Los Angeles Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni was forced to insert Jordan Hill into the team's starting lineup after an embarrassing loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 10 in which the purple and gold surrendered 47 points in the first quarter.
Two nights later Hill started against the New Orleans Pelicans and, in 26 minutes, scored 21 points on 7-12 shooting (7-8 free throws), had 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot. The Lakers won that game by 21 points. Pau Gasol added 14 points, eight rebounds and three assists in 26 minutes and a new frontcourt was born.
The 6-10 Hill has always been an aggressive rebounder who brings tremendous energy to every game he plays. In Gasol, he has the perfect complementary piece in a frontcourt that easily trumps the Gasol-Chris Kaman experiment which, thus far, has proved to be a major flop.
While Gasol, just now rounding into shape after a summer of surgery and rehab, relishes his role as the everyday center, the 33-year-old Spaniard is just not strong enough to handle the big post players who dot NBA rosters these days. And Kaman, the 31-year-old former All-Star center who has been sidelined with back issues, is not the type of player who will grab those tough rebounds on either end of the court.
Kaman and Gasol have similar games and are offensive-minded centers who don't really complement each other. In Hill, the Lakers have a guy who battles for every ball and has become one of the top rebounding forwards in the NBA on a minute-for-minute basis. After getting battered by Kevin Love and the T-Wolves, D'Antoni knew he had to make a change and inserted Hill in ahead of Kaman and moved forward Nick Young to the bench as well.
Hill told ESPNLA's Dave McMenamin prior to that first start against New Orleans: "I love playing with Pau. I'll definitely keep my eyes open and expect a pass from him. He's a great rebounder (also), so we definitely should be on the boards a lot more."
Since that first start against the Pelicans, Jordan Hill has been a man on a mission. The following game, a 12-point loss in Denver, Hill scored 18 points, pulled down 15 rebounds and had block three shots.
He went on to have seven straight games in which he scored in double figures, before getting just two points (12 rebounds) in this week's win at Brooklyn and four in Friday night's come-from-behind victory against Detroit, a game in which Hill played 14 minutes before sustaining a sprained ankle.
A major reason why Gasol and Hill work so well together has to do with offensive and defensive rebounding efficiency. According to Hollinger NBA Player Statistics, Jordan Hill ranks second among all NBA players in offensive rebound rate, with 16.3 boards. Conversely, Gasol is tied for fifth in defensive rebound rate at 29.4. It makes a great on-court marriage of skills.
The Lakers initially thought that a Gasol-Chris Kaman pairing of big men would make the team stronger on the boards and lead to more easy buckets on the offensive end. But the two seven-foot centers never seemed to click, and Kaman has been a disappointment since signing a one-year deal worth about $3.2 million.
In 12 games (just three of them as a starter), Kaman has averaged 8.3 points with just 5.3 rebounds in 17.3 minutes played. Since scoring 10 and 11 points respectively to start the season, Kaman has been nothing short of terrible. He last played on November 17 against Detroit, when he scored two points with one rebound in five minutes of action.
Kaman is apparently feeling better since injuring his back, but he did not play in games at Washington and Brooklyn this week. He is frustrated for not playing, but acknowledges the excellent play of Hill.
Jordan (Hill) has been playing awesome. He really has. He's been showing people the rebounding he has and the different things -- a guy diving to the basket full speed, on the rim. So, I'm really impressed with Jordan. I can't really say anything negative about him. But, it's tough. I came here for a reason and I want the opportunity to fulfill that. I can't control that and I just got to try to get back in better shape and I kind of got knocked down by the salmonella poisoning and the back, so I just kind of need to get back in the swing of things.
At this point, it may be hard for Kaman to dislodge Hill from the starting lineup and his minutes will continue to be in short supply. And although D'Antoni barely played Hill when the two were in New York with the Knicks four years ago, the former Arizona star has made it impossible for the Lakers coach to ignore him.
Following the win over Detroit two weeks ago, D'Antoni acknowledged as much about Hill, according to CBS Detroit: “He’s playing as hard as he can play. He’s got talent, and he’s getting better. … I think he’s just more confident and more everything — and more minutes.”
What is the best frontcourt combination for the Lakers?
Now imagine this combination when Kobe Bryant finally returns to the lineup, perhaps this month. The Lakers of 2013-14 may be a M.A.SH. unit of NBA journeymen and grizzled veterans, but they certainly are more energetic and aggressive than last year's model.
And you have to give much of that credit to the stellar play of Jordan Hill and how he complements the still very active, gifted Pau Gasol.