But what is it that makes him so successful?
In the age of LeBron James, we’ve made a big issue of defensive versatility and the ability to defend multiple positions, and all that has its own virtue. In that appreciation, though, let’s not disregard the ability to do one thing extraordinarily well. Hibbert does so, and that’s what makes him elite (and he knows it):
He complements his extraordinary size with a developed skill set, and that’s what makes him so hard to score on. We’ll get to the specifics of how in a moment, but first, let’s establish the what.
If you’ve ever seen an NBA court, you know that there are two semicircles on each end: One marks the restricted area, the other the three-point line. The key to scoring efficiently is to score inside the first of those two areas and outside the other. In contrast, the key to good defense is to prevent your opponent from doing so.
When Hibbert is on the court, he makes the Pacers better in both of those areas by making the restricted area his home, his wife and the love of his life. Don’t go near there; you will be denied.
By using the Sports VU tracking data and then comparing that to the overall stats for the Indiana Pacers, we can compare what happens when Hibbert is defending the rim to when he’s not, and the difference is monumental for the Pacers.
The Pacers give up the lowest field-goal percentage in the league in the restricted area at 54.5 percent. The league-wide average is 60.0 percent. When Hibbert is directly defending the rim, the Pacers give up just 41.4 percent. When he’s not, they give up 58.7 percent. That’s what the San Antonio Spurs, 11th in the league, allow.
In other words, Hibbert is the difference between the Pacers being the best at guarding the most important area of the court to being a middling team from there.
It has a ripple effect too. While the Pacers are also the best team in the league defending the three, they are even better defending the deep ball when Hibbert is on the court. They surrender a rate of just 31.4 percent when he’s on compared to 32.6 percent when he’s off.
The security he provides allows perimeter defenders to feel safer stepping out to challenge the three, knowing if they get beat off the dribble, they’re covered.
What Hibbert Does Do
So what makes Hibbert so successful? He is the perfectly constructed physical specimen to be a rim protector, and he has honed and been coached to develop the skills to do it. (So props to Frank Vogel, my front-runner for Coach of the Year).
If you’re developing the perfect rim protector, you want the man to be massive and strong. Hibbert is. He’s 7’2”, 290 pounds and bench presses 105-pound dumbbells for fun.
When you’re that big and powerful, you can go up and block dunks like this.
Carmelo Anthony gets the first invite to Hibbert’s block party.
Per Synergy (subscription required), Hibbert gives up an insane .51 points per play on post-up plays on 28.8 percent shooting. You can't just move a guy that big out of the way. You don’t back him down or shoot over him either.
Adding to that is that Hibbert’s footwork is impeccable, and he’s learned the exact line between a foul and physical play. He doesn’t just toe that line, he plays it impeccably, like an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam. That makes it really hard to go past him.
Note in the video below how the Charlotte Bobcats' Al Jefferson can’t go around him because of his combination of footwork, chest work and handwork. He uses the three skills in combination to contain Jefferson and force him into a bad, contested shot.
While Hibbert does nothing “illegal” on the play, it’s almost impossible for him to have any more contact and have it still be legal. That’s basketball intelligence, skill and coaching.
Jefferson ends up trying to force a shot over Hibbert, and that’s not going to happen, so instead, he gets the second invite to Hibbert’s block party.
The other thing that Hibbert has mastered is going straight up to block shots. He doesn’t jump forward, a mistake a lot of players make. The key is verticality. Blocking and charging fouls aren’t decided by where your feet are. They’re determined by whether your body and arms are moving. Hibbert has mastered going perpendicular, including his arms.
When you’re 7’2”, have a 7’4” wingspan and are jumping, it’s a lot for an opponent to shoot over.
See how he extends himself in bestowing James Harden an invitation to join the others at the block festivities in this GIF.
What Hibbert Doesn’t Do
Adding to all the impressive things that Hibbert does is what he doesn’t do. He plays as tough and physical as he does without fouling a lot.
He is currently averaging 2.8 blocks and just 3.1 fouls per game while boasting a defensive rating of 93. Per Basketball-Reference’s Game Finder, he’s only the sixth player in history to achieve those particular numbers.
Three of the previous five, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elvin Hayes, are in the Hall of Fame. The other two, Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo, share the record for most Defensive Player of the Year Awards at four apiece.
The way Hibbert’s going, he should join them as recipients of the award. While his teammate, Paul George, has gotten much fair consideration as an MVP candidate, the anchor of the defense is Hibbert, and the strength of the team is its defense. He might “just be a specialty” player, but he’s putting the special in specialty.