Say what you will about Roy Hibbert's offense, but his dominance as a rim protector cannot be denied. Over the past several seasons for the Indiana Pacers, he anchored one of the best defensive units in the league.
Now that he is heading to a Los Angeles Lakers team that ranked 29th in defensive rating last year, according to NBA.com, he has his work cut out for him. The Lakers' paint protection was a virtual layup line. Opponents shot 60.1 percent within five feet, good for the fourth-worst rate in the league.
No longer will Hibbert be aided by long-armed perimeter stoppers in Paul George and Lance Stephenson or a slowly paced, half-court offense. Outside of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' biggest strength is a young, energetic and athletic backcourt featuring Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams and D'Angelo Russell.
Still, Hibbert's ability to alter shots without fouling is an asset that any team—no matter the style of play—can use. Last season, Hibbert ranked fourth in defensive field-goal percentage around the rim (minimum five attempts per game), according to NBA.com's player tracking data.
The Pacers tried to push the tempo by featuring more small-ball lineups and up-and-down play, and they still maintained their top-tier defense with the league's eighth-best defensive rating, according to NBA.com. With top-tier defender George Hill missing a big chunk of the season as well, this was a pretty stunning accomplishment.
Hibbert, nearly by himself, formed a top-10 NBA defense.
Much of that was due to the luxury Hibbert's skills afford. Although his laboring movements and inability to finish consistently around the rim hamper his overall value as a player, his elite timing and knowledge as a defender can shore up any team's back end.
And to his credit, he understands what his role is on the team, via the Los Angeles Times: "My job is to make sure I clog up the paint, help-side defense, and whatever else I get on the offensive end is candy. But my main presence is going to be on defense and make sure these guys know I have their backs out there."
From a strategic standpoint, Hibbert's presence down low frees up perimeter players to take a more nuanced approach to guarding the basketball. In Indiana's case, guards could pressure the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls and run shooters off the three-point line without fearing the kinds of defensive breakdowns that typically occur with these tactics.
Put simply, Hibbert is a tool for the type of analytics-friendly approach that typically leads to the most successful defenses. Because he takes away any type of easy two-point shot at the rim, the rest of the team can focus on shutting off the three-point line. All that's left is the mid-range, the least efficient scoring area on the floor.
Although Williams, Clarkson and Russell might not be the most capable defenders, Hibbert can unleash their athleticism and ferocity on opponents. Nobody likes intense ball pressure, and the Lakers defense can now hound opponents all over the floor.
In the Pacers' defensive pick-and-roll scheme involving Hibbert, he typically dropped back into the paint and awaited oncoming traffic.
Hibbert's inability to slide his feet well makes it tactically irresponsible to have him venturing too far outside the paint. Limiting his movements and the space he has to cover better allows him to use his size to his and the team's advantage.
Even more important, however, is the fact that this "drop" coverage snares up two offensive players with one defender. Notice how on this play against the Memphis Grizzlies, Hibbert is in position to guard both the ball-handler, Beno Udrih, and the soon-to-be-rolling screen-setter, Marc Gasol:
George Hill, who is fighting over the screen, is now trailing Udrih in what's known as "rearview pursuit." Although he's no longer in front of Udrih, he's following closely enough from behind to be in Udrih's air space. This is usually enough to disrupt a jump shot should the ball-handler rise up.
Hibbert's drop also buys time for Hill to recover back in front of Udrih. Urdih understands that he can't simply attack Hibbert full steam ahead because he will lose that battle more often than not. With his options limited, he has to buy time with his dribble until Gasol can roll and present himself as an option.
But Hibbert is in such a deep defensive position that a quick bounce pass to the rolling Gasol would likely yield nothing. It's Hibbert's job to momentarily guard two players by keeping both in front of him. Should Udrih whip a pass to Gasol, he can easily slide over to contest the shot.
In this particular instance, Hibbert's presence forces Udrih into a tough jumper. Without a driving option, he can either hit Gasol—whose roll is cut short because it'd be swallowed up by Hibbert—or shoot.
He's also bothered by Solomon Hill's "stunt" out of the corner, another extension of the Hibbert effect.
Notice how, in the full video of the play below, Hill lurches out at Udrih before scampering back to the corner. He doesn't actually have to rotate because Hibbert has everything covered, so he can provide momentary dummy defense without actually conceding a kick-out for a three-pointer.
The mere presence of Hibbert enables all of this—guarding of the three-point line via the stunt, protection of the rim, elimination of the roller as an option, and time bought for Hill to bust through the screen and get back in front.
Last year under Byron Scott, the Lakers would "ice" side pick-and-rolls, meaning the defensive guard would jump to the middle of the floor and force the ball-handler into the corner. The weak side then pushes over toward the ball, theoretically only allowing a pass back out to the top or all the way across the floor to the opposite corner.
The problem for the Lakers was that their guards got hit by screens too often, putting extra pressure on bigs to defend the ball. In the previous example, Hill's ability to slither through the mess of bodies helps complete the defensive play.
We can see the difference on this play from last year in Los Angeles, when Ray McCallum, formerly of the Sacramento Kings and now a member of the San Antonio Spurs, easily gets to the rim on this side pick-and-roll.
All's well at first when Jabari Brown shifts his body perpendicular to the baseline, guiding McCallum into the corner.
But Brown gets knocked back by the screen enough to lose attachment to McCallum, leaving Tarik Black all by himself to guard on the perimeter.
McCallum has no problem spinning by him for a layup.
If Hibbert were in this situation, he would have been dropped several steps farther back. This likely would have conceded an open pull-up jumper, but it's not the worst outcome in the grand scheme of things. The individual result might not be ideal, but the process of this defense works over the long term.
Players of Black's caliber—meaning bigs who are not sturdy enough to guard the rim but not athletic enough to stick with ball-handlers outside the paint—present a real problem in pick-and-roll defense. This was an issue for the Lakers all of last season as they had too many of these defensive tweeners, including Ryan Kelly, Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis.
Hibbert's faults as a defender are clear, but the ways in which a defense can adapt to hide them are straightforward. The Pacers managed to focus their defense on accentuating those talents, and the result was a consistent defensive juggernaut.
Whether or not Scott changes his coverages based on personnel remains to be seen. Throwing Hibbert into the mix doesn't mean the Lakers need to overhaul the entire scheme; just a few tweaks of positioning within the already installed defense are necessary.
Will the Lakers be a top-10 defense next season? Probably not. But they will certainly improve, and as Drew Garrison of Silver Screen and Roll points out, the credit will clearly point his way:
Should he find a way to steer the Lakers' defense toward a respectable mark, he'll receive the lion's share of the credit. There's arguably no greater opportunity for Hibbert to prove he can change the game with his defense than under the Staples Center roof on a nightly basis, raising a team that ranked near the bottom in any defensive measure.
Even if Los Angeles does markedly improve its defense, the playoffs in the deep Western Conference are likely a long shot. But Hibbert has proved that he can be the man in the middle for a serious title contender, and the Lakers are hoping he regains his All-Star-caliber form in what will be a very important contract year for his future in the NBA.