Pacers coach Frank Vogel’s decision to sit Roy Hibbert for the last defensive possession of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals was perhaps the most infamous substitution in NBA playoff history. Immediately after LeBron James’s left-handed layup in overtime ended that amazing game, the hoops Twittersphere began second-guessing Vogel’s late-game tactics; many were quick to criticize his final lineup and that gaping, Hibbert-shaped hole in the restricted area.
The Heat needed two points in two seconds, a tall task for any basketball team. Fortunately for Miami, it had LeBron James on the roster, and the most efficient shot in the entire NBA this season was a LeBron James close-range shot. During the regular season, James made a staggering 72 percent of his 637 close-range attempts. If Miami could find some way to get James a shot near the basket, it would have a decent chance of winning the game.
That's exactly what Miami did, and the game-winning shot looked a lot like the exact kind of shot that Hibbert is paid max money to stop, something James is probably aware of.
Indiana's fifth-year center is one of the best rim protectors on the planet, and one of a select few human beings who can effectively discourage and disrupt the most ferocious interior scorers in the NBA. At the very least, the presence of Hibbert near the basket could have deterred or disrupted a close-range buzzer-beater. Just ask Carmelo Anthony.
When Indiana signed Hibbert to a max deal last summer, many NBA observers questioned the decision. From a statistical point of view, Hibbert’s numbers seemed more ordinary than elite. Beyond the statistics, he lacked the Q Score that usually goes along with the league’s highest-paid superstars. But here we are 10 months later and Hibbert has his team in the NBA’s final four, and he is a major reason for Indiana's reputation as one of the best defenses in the league. For those who value both sides of the basketball court, he has more than proven his worth.
In our SportsCenter culture, which loves to watch and rewatch dunks, corner 3s, and buzzer-beaters, it’s easy to distort basketball value. When it comes to assessing on-court performance, a vast majority of influential basketball actions aren't compatible with either highlights or box scores. Things like deflected passes, altered shots, prevented shots, perfect defensive rotations, and impeccable screens go largely unnoticed by the masses, undocumented by the highlight shows, and undermeasured by even the nerdiest basketball bookkeepers. As a result, our spreadsheets are missing a bunch of meaningful columns, and in turn even our most advanced player evaluations are incomplete.
The inability to justify Hibbert’s contract with our current stats says more about our current stats than it does about Hibbert’s value.
I talked with Hibbert about interior defense on Thursday, the day after Indiana’s heartbreaking Game 1 loss in Miami. He told me he finds that blocked shots — the stat that most of us cite when discussing players like him — tell only part of the story. Hibbert thinks he influences more than just the shots he blocks: “There are a lot of shots that I don’t block, but I change shots, and obviously people don’t take that into account. It might not show up in the box score, but people around my team know what I bring.”
Blocked shots are easy to detect and convenient to count, but they reveal only so much about a defensive performance. Hibbert had five blocks in Game 6 of the Knicks series, but what does that actually tell us? On a literal level, his hands interrupted the flight of five field goal attempts. So what? Aside from that insane block of Anthony, how many other shots did he prevent from even happening? How many possessions did he change? Surely, his presence influenced more than five shots during the game, but it’s that “5” in the box score that serves as the quantification for defensive contribution.
This season the Pacers defense, with Hibbert as its anchor, held opponents to 96.6 points per 100 possessions, the lowest mark in the league. It’s no coincidence that it also protected the basket better than anybody. Indiana was the only team whose opponents missed more close-range shots than they made. On average, Indiana's opponents shot just 49 percent within 8 feet of the basket, well below the league average of 56 percent. A lot of this has to do with Hibbert.
Using emerging types of performance data, we can evaluate interior defense in new ways. Player-tracking systems, like the SportVU system currently installed in 15 NBA arenas, enable a much richer perspective than the conventional mode of simply summing up disparate event types like blocked shots. While Hibbert finished third in blocks per game this season, averaging 2.5, an analysis of his defense using SportVU data reveals that his influence is far more profound.
Hibbert significantly reduces his opponents' overall scoring efficiency on a nightly basis. I evaluated a set of thousands of NBA close-range shots in which an NBA big man was protecting the basket. These were shots from the 2012-13 regular season in which a qualifying interior defender was within 5 feet of the rim and also within 5 feet of the shot location.
In such cases, the opponents made 48 percent of their shots. When Hibbert was protecting the basket, however, the number dropped to 38 percent. Only one player in the NBA reduced close-range shooting efficiency more than Hibbert; of course, that was LARRY SANDERS!, who held opponents to a ghastly 32 percent. For context, both Marc Gasol and Tyson Chandler — the last two winners of the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award — held opponents to a respectable 44 percent.
When Hibbert is protecting the basket, opponents’ close-range shots go in about as much as an average NBA midrange shot. This is incredible. If we’re not factoring in this kind of precipitous drop in opponents’ scoring efficiency when Hibbert is protecting the rim (which we're not), then we’re not doing a good job assessing his impact or value as an NBA player.
Hibbert told me that since entering the NBA he’s become more disciplined: “When I was a rookie, I tried to block everything. I led the league in fouls per minute. Since then I’ve learned verticality, and that’s one thing that helps me both protect the paint and stay in the game as well.”
Earlier in the season after a win at Chicago, Vogel explained: “He’s the biggest reason why we lead the league in field goal defense. He’s the best in the league at exercising the fundamental of verticality. Using his legs, getting off his feet and making a legal defensive play, and earning a no-call. You’re allowed to jump straight up, no matter where you are, and absorb contact. When he learned that and went away from trying to draw charges, like he was earlier in his career, he went from not being able to stay on the court to being one of the best defensive centers in the NBA.”
Hibbert also habitually watches film, studying his opponents’ shooting tendencies. “I make sure I know who likes to shoot with the right hand, and who likes to shoot with their left hand.”
His former student team manager at Georgetown and his current development consultant, Justin Zormelo, echoed this idea: “He's the first person to let me know if I'm an hour late sending him stuff to prepare. He made it a goal to be the best defensive player in the league a couple years ago and he's been preparing himself and working at it every day since.”
Despite the rapidly increasing importance of the 3-pointer in the NBA, good shots close to the basket are still the best shots on the court. No matter what level you’re playing at, if you can’t protect the basket, you are going to lose. Players who can protect are extremely valuable, even if we still have problems detecting and quantifying that value.
At 26 years old, Hibbert is one of the most important players on a team in the conference finals, a plateau that Blake Griffin and David Lee have never reached. Still, Hibbert’s Player Efficiency Rating in the regular season was 17.3, placing him just below Amir Johnson and just above Kosta Koufos. With all due respect to those guys, something is awry here. Despite so-so defensive reputations, guys like Lee and Griffin are All-NBA performers with lucrative endorsement deals. Sure, they might “get you 20 and 10 every night,” but they might also give up 25 and 10 in the process. One problem is that the 20 and 10 are duly noted and factored into PER while the 25 and 10 allowed remain mostly unmeasured.
While it’s enticing to pat ourselves on the back and say basketball has entered its “advanced metrics” era, our inability to properly quantify the impact of players like Hibbert reminds us that we are still in the Stone Age.