They’ve been feast-or-famine performers for the Pacers since midseason, sometimes looking elite, other times inspiring the most frenetic of head-scratching. They've also been the Pacers of focus in the Eastern Conference Finals for two years in a row.
But beneath all the tabloid-friendly chaos surrounding these three has been the calm, steady influence of West and the always-selfless Hill.
These two unsung starters embody the first half of the ethic evoked in the “Blue Collar, Gold Swagger” catchphrase put forth by the organization. They’re heart-and-soul players, unspeakably valuable to their team because of their solid, consistent pace.
West’s tenacious demeanor is the cue from which the Pacers have formed their identity. A free-agent signing in the summer of 2011, the two-time All-Star with the New Orleans Hornets was the genesis piece for the drastic basketball turnaround in Indianapolis.
Since the acquisition of West, the Pacers have increased their win total by at least five games every season.
His energy in the paint and fearless snarl in the face of conference rivals like the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls have been every bit as integral to his squad’s rise as the emergence of George as one of the game’s best defenders and a sometimes-elite scorer.
Same for Hibbert’s on-off mastery of the paint and Stephenson’s rise as one of the game’s best bipolar talents, exhibiting a Russell Westbrook-ian penchant for either wowing or exploding his team.
West has been the bedrock in the building of this contender, despite a drop in production—he used to average 21.0 points per game with the Hornets and only averaged 14.0 this season.
His calls to action with his teammates during their scary late-season skid reminded us how important his leadership has been to their quick growth—Stephenson and George are still just 23 and 24, respectively.
West hasn’t shied away from the mysterious issues of his team’s roller-coaster ways. He spoke about it with reporters after a 102-79 home pummeling at the hands of the Washington Wizards in the second round:
We didn't show up to play. I don't know if we thought we were just going to come in here and these guys were going to roll over... They're a very good team, a team full of guys with a lot of pride. They just played at a different level than we did all night. It showed up on the glass. I just don't know where we were tonight.
That the team invested deeply in Hill, granting him $8 million per year through the 2016-17 season, says a lot about his worth as well.
He’s that rare role player with no confusion about his strengths, a long and hounding defender who makes defenses account for him with his 37 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
A below-average penetrator, Hill never hesitates to cede playmaking duties to Stephenson and George. The point guard’s distant form of offensive initation is essential in his squad’s ecosystem, which has proven to be psycho-emotionally fragile in a season that had Hibbert call out his teamates—meaning Stephenson in specific, according to Real GM—for being ball-stoppers.
Like Mario Chalmers with the rival Miami Heat, Hill has found himself in the unique position of negative energy absorber since being traded from the San Antonio Spurs for a Kawhi Leonard, a trade that grows more interesting with each day.
Hill's team-first ethos must have been what Gregg Popovich and the Spurs liked so much about him. “This might have been one of the most difficult nights in Spurs history, as long as we’ve been here,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told the press upon trading Hill.
Hill rides on regardless of what problems off and on the floor plague his teammates—the Pacers can’t afford for him to be less than his best self, too, and so Hill delivers reliably.
His 2.24 assist-to-turnover ratio, highest among Indiana’s starters, is a testament to his overlooked ability to steady the Pacers’ ship.
Call them character players, role players, marginal men—whatever metaphysical quality you want to ascribe to Hill and West, they surely provide it for their team. And if the Pacers can successfully climb out out of the 2-1 hole they face in the Eastern Conference Finals, a large part of their resilience will be due to their persistently invisible play.
The Pacers now need these two more than ever.
In their 99-87 Game 3 loss in Miami, Hill and West combined for nine turnovers and the Pacers took a shot with C.J. Watson getting 28 minutes of playing time to Hill's 21.
Attentive fans in Indianapolis are surely worried about the team straying too far from their tried formula and want to see these stalwarts return to proper form.
Game 1 saw Hill and West contributing amply—they combined for 34 points in a balanced Indiana attack. Both need to re-find their range and spread the trapping Heat defense more in Game 4.
West also needs to be up to the challenge of running around to the three-point line when Miami goes with its uber-small attack, featuring Ray Allen as closer.
As much as the national media scope is on their three most mercurial starters, the Pacers are depending on these two—as they always have.