Over the past three seasons, the Indiana Pacers have slowly transformed themselves into a juggernaut. This year, they've been steamrolling their way through the Eastern Conference with a destructive defense and steadily improving offense.
This blossoming has been the product of player development, careful scheming, committed execution and a deep roster filled with overlapping skill sets. Top-to-bottom versatility and the way each player's skills can help complement and elevate their teammates in a variety of ways is one of the biggest reasons for their success, but it also makes it difficult to accurately judge the impact of each individual player.
When it comes to the Pacers, the challenge of sussing out the relative value of each piece on the roster always seems to wind up focusing on George Hill.
This week, with the Pacers in the middle of a dream season, Hill's name was included in a ridiculous, unverified trade "rumor" that had him headed to Boston, along with Danny Granger and a first-round pick, for Rajon Rondo. Indy Cornrows quickly pointed out that the rumored trade wasn't technically possible as reported:
At first glance, this rumor does not seem very credible given that the Pacers already sent their first round pick in "next year's loaded NBA Draft" to Phoenix when they acquired Luis Scola. Adding insult to injury, the supposed trade also has Boston taking back far too much salary—unless, of course, there are other unspecified teams or players involved.
But as bizarre as the specifics of that rumor were, the fact that Hill was even mentioned speaks to how little his contributions to the Pacers are appreciated.
In a postgame interview (as transcribed by Pacers.com's Mark Montieth) last year, Hill himself acknowledged that he was still growing into his role as a point guard: "I'm reluctant to play the one. I'm happy with it, I'm learning, but there's still some two in my body."
His per-game statistics—10.8 points, 3.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds—don't exactly stir the imagination and certainly don't scream top-tier point guard. In today's NBA, point guards are supposed to be devastating scorers or dominating distributors. Hill is neither, and it gives the illusion that the Pacers have a hole at his position.
But if you move beyond per-game statistics, we find him standing out quite a bit more. According to Basketball-Reference, he is ranked in the top 20 in the league in win shares per 48 minutes among guards, both this year and last.
Ultimately, the exact quantities of his individual numbers don't matter, it's what he does for the team. This season, even with a competent back-up in C.J. Watson, the Pacers are 7.7 points better per 100 possessions with Hill on the floor.
But because his contributions don't come in the typical ways we've come to expect from a point guard, it can be easy to miss exactly what he gives the Pacers at both ends of the floor.
Where the Pacers' team defense really shines is swallowing pick-and-rolls and stifling dribble penetration. Hill can be a key component of that strength in two different ways—on and off the ball.
On high pick-and-rolls, the Pacers will generally defend by having their big man drop back into the lane, conceding space in the mid-range area and walling off the basket. The player defending the ball-handler is responsible for getting over the top of the pick as quickly as possible and recovering to the ball. The wings pinch in, trying to direct the penetration to the dropping big man while still maintaining contact with perimeter shooters.
In this example against the Celtics, you can see the basic set-up.
Hibbert has already dropped, and George and Stephenson are ready to jump out and funnel Jordan Crawford toward Hibbert if the ball comes to their side of the floor. Hill has fought his way over the top of the screen and will be in Crawford's hip pocket as he continues his drive.
Defense at the point of attack in the pick-and-roll is incredibly important to what the Pacers do. As adept as Hibbert has become at retreating and protecting the paint in these situations, he also counts on help from the ball-handler's defender to recover and make a mid-range jumper a difficult proposition.
Hill is very good at getting over the top of these high screens and recovering to the shooter. He can be exceptionally disruptive when trailing the play and challenging those shooters from behind or from the side.
Here, he's able to get over the top of a screen and get back to Kemba Walker in time to block his pull-up jumper.
On side pick-and-rolls, the Pacers usually employ a strategy called ICE. As an opponent sets up for a side pick-and-roll, the big man will call out "ICE." The on-ball defender is then responsible for jumping out in front of the screen, discouraging the ball-handler from going over the top and sending them back toward the baseline and a waiting big man.
Positioning and awareness are big strengths of Hill's, and when playing ICE, he does a fantastic job of getting out high and recovering to keep himself in the play. Although the example below resulted in Hibbert picking up his third foul, he and Hill do a textbook job of using ICE to stymie a pick-and-roll between Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem.
Variations on the pick-and-roll have become the offensive bread and butter for many teams, and often the ball-handler will not be a point guard. So while Hill's abilities to disrupt pick-and-rolls on the ball are incredibly important, his ability to also play the part of a wing in the Pacers' scheme is one of the things that makes him so important.
When Hill is defending off the ball, his responsibilities are to support the pick-and-roll strategies mentioned above while still making sure openings aren't created on the perimeter. This usually means shading toward the ball while still keeping close enough to close out effectively on a shooter.
Here, the Heat are attacking Hibbert with a Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh pick-and-roll. You can see Hill has set up in a place where Wade's penetration will be directed back toward Hibbert well before reaching the rim. However, he's still close enough to close out on his man, Chalmers, if he received the kick out.
This next example is not a pick-and-roll, but you can see Hill walking the same delicate tightrope. Here, he's shading down toward a LeBron post-up while still hanging close enough to Chalmers (just out of the frame) to deter a kick out.
On those occasions where the ball does go back out to Hill's man, he uses his speed and length to challenge the shot. What often looks like an open perimeter shot turns out not to be as Hill recovers.
In many ways, the three perimeter positions in the Pacers' defensive scheme are interchangeable. Each player needs to be able to aggressively fight through screens when defending the ball and maintain a balance of positioning off the ball.
There are plenty of point guards in the league who excel in one of those two areas. Far fewer are able to claim both as defensive strengths. Not only can Hill do both, but he's also 6'3" with an enormous wingspan.
The combination of size and defensive acumen allows the Pacers defense to be flexibly rigid. Because Hill, George and Stephenson are all able to handle the different roles required by their scheme, personnel can adjust on the floor, and the same scheme can be used to stop almost any sort of attack by almost any variation of players.
On offense, Hill really only has three responsibilities—initiate the offense, spot-up on the wings and push the ball in transition.
The Pacers rely heavily on system and movement to create open shots, so Hill is rarely asked to use his individual skills to create openings for himself or teammates. Often initiating the offense means pounding the ball at the top of the key, allowing action to unfold in front of him and waiting to drop the ball off to either West or Hibbert at the elbow, or to Stephenson or George coming off a curl or a pin-down screen near the free-throw line.
However, when those actions don't create the openings they're designed to, Hill is left to create on a shorter shot clock. He's been inconsistent with his decision making in the pick-and-roll, averaging just 0.65 points per possession, according to mySynergySports (subscription required). Some of this is still arriving at a comfort level between finding teammates and looking for his own shot, but it can create the illusion that he's a far more limited offensive creator than he really is.
In 2010-2011, his last season with the Spurs, Hill scored an average of 0.91 points per possession in the pick-and-roll while working primarily as a shooting guard.
Part of what restricts his pick-and-roll game in Indiana is when and where the Pacers ask him to run them. In San Antonio, he was often running side pick-and-rolls as a secondary action after the defense had already been moved. In Indiana, he's often running high pick-and-rolls as an initial action against a set defense or against a short shot clock after the first components of a set failed.
These situations have generally not been good for the Pacers, but they're the one place where Hill hasn't really been able to give the team what they need. These sorts of possessions are easy to identify and happen to be unfortunately memorable because they often end with a wild shot or a turnover from Hill.
Basically, he looks worse in these situations because he's often being forced to try and find a solution for a team failure. It would be nice if the Pacers could get a little more aggressiveness and consistency from his pick-and-roll play, but the problem could also be solved by more creativity or better execution with their other offensive sets.
The nice thing about the Pacers is that Hill is not their only ball-handler, and they don't always need him to fill that role. Both Stephenson and George will step in and initiate the offense instead of Hill, replicating some of the interchangeability between the three players that we saw at the defensive end.
Once the ball has been moved out of Hill's hands, he's usually moving to the wings to spot-up. He's been a potent weapon from the outside this season, hitting 38 percent of his three-point shots. He has a quick release and does a great job of finding open space and making himself available.
He's also very good attacking close outs and creating off the dribble against a scattered defense.
The last place where we can really see Hill's importance to the Pacers offense is in transition. Although they don't push the tempo as much as other teams, they do run selectively and use it as an antidote for some of their scoring problems in the half-court.
Here again, we see that versatility is the key. Hill's size and quickness make him a very good defensive rebounder for his position, and when a defensive possession takes him close to the basket, he'll often grab the rebound and lead the break.
But Stephenson and George also have this ability to find teammates in the open court. Instead of always coming back to get the ball, Hill is often able to let someone else lead the break, while leaking out in transition to find easy scoring opportunities for himself.
Versatility in transition is a really under-appreciated quality. A lot of teams have very defined roles when they get out on the fast break—certain players handle the ball, some fill lanes, others trail and spot up. But when Hill, Stephenson and George are on the floor, all three players are able to mix and match responsibilities.
Ironically, we see that some of the same things that make Hill so valuable at the defensive end are what make him important to the Pacers offense as well. Duplication can oftentimes be a curse, but the way Stephenson, Hill and George overlap gives the Pacers all sorts of offensive and defensive versatility.
There are undoubtedly more talented point guards in the NBA, some of whom may even be realistic trade targets for the Pacers. But those more talented players generally have their talents focused around certain areas, to the detriment of others. While Hill may not be outstanding in any single area, his ability to do so many things well, at both ends of the floor, is what makes him such a perfect fit for the Pacers.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats.