Roy Hibbert and the Evolution of Defending the Rim

Chicago Bulls v Indiana Pacers

The NBA, more than any other, is a league of imitation. Michael Jordan came and went and produced an era of Iversons, T-Macs, and Kobes who were gunners above all else. Currently, LeBron James is leading a pretty cool reversal, as guys like Kevin Durant and Paul George improve their all-around game, embrace efficiency, take good shots and stay committed on offense and defense.

The league is in an almost constant state of flux as coaches and teams look to exploit any possible advantage. It adopted advanced metrics across the board, and more than any other league, it is willing to change the rules when the game starts to bog down and turn ugly.

In 1997, the NBA instituted the 4-foot semi-circle underneath the basket in order to prevent defenders from undercutting attacking players on their way to the basket. In theory, the rule made (and still makes) a lot of sense. If an offensive player has already left his feet on his way to the hoop, that area belongs to him and he should be given the opportunity to come down without having to worry about offensive fouls.

Today, the semi-circle is an afterthought — a normal part of the game that few people think twice about. When asked about it directly, Roy Hibbert shrugged and didn’t appear to have any thoughts on it at all. This was fascinating to me, but it probably shouldn’t have been. After all, Roy Hibbert is one of the only players in the entire league that all but ignores that restricted area while he protects the house for the Indiana Pacers.

Roy is now famous for his “verticality”: his ability to go straight up and use his tremendous size and length to challenge shots without picking up stupid, damaging fouls. As more and more advanced stats have been created to measure a player’s defensive value beyond simple blocks and steals, Hibbert’s worth (already sky-high to the Pacers) has increased around the league.

For instance, the new SportVU tracking cameras show that Hibbert is, by far, the league’s best and most impactful defensive player near the hoop. Teams are shooting a ridiculously low 40.4% near the basket when he is in the game (for reference, teams shoot 47.6% against Dwight Howard) while making less than four shots a game total at the rim when “The Big Vertical” is patrolling the lane.

No Soup for You! Any of you!

No Soup for You! Any of you!

But as is always the case in the NBA, when one player/team starts to gain an advantage, others in the league take notice and try to counter it.

Last week before the Pacers squared off against the Raptors, Toronto head coach Dwane Casey mentioned that he and his fellow coaches had been discussing Hibbert and his verticality. While politicking for his team, he insinuated that Hibbert often only gets the call because of his reputation and that beyond that, the rule may need to be changed.

That night, Hibbert sat out much of the evening with foul trouble and his absence was a huge factor in the Pacers’ ugly loss in Toronto. To be fair, several of Hibbert’s fouls were offensive and only one of them was really related to the “verticality” issue, but Casey’s comments may have been a factor in the officials’ heightened attention on the Pacer big man.

For his part, Hibbert has handled the situation like a pro. When asked if he found complaints like those made by Casey annoying, he told 8 Points, 9 Seconds that “they can talk about it all they want. I own that space — as long as I don’t jump [forward] from A to B. That’s a foul. I understand that. I spent a long time two summers ago working on [avoiding] that, and, it’s been able to help me stay in the game, and it’s helped the team.”

Still, as his dominance continues to reveal itself to the rest of the league, the lobbying and complaining from rivals will steadfastly rise. This really is quite unfortunate, because in general, basketball fans everywhere, as well as coaches and players, should appreciate Roy Hibbert and the defensive revolution he has helped come to fruition.

Not so long ago, the semi-circle was (in this author’s opinion at least) destroying basketball as more and more players turned the offensive foul into a unique tool in their defensive arsenal.

From its inception, the offensive foul was levied as a penalty on an offensive player that was out of control. The position of a defender’s feet or the spot on the floor where the contact occurs should really be insignificant. There’s a reason it was once called a “player control foul” and later termed a “charge.”

With the speed at which NBA players operate, the block/charge decision is easily one of the hardest calls refs must make, and it is often a subject of much scrutiny no matter which player is whistled. As the semi-circle and the league grew, the call began changing. The league saw an opportunity to make the foul less subjective — easier for officials to call if you will. Eventually, the analysis of each controversial play became simple: if the defender’s feet were out of the circle, it was a charge; if they were inside, the offensive player would be shooting free throws.

Refs, by and large, began ignoring the offensive player completely as they started staring at defenders’ feet. You couldn’t blame them for this — after all, if a guy’s foot was on that line and the ref had called it a charge, lunatic fans now had an objective reason for why the official got it wrong.

It was at this point that the charge was no longer a penalty for offensive players, but rather turned into a reward for defenders that had enough dexterity to run to a spot on the floor and plant their feet. Players like Andres Nocioni and Anderson Varejao perfected the move, racking up ridiculous numbers of charge calls in the process.

This problem reached a crisis point in 2007 when Varejao, a guy playing less than 24 minutes a game, racked up a league-record 98 charges drawn on the season. The average starting center drew 19 charges that year, and a staggering 70 total players drew at least 20 offensive fouls.

Many guys weren’t even trying to defend attackers any more — they were playing defense by running to a spot and falling down, effectively choosing to not even attempt a defensive play on the ball.

Hopefully, you remember how ugly and infuriating those games were to watch when you stop and think about the way Hibbert now defends the rim. The Big Fella has not simply found a loophole in the rules that he can take advantage of, nor is he exploiting a reputation that he has (fairly) earned. He’s simply playing defense the right way.

As regularly occurs when players become so productive, the rest of the league has taken notice and begun to imitate him. Last year, the average starting center only drew 7 offensive fouls. Ricky Rubio led the league with 40 charges taken, and only 18 total players drew 20 or more. Hibbert has proven there is a better way to defend the rim than simply drawing fouls. For the past two seasons, he’s been discouraging drivers left and right from even attempting to come inside.

It’s important to point out that if there was a rule change intended to minimize Roy Hibbert and his verticality, or even skew an advantage back towards offensive players, Hibbert and other big men would be left with only one other option — to return to the flopping strategies of years gone by. That type of shift could be catastrophic in terms of watchability.

It wouldn’t just affect the defense either. Currently, confident and skilled offensive players are able to fearlessly attack the rim with ferocity knowing that guys like Hibbert may turn them away but that they also may be able to convert. Driving to the basket has once again become a act of skill and toughness – with big men trying to go straight up while offensive players like Dwyane Wade try to dipsy-do their way around them or even sky over them like Blake Griffin. If the NBA were to take away verticality and resort to the old, we would be treated to a bevy of uncertain drives by players terrified of picking up offensive fouls — or worse, getting undercut by late-rotating defenders trying to slide in for a charge.

Let’s just say it like it is: the NBA isn’t a good place when players like Anderson Varejao and Andres Nocioni can affect a game defensively to that extent.

Coaches will never stop politicking for their players. Anyone that remembers the 1998 Conference Finals will recall Larry Bird and Phil Jackson running full-fledged campaigns for their styles of play throughout the series. Still, I think coaches would agree that defense in general, led by Roy Hibbert, is in a much better spot than it was seven years ago.

Dwane Casey should be careful what he wishes for — and the rest of us should be grateful for Hibbert and what we have.

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