Forget the sugar coating. Roy Hibbert has flaws.
He is the epitome of a slow-moving plodder whose game raises questions of fit in the ever-increasing pace of the modern association. He has a propensity for letting passes slip through his hands and tends to struggle with easy opportunities at the rim far too often for a skilled 7’2” giant. He has shown an inability to deliver consistently from game to game — i.e. his NBA-record four scoreless postseason games in 2014 — and has been clouded by skepticism about his toughness and overall skill.
What is also true is that Roy Hibbert is a 28-year old, two-time All-Star who, despite his aforementioned flaws, has plenty of room to grow and an undeniable skill: rim protection.
In a piece by Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus where he examined the effectiveness of various “rim protectors” around the league, Hibbert was one of the most consistent. Hibbert prevented an average of 8.80 points at the rim per-36 minutes and his Contest Percentage (how often a player contests a shot near the rim) of 60.49% was the best among all qualifiers. In fact, only two players last season had better defensive field goal percentage at the rim: Rudy Gobert and Andrew Bogut — also known as two of the best defenders in the league.
So, needless to say, Hibbert has his niche. And in Thursday’s introductory press conference he declared that niche will be his main focus while donning the purple and gold:
“My main presence is going to be at the rim […] I believe last year the Lakers were 28th in defensive efficiency, so 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.”
A willing defender and top-tier rim protector has to have coach Scott giddy. After all, as Hibbert alluded to, the Lakers have ranked in the bottom-three in defensive efficiency over the past two seasons and — with the roster’s makeup pre-Hibbert — the outlook of that changing wasn’t too encouraging.
In order for Hibbert to be most effective at what he does best, though, the other Lakers on the roster most certainly play a role. In almost all cases, defense starts up front; while Clarkson, Russell and Kobe don’t have to be “lockdown” defenders, being able to avoid losing position along the perimeter and not getting beat off the dribble is key. Rather, they must funnel guys to the rim effectively by riding them into a position that allows Hibbert the opportunity to challenge the shot.
Once an opposing player gets in the post and Hibbert slides to help, he needs to feel confident that a teammate will help down on his man. Most guys on the Lakers roster have the short-area quickness to effectively cover in such instances, but — as is the case with most defensive schemes — a lot of this will rely on instincts and continuity. Once the players develop a better rapport over the season, the defensive schemes should be a lot more free-flowing than they will initially look.
In the end, Hibbert serves as an ideal complement in the frontcourt next to the not-so-defensively inclined Julius Randle and at the very least will provide a level of stability in the middle that will allow other guys to play more aggressive up top.
It has often been said that for all of Hibbert’s prowess on defense, he is a polar opposite player on the other end of the floor. This could be viewed as an indictment, but it is more so a testament to him being a pure defensive specialist. And frankly, with the wealth of offensive playmakers on the roster, they don’t need much more from him. Nevertheless, Hibbert hones skills that can at least make him useful on this end.
As pointed out in a recent post on Forum Blue and Gold, the Lakers plan to continue running the Princeton offense this upcoming season and not the one “based on the read and react principles that have labeled the offense a ‘cousin of the Triangle’“. What this means is plenty of work at the high post for the bigs either as a screener or shooter.
For better context of which types of shots will be generated for Hibbert this upcoming season, take note of the fact that nearly 19% of Jordan Hill’s shot attempts last season came from the high post — second only to his 23.5% taken from the left block.
For Hibbert — who has surprisingly deft touch from around 17 feet out — this fits right into his skill set. In fact, while only 9.7% of Hibbert’s shot attempts were from this area, he managed to shoot a solid 42% from the top of the key last season and his efficiency increases as he travels further in. Here’s a look at his shot chart from last year:
The Princeton also incorporates a multitude of ball screens. With Hibbert, the Lakers essentially have an oak tree to move along the perimeter and soak up the initial defender and this can allow the ball handler a clean shot off the pick or an isolation at the top of the key. In an instance where the primary ball handler penetrates after a screen, Hibbert can keep the defense honest, threatening as a release valve at the high post.
Where the concern lies regarding Hibbert’s fit in a Lakers’ offense is identical to the one that got him shipped out of Indy: Pace. With or without him on the floor, the Lakers plan to run when given the opportunity and with four guys in the starting lineup capable of grabbing the board and pushing, this makes sense. (For what it’s worth, it is quite possible Hibbert’s defense will lead to more opportunities for the team to hit the break as well.)
It would be unreasonable to expect Hibbert to suddenly become a fleet-footed seven foot two-er, but the Lakers can effectively use him as a trail man in the fastbreak where he’d once again serve as a release valve if the play breaks down. Our own Darius Soriano alluded to such using a quite relatable analogy:
Exactly this. Would remind me of the 1989 Lakers w/ Kareem. Four guys looking to break & then waiting for Cap if nothing developed.
— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) July 4, 2015
No Hibbert won’t single-handedly revive the Sky Hook or renew “Showtime”, but the concept of him as the trailer while the others get it and go is far more realistic than expecting him to sprint from end-to-end.
Again, though, for this to come to fruition it relies on a level of continuity that only comes with more time on the floor as a unit, but the framework of the Laker offense is not hard to envision with Hibbert included.
Going forward, it will be up to the coaching staff to accept Hibbert for what he is: a hard-working, defensive savant, with surprising range and — if all goes well — a player who can flash dominance on defense while bringing enough effective play offensively to be a threat. He has his flaws, yes. But as the Lakers look to restore a depleted defense and recover from years of continuous roster turnover, Hibbert can certainly mask a few of their own.