To Hibbert or Not to Hibbert? It's a Question of Identity


I’m not mad at Frank Vogel’s decision to take out Roy Hibbert for the final play of Indiana’s Game 1 loss to Miami. But in doing so, he was chasing a White Whale.

By putting Tyler Hansbrough out on the floor in place of his 7’2″ rim protecter, Vogel chose a “switch-everything” lineup over one featuring an immobile anchor in the middle. This way, figured Vogel, there would be no way that even the deft mind of Erik Spoelstra could exploit Hibbert’s biggest shortcoming: slowfootedness. With Hansbrough in Hibbert’s place, every Miami player could be closely guarded.

If they executed perfectly, there would be no way for a Heat player to get an uncontested shot.

As long as every defender did his job.

As we saw, however, Paul George did not. He blew his assignment and let LeBron James drive by him to the hoop for an easy layup in less than 2.2 seconds.

It’s hard to blame Vogel for that. George’s error was glaring.

Frank Vogel’s Overconfidence in His Defense

Of all the potential defensive breakdowns that could happen in 2.2 seconds, this had to have been the least of Vogel’ worries. George, according to the media members who voted for the NBA All-Defensive Team (and me), is the Pacers’ best defensive player and one of the best four wing defenders in the NBA. Nobody can stop LeBron from scoring entirely, but if there is one player in the league who should be able to prevent him from walking by him to the hoop, it’s Paul George.

Really, there is no way that Vogel could have anticipated this outcome.

Though not this specific breakdown, he did know, however, that a breakdown was possible. I won’t go so far as to say “probable,” but even with 2.2 seconds left, if the Heat are running an Erik Spoelstra inbounds play 10 times, I would bet that even Indiana, the hardest team in the NBA to score against, has some level of breakdown three or four times.

Defense is just that hard.

Now, I’m sure Vogel knew this and expected that the most likely way that the Pacers’ defense would break down was while chasing a shooter through a screen. In the NBA, screens are very difficult to get through quickly. On television, these guys on the court may appear to be ordinary, digitized people running around in jerseys. But they are damn enormous. They are hardly recognizable as the same brand of human you see at the supermarket. If you were to meet an ordinary-on-TV-looking chap like Tyler Hansbrough, for example, he would probably be the largest human being you’ve ever met in your life. To get around men of such size quickly takes remarkable timing, precision, skill and effort.

Thus, switch everything.

That way, Miami’s screens — by far the best weapon an offense can use to get an open shot in 2.2 seconds — become irrelevant. If you get screened, you just switch to start guarding the guy who screened you and your teammates picks up your guy. Every player remains covered at all times.

I haven’t talked to Vogel since Game 1, but I’m confident that this was his main rationale. He simply didn’t expect the type of breakdown that occurred. He didn’t believe his team would allow someone to get close enough to the rim for it to really need protection.

In essence, he thought his guys could play perfect defense. He did not want to give up anything, and he saw Hibbert as a liability that could be the cause of a breakdown, not the last line of defense in case one did occur.

If that was his thought process, he was wrong.

But to me it was strategic decision-making flaw that was less about “over-coaching,” as many have claimed, and more about over-confidence. He didn’t believe the play would ever reach the point where Roy Hibbert’s perhaps-best-on-planet talent of protecting the rim would be even useful, let alone necessary.

Kevin Arnovitz — who wrote a nice piece for TrueHoop discussing some other coaching options that Vogel had in addition to the binary Hibbert/no-Hibbert decision — summed it up as well as anyone has: “On Wednesday night, perfect defense was the enemy of the good defense.”

Vogel thought his team could play perfect defense, conceding nothing.

He was wrong.

And it may end up costing his team the series.

Again, I’m not mad at the decision. I understand what he was going for, I think.

And I actually respect the confidence.

It’s not so unlike Roy McAvoy in Tin Cup thinking that he can win a golf tournament by rocketing his ball over a water hazard instead of taking the safer route and hitting two shorter shots. I can almost picture Cheech Marin next to Vogel on the bench, handing him a 7-iron (aka, Roy Hibbert) and saying, “Coach, let’s just make sure Miami doesn’t get a layup.” And then Vogel pulls out his 3-wood (aka, Tyler Hansbrough) knowing that he can prevent Miami from not only getting a layup but any sort of open shot anywhere on the court.

It’s pretty ballsy really.

Then Again …

In another, more insidious way, Vogel made a horrible decision.

Arnovitz also called the decision to take out Hibbert, thus going small, “a crisis of faith.”

As outlined here, I don’t think that is what he was thinking. I think Vogel believed that Paul George is a defensive messiah who could single-handedly force even LeBron James into nothing better than a contested jumper while also believing that he had a club in his bag (switch everything) that would help him ensure nobody else got anything better either.

But I do believe that Arnovitz’s “crisis of faith” phrase is exactly how this decision is being seen. By Pacers fans, by the basketball cognescenti, and — here’s the insidious part — Vogel’s players.

So in making his overconfidence-based decision, Vogel may have put a crack in the foundation of this team’s identity. And that sucks. Because that is, ultimately, all this team has.

(Note: It’s going to be awhile before I get back to this point. Humor the indulgence for a bit.)

Stats Showing Why Switch Everything Makes Sense

Brett Koremenos did an superb job breaking down why, in a tactical basketball sense, using the switch everything strategy made sense. (Mike Prada did something similar.) They are both smarter than I about Xs and Os, so I won’t rehash their points. Read the pieces. Become better informed.

I will, however, show a more-stat-based reason why “switch everything” makes sense.

With 2.2 seconds left, LeBron wasn’t the biggest threat to the Pacers.

Trust me, I know how dumb that sounds.

But without Paul George’s defensive blunder, there is a low likelihood that the Heat are able to get anything except a jump shot in such a short amount of time. And that is the case with or without Hibbert on the floor.

It’s just what happens. There is not really time to attack the rim in 2.2 seconds, by and large. LeBron managed here, but go through the annals of late-game situations in which a team inbounds the ball with under 3 seconds to play. It’s hundreds and hundreds of jumpers with a handful of drives and lob attempts.

Thus, if the goal is to lower the probability of a made basketball as much as possible, you should be more concerned about Ray Allen and Chris Bosh making jumpers than LeBron.

This season, LeBron shot 42.5% (286-for-675) from outside 10 feet. (Note: I’m not counting the two shots he took this year beyond 30 feet.)

In the playoffs so far, James has shot  34.7% (25-for-72) outside of 10 feet.

Here is deeper break down of how accurate LeBron James has been from different areas of the floor.

Aside from that 20- to 24-foot range, there is nothing to fear there.

There is even less to fear if you look at his more-recent shooting trends during the playoffs.

Looking at these charts, if you’re a defense whose Game 1 fate hinges on LeBron making a contested jump shot, you have to like your odds.

Those odds get worse if Chris Bosh takes the shot.

In short, Bosh is a midrange beast.

Your changes, statistically, drop closer to 50/50 if he’s taking a midrange jumper, especially if its not contested (a concern that could become reality if Hibbert gets caught up on a screen).

Here is what has happened his season when Ray Allen is shooting.

Normally, the lower percentage that most players have from three-point range is counteracted by the fact that three-pointers are worth more. It’s why field-goal percentage is a dumb stat compared to effective field-goal percentage.

But if it’s a one-point game with 2.2 seconds left, that extra point isn’t worth anything in a practical sense. You lose on any jump shot; who cares if you lose by one point or two?

Thus, a three-pointer by Ray Allen might not be something to fear, from a statistical standpoint, much more than a LeBron jumper. Both are likely to drop roughly four out of every ten times.

But, if you look at Ray’s make rate in the left corner — which was quite near where the ball was being inbounded — he poses a bigger threat. He has hit 48.8% of his looks from there this season. Now, we can’t ignore the fact that that high percentage was built, in part, due to the fact that many of Allen’s corner-three looks were wide-open since LeBron tends to draw defenders and then kick to the corner. That wouldn’t happen in 2.2 seconds. But Allen’s high percentage there is also, in part, due to the fact that it’s just a shorter shot than an above-the-break three-pointer. There is a reason Larry Bird used to call corner threes “layups.”

Frank Vogel knows all these numbers.

He may not know the exact percentages by heart and he probably wasn’t scanning shot charts as he made the decision to take out Hibbert. But he generally knows them. And from a statistical standpoint, he knows that Bosh from the midrange and Ray Allen from the corner are bigger threats to him winning the game than LeBron taking what Vogel would expect to be a contested jumper.

(Erik Spoelstra knows this, too; it’s probably a big part of the reason that LeBron was the third option on this play, only receiving the pass after the lob to Bosh and corner inbounds to Allen were cut off.)

With such statistical insight, it’s easy to see why Vogel’s biggest fear would be Hibbert getting lost on a screen and the resulting chaos allowing Bosh or Ray to get free for a jumper.

The numbers say that LeBron, shooting from anywhere outside of 10 feet, is not the biggest threat with 2.2 seconds left.

The Case Against the Statistics

At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March, Stan Van Gundy told the audience that he was well aware of the statistical rationale behind going 2-for-1.

Essentially, 2-for-1 is hoops parlance for gaining an extra possession. If you have the ball and there are 35 seconds left on the clock, for example, the theory says that you should rush up a shot — any shot — so that, no matter how much of the 24-second shot clock your opponent uses on its next trip down the floor, you still get the ball back and get to shoot again.

Throughout the game, teams trade off possessions — chances to score — and it is never possible to get an extra one. Until you find yourself at the end of a quarter in a potential 2-for-1 situation. If you take the opportunity, you gain an edge. And since, each possession, statistically, teams score roughly one point, you are essentially gaining a point each time you finish a quarter having had one more possession than your opponent.

The statistical case couldn’t be more open and shut. It is a clear way to gain a theoretical advantage.

But, as Van Gundy said on his panel, there is a trade off.

He said that the job of a coach is to constantly, unwaveringly teach and promote an approach to the game. A manner of doing things. A way to play. Larry Brown’s style famously became known as Playing the Right Way. Really, it doesn’t matter what The Philosophy is — Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less in Phoenix, Pat Riely’s No Layups in New York, Doc Rivers’ Ubuntu in Boston; it just matters that there is a philosophy.

Establishing it is easy.

Van Gundy said the hard part is getting everybody to buy in. It takes perseverance and total commitment.

That was his case against the 2-for-1.

Starting in training camp, you stress the value of taking a good shot. You repeat it and repeat it constantly. You scorn players for taking bad shots. You award playing time to those who learn to practice what you preach.

Then, it comes time for a 2-for-1 and you tell your players: Hey, you remember that whole foundation of our offense that I’ve been talking about for the past six weeks — it doesn’t apply to this one situation.

It’s a mixed message that undermines The Philosophy.

You’re not going to sit around a locker room and break down the statistical case for a 2-for-1 to these athletes. They don’t want to hear it, by and large, and it just clouds the actual basketball rationale.

And if you go 2-for-1 and don’t really explain why, you’re telling the players it’s sometimes OK to do things a different way. Van Gundy said that can be cancerous. It shows the players that The Philosophy is negotiable. It puts a crack in the foundation.

In time, water entering even the smallest cracks can destroy a house.

“What We Do”

The Pacers don’t have a prototypical star. Paul George was just named to the All-NBA Third Team — basically naming him a top fifteen player for the 2012-13 regular season — but he is 23 years old and remains an unreliable, often inefficient, scorer who turns the ball over a lot.

They can’t win through individual brilliance. They can’t even, usually, win with anything a typical sports fan would recognize as brilliance. They rely instead upon a discipline, regimented defensive scheme that takes away good three-point attempts and prevents opponents from scoring at the rim. The scheme must have complete buy in from five guys.

I’m not sure how much statistics had to do with the genesis of the system Frank Vogel has created. There is perhaps a chicken-or-the-egg situation, but it definitely aims to take away the two most potent means of scoring: at the rim and behind the arc (particularly the corner three). These are the highest point-per-possession locations to shoot from.

Vogel talks about this.

He wants the opposition, particularly Miami and LeBron James, to take midrange jump shots. That is where they try to steer LeBron in the pick-and-roll in last year’s playoff series. Preventing the three was another focus against Miami last year, and something that was critical to beating the Knicks. And Roy Hibbert has become one of the best deterrents the league has for convincing LeBron not to attack the rim.

This is the team’s identity.

Vogel talks about this. David West talks about it. Sometimes, it seems the team talks about little else. “What We Do,” was a phrase we plucked from a West quote to use as a headline earlier this season.

It has become the defining way that I think about this team. They excel when the do “What We Do.” When they don’t? Well, see Games 3 and 4 against the Hawks. Or, better yet, check out their defensive numbers in April 2013 regular season games.

That was the biggest problem with Vogel taking Hibbert out of the game: It runs contrary to how he has taught this team to play. How he has taught this team to grow. How he has taught this team to win.