Just when all the Lakers’ free agent chips were down, they managed to get back in the game with their trade for Roy Hibbert. Considering the Lakers’ roster needs, their approach in free agency, and the fallout from missing out on all their top targets, acquiring Hibbert in the manner and at the juncture they did comes as more than just a bit of a relief.
The optics of the move aside, though, the true analysis of this deal comes on what Hibbert brings to the court, not as a reprieve from the early free agency fallout. And when it comes to fit, Hibbert seems to be a mixed bag, providing some things the team certainly needs while grating against some of what they hope to be.
His strength as a player, of course, is his defense. His massive size, ability to be in good position more often than not, and his understanding of verticality make him one of the best interior defenders in the league. Here is a look at his defensive shot chart:
All of that blue in the paint? Yeah, that’s what you want defensively. Hibbert remains one of the elite rim protectors in the league, serving not only as an excellent shot blocker, but as someone who alters shots or deters them entirely. The idea of the Hibbert Effect is real and, even though the Pacers were without Paul George (injury) and Lance Stephenson (departed in free agency) last year, the Pacers still boasted a top-10 defense, a lot of which had to do with Hibbert anchoring the the back line.
For the Lakers, this defensive skill-set is incredibly valuable. For one, they were an awful defensive team last year and infusing any defensive talent is an upgrade. Infusing top level defensive talent at a position and in a role which is one of the more important aspects of team defense in the league is quite a big deal.
Further, Hibbert is a nice fit with the players currently on the roster. One of the key knocks on Julius Randle when he came out of college was his inability to protect the rim defensively. It was said Randle would need a front line partner who could cover for these issues in the paint. They now have that in Hibbert. The hope would be Randle’s mobility and athleticism would allow him to be in position to help funnel offensive players towards Roy, with the big man in the middle then contesting shots and forcing misses. We’ll see how this plays out, of course, but I much prefer the on-paper solution of Randle working in tandem with Hibbert than I do with Jordan Hill or, say, LaMarcus Aldridge.
The more questionable fit is on the other end of the floor, however. The positives are that Hibbert brings good mid-range shooting from the right elbow and reasonable scoring ability from the right block. His work as a post option with his jump hook from the block won’t be a game changer, but can provide some stability in certain sets:
Beyond his individual scoring ability, he’s also a fine passer and has experience playing in a Princeton-style Offense from his college days at Georgetown. He should be comfortable operating from either elbow as a passer and, as an off-ball worker, presents a big body as a screener. Within the larger scheme of what the Lakers want to do in their halfcourt sets, Hibbert’s skill set functions well.
Where things get trickier is in terms of fit and, by association, the ideal style the Lakers should play offensively with their current set of players. Hibbert was, essentially, begged by Larry Bird to not exercise his player option to return to the Pacers because of a want for them to play faster. Hibbert is a plodding big man and not an ideal fit for an uptempo team.
The Lakers, meanwhile, have multiple young players in Russell, Randle, and Clarkson whose development is a priority. These players look like their best offensive chances will come in the open court or by playing with a tempo conducive to creating opportunities against defenses not yet set up. Further, these young players are all good with the ball in their hands and are likely to see touches early in the shot clock via rebounds and quick outlet passes.
A counter to this, of course, is one Kobe Bryant. An argument would be: “Kobe is old and coming off injury. He’ll play slow and that helps Hibbert.” Well, that’s a nice posit, but it’s not really correct — at least not based off last year’s data. Last season, per NBA.com/Stats, when Kobe was on the floor the Lakers played at a pace of 98.34. To put this in perspective, this number would have ranked 7th in the league over the course of a full season. Just because Kobe will be back doesn’t mean the Lakers will inherently play slower.
Pace, I believe, isn’t just a product of shooting quickly; it’s a product of having shot creators who can generate reasonably good looks early in possessions. In the three young players, Lou Williams, and, presumably, Kobe, the Lakers have multiple guys who will have no issues getting up shots early in a possession just by playing their natural game. Hibbert does not really fit into this dynamic.
Hibbert can help enhance this tempo via his work on the defensive glass* and his rim protection, but he isn’t likely to actively participate in the sped up pace. In fact, you likely don’t even want him trying to sprint the floor for easy baskets — at least not too often — if it’s going to come at the expense of his ability to get back defensively or affect his in-game conditioning. This disconnect between how the team would ideally play versus what he’s good at on offense is real. How the Lakers navigate this while he is in the game will matter.
Overall, though, the positives outweigh the negatives with Hibbert joining this version of the Lakers. While the fit isn’t ideal offensively, he can still be useful on that end. Frustrations will surely come when he misses an inside shot you think he should just dunk or when he flips up a hook that just rolls off the rim, but he’ll bring more to the table than just his individual offensive prowess. However, for his defense alone, he is worth the one-year investment and a long look at whether he can be a longer term contributor.
*Many will point to Hibbert’s relatively pedestrian individual rebound numbers and say he’s not a great rebounder. But, the Pacers had a 77.3% defensive rebounding percentage when Hibbert was on the floor last season. This number would have ranked 3rd in the league over the course of a full season. So, while Hibbert wasn’t necessarily grabbing a ton of rebounds himself, he was a key contributor to a team putting up great numbers. Now, consider, if Roy isn’t grabbing the board himself, it’s more likely to be grabbed by guys like Randle, Kobe, Clarkson, or Russell. Or, basically, the guys who want to push the ball up the floor.