The Los Angeles Lakers caught people off guard this offseason by trading for former All-Star center Roy Hibbert. It was no secret why the Pacers wanted to get rid of their $15 million stone-footed center. Indiana wanted to get smaller and faster, even if it means befuddling some by putting all-world wing player Paul George at the power-forward position.
Hibbert’s fall from grace was well documented. He disappeared down the stretch and in the playoffs two seasons ago, and signs of his decline jumped out of the screen. Never known for his offensive prowess, he regressed on that end and also on the boards, which helped overshadow what he provided on defense as a rim protector.
Things weren’t all that much better last year, but Hibbert could conceivably be a nice upgrade over Jordan Hill at center thanks to his defense. Hibbert will turn 29 this season and has never been particularly nimble-footed, but while he likely won’t ever regain his peak form of a few years ago, he could still be a solid contributor.
First, it’s important to clear a few things up regarding the perceived financial burden Hibbert is providing the Lakers. The Lakers didn’t pick the big man over a marquee free agent. They struck out on big names early on (thanks, Kobe?), and in no way did trading for Hibbert hinder the Lakers from drastically improving their team in free agency.
Furthermore, this is a contract year for Hibbert. If he doesn’t work out or if the Lakers want the cap space, he’s gone. No strings attached. The Lakers (probably) have enough talent that they won’t get a top draft pick again anyway, so he isn’t putting a dagger in the potential tanking process (their 2016 pick belongs to the Sixers and only has top three protection).
In other words, he’s in Los Angeles and likely will be for the whole season unless they try to trade him as an expiring contract. It’s time to stop picking him apart and sit back and see if he has anything left in the tank. He’s been through deep playoff runs and seen young players grow up. He may not be awful to have around, especially with a young squad around him.
The question becomes, what can the Lakers expect from Hibbert?
Defense. Defense. Defense. No, he isn’t the Hibbert of three years ago, and you know what? That’s fine. He’s going to fill the lane and get in the way. He doesn’t average as many blocks as Rudy Gobert or Serge Ibaka, but he isn’t far off, and he’s still a good deterrent at the bucket.
Among those who defended at least four field goal attempts at the rim last season, Hibbert still held defenders to the fourth-lowest shooting percentage at 42.6 percent, per SportVU. To put that in context, that was only 2.2 percent higher than Gobert. So though Hibbert “only” averaged 1.6 blocks, he can effectively alter shots even without blocking them.
Other stats back up his defensive impact in the paint. When he defended shots within six feet from the rim, Hibbert held his opponents to 12 percent below their average field goal percentage, per SportVU. Again, that’s pretty darn good.
There are a few ways to counter his defensive impact. First, and most obviously, run. Hibbert is, to put it kindly, slow. He isn’t the guy to run down in transition and alter the shot. Much has been made about the pace, and we’ll get to that more in a bit. Reports indicate the big man has lost weight in the offseason and has come into camp lighter. Maybe that’ll help his speed, but any increases are likely to be minimal.
Second, small ball. Hibbert can’t protect the rim if he isn’t near the rim. Teams like the Warriors or the Spurs who can run small ball without a hitch can drag him from the rim and negate his value. At that point, it’s up to Byron Scott to get Hibbert the hell out of there. If he’s getting burned on defense, he isn’t keeping up with the offense either. It just isn’t his game, because he’s kind of a mess offensively.
Hibbert has shot under 45 percent in each of the last three seasons, and in this pace and space era of the NBA, he doesn’t help you in either category. Last year the Pacers had a pace of 94.14 when he was on the floor, compared to 96.79 when he was on the bench, per NBA.com. That’s over two more possessions per 48 minutes, so it’s easy to see why the Pacers wanted to move on from the lumbering big man as they transition to their new style.
The Lakers are going to boast three starters in Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson who are young with fresh legs. The other two are Kobe Bryant and Hibbert, so it’ll be interesting to see if those two drag the others down when it comes to pushing the pace. Scott may have his hands full in this area, but perhaps a slimmed-down Hibbert will allow the Lakers to push it a bit more when he’s in.
Then there’s the space aspect. Hibbert offers little. While the big man’s presence in the lane is a positive on defense, it’s a negative on offense. Kobe and the guards are going to have a heck of a time finding the rim with Hibbert, Randle and their defenders all within 10 feet of the bucket.
We didn’t see Randle last season (save a few minutes in the first game), so maybe he can offer some space relief. Ideally, Brandon Bass and Ryan Kelly would provide the most space with Hibbert on the floor, and maybe they try out some small ball with Roy at the 5 as well.
If Hibbert can not derail the offense and offer stellar rim protection in about 25 minutes per game, the Lakers will have stolen a serviceable center from Indiana. If not, he’s gone, and that’s that. Lakers fans can’t really lose here, especially considering because the cost to get him was minimal.
So while it’s been a rough ride for Hibbert the last few years, let’s not write him off just yet.