, who may have been suffering from a neck injury but still earned the Defensive Player of the Year Award just last year.

And Hibbert's dominance against Chandler wasn't just limited to Game 3, either. The changing of the guard (or center, in this case) has been going on all series long. In three contests thus far, the Pacers big man has outscored his Knicks counterpart 44-21, out-rebounded him 32-12 and blocked nearly twice as many shots.

I'll come back to the significance of Hibbert's thrashing of Chandler later. For now, it's important to focus on what Indiana's big man has done to reach his current level.

There hasn't been much doubt about Hibbert's defensive value for some time; he's a beast in the paint who controls the boards and turns away shots with regularity. But after a rough start to the regular season and an overall shooting mark of just 44.8 percent, there were a few questions about his skills as an offensive player.

He's answered them during the postseason, raising his field-goal shooting to just a hair below 50 percent and functioning as a reliable post-up option. Against the Knicks in Game 3, he flashed everything from a left-handed hook shot to a devastating drop step.

It may have taken a while, but Hibbert's workouts with Tim Duncan over the past couple of summers have clearly begun to pay off.

Looking more deeply, it's important to note that Hibbert is also benefiting from a scheme that accentuates his specific talents. He's a massive presence in the paint but has the ability to contest shots without fouling. So the Pacers funnel offensive players toward him at every opportunity, allowing him to influence more defensive possessions than most other centers.

On the other end, he's lucky enough to play with a power forward like David West, whose mid-range game leaves the lane open for Hibbert to go to work when he gets the ball in the post.

A favorable environment has certainly helped Hibbert maximize his skills, but it's not fair to label him as a simple product of a system. Through hard work and patience (not to mention a naturally gifted basketball mind), this guy has turned himself into a dominant two-way center who appears capable of leading his team even deeper into the postseason.

And he's not alone.

Centers who share many of Hibbert's qualities—shot-blocking skills, command of the boards and a fundamentally sound offensive game—are all over the teams still remaining in the postseason chase.

Duncan is still doing his thing in San Antonio, Marc Gasol is leading the Memphis Grizzlies toward a series victory over last year's Western Conference champs, and Andrew Bogut has been flashing the form that made him a terror on the interior just a few short years ago.

At the same time, the NBA's so-called new breed of hyper-athletic, high-flying centers have quietly dropped out of the scene.

JaVale McGee, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Larry Sanders are all gone. It's an oversimplification to lump guys like that together, but it's also undeniable that they lack the cerebral game and fundamental polish of the other big men that are still a part of the playoff picture.

And if you had to fit Joakim Noah into one of those two groups, his defensive work and passing acumen (four assists per game during the regular season) would clearly earn him a spot among the former collection as well.

So when Hibbert has been wearing out Chandler on both ends, he hasn't just been winning an individual matchup. He's been symbolizing a sea change in the NBA. Offensively limited centers who can't impact the game on both ends are on the way out. Players like Hibbert are the next big thing.

(Note: Chandler's not a perfect symbol for that last proposition because he's a smart, skilled defensive player. It would have been better if Hibbert had been crushing someone like McGee or Jordan. But you get the idea.)

Anyhow, it's interesting to note that in a league where hybrid forwards like Carmelo Anthony and jump-shooting centers like Chris Bosh are all the rage, towering pillars of fundamental skill and defensive intimidation still have an important place.

In fact, based on what's been happening during these playoffs, there's an argument to be made that other than superstar talents like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, an imposing center with actual basketball skill is the most important piece of the puzzle.

That actually makes a lot of sense if you think about it. With NBA defenses becoming more sophisticated, centers can't simply get by as glorified alley-oop receivers. Nowadays, as aggressive schemes force the ball out of guards' hands, centers are often the recipients of those passes at the elbow. Just imagine how hard it'd be to ask someone like McGee or Howard to make a decision with the ball in that area of the floor.

Some guys excel in that role, though. Ask the Grizzlies how glad they are to have the ridiculously skilled Gasol handling that job.

And that's to say nothing of the defensive responsibilities those big men have in the new trapping, shifting, overload schemes the NBA's very best defensive teams are employing. You can't run or jump your way to an understanding of solid positioning and good help rotations. Those things come about with practice and study.

Big men with high basketball IQs and two-way skills are starting to make a comeback, and guys like Hibbert are at the forefront of that movement.


*All stats via unless otherwise indicated.