Roy Hibbert: The League's Best Defender


Driving down the lane towards a 7’2”, 280-pound monster would be terrifying, even if the monster in question couldn’t move. But, hey, what if that monster was also coordinated, a good athlete, averaging two and a half blocks a game, and the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year?

I’d be pulling up for a 12-foot jumper.

At the midway point of the season, Roy Hibbert is excelling in many of the main defensive statistical categories, and swatting shots like it’s nobody’s business – he’s running away with the defensive player of the year award. But why? What does Hibbert bring the table defensively that other big men don’t?

Never Missing a Rotation

For starters, Hibbert is one of the most alert defensive bigs in the league. He’s always got his eye on the player with the ball and his own man, ready to rotate over and help if need be, having trust that because his team is so sound defensively, there will be another player rotating down to take away the next pass to Hibbert’s own man.

See here, for example – Denver’s Kenneth Faried catches off the pick-and-roll and attempts to score, while Hibbert is rotating over to block his shot. Hill also correctly rotates down and takes away the pass to/boxes out Hibberts man.

Here’s another example, as PJ Tucker beats Lance Stephenson off the dribble, only to be met at the rim by Hibbert, who was rotating well before PJ got there, and have his shot smashed into the backboard.

I watched film of every one of Hibbert’s 117 blocks this season (at time of writing), and while charting them all I discovered an interesting stat: 64 of Hibbert’s blocks (54.7%) came from rotating over from the weakside to contest, while only 53 (45.3%) came from any other play (blocking the ball-handler/roll man on a pick and roll, blocking his opponent in a post isolation, etc).

That seemed like an insane amount of blocks purely from weakside help, so I decided to compare it to the leagues leader in shotblocking, Anthony Davis, and I was pretty startled at the results when I compared them – see the table below.

The results show that while Davis might be a bit more versatile defensively, Hibbert is more of a classic “rim protector,” and he does that job incredibly well.

Obviously, there are a number of variables in this — for one, Davis blocks an insane amount of jumpshots due to his length and athleticism — but the huge differential is too much to slide over without investigation.

Roy is always looking to come over and help his teammates, and driving baseline with him under the rim almost guarantees your shot getting sent away. Just ask Carmelo Anthony. Also worth noting: check out how early Hibbert is rotating over to block Carmelo’s dunk.

Defending the Pick and Roll

Per Synergy, Hibbert is ranked 26th in defending the roll man in pick-and-roll, giving up only 0.81 points-per-possession in this situation, and allowing a field-goal percentage of only 37.7% to his opponents playing as the roll man. That’s impressive stuff.

But as a big man, that’s only half the job – he also has to contain the ball handler while being in a position to recover to his own man, should the ball handler pass to him. Let’s check out how the Pacers do that.

Frank Vogel is a great defensive coach, and when Hibbert is guarding the roll man, he has him defend pick-and-rolls by staying sagged down in the paint – a better alternative to the common method of “hedging” – having your big come way out of the paint to pressure the ball carrier while the guard recovers – Vogel has all other bigs defending the roll men hedge on pick and rolls.

However, with Hibbert’s huge frame, and him usually guarding centres who can’t consistently hit the pick-and-pop 18 footer, keeping him sagged down in the paint is best in pick-and-roll situations.

Here’s how it works:

When his man goes up to the screen, Hibbert stays down in the paint and presumably calls out the screen is coming.

His teammate (in this instance it’s George Hill) who is guarding the ball carrier, occasionally goes under the screen if guarding a poor shooter, but usually, and in this case, fights over the top.

This allows the guard (in this instance it’s Mario Chalmers) into the lane.

So at this point, the Pacers are only vulnerable to a few shots:

  • A 15-foot pull-up jumper, half contested from behind if the ball carrier keeps the defender behind him (Chris Paul is a master of this)
  • A runner over the top of Hibbert, depending on how far he comes out to contain the ball carrier
  • A pass back to the roll man for a pick and pop with Hibbert running out to contest

For an average, or even above-average, guard these are all pretty inefficient shots that the Pacers are OK with giving up.

In this instance, Chalmers continues to the hoop where his shot is contested by both Hibbert and West, and he misses.

Here’s the play as a GIF:

This particular method benefits Hibbert as he’s not incredibly fast footed, and allowing him to camp down in the paint gives him more freedom to contest shots. This is evident here as Hibbert sends Leonardo Barbosa’s shot into the third row after Barbosa creates some space coming off the screen.

Hibbert might not have the versatility of, say, Joakim Noah when it comes to being able to switch onto the ball-carrier or trap him at the three-point line, but he makes use of his big body and is a devastating presence inside if the guard chooses to attack, or hits the man rolling to the basket.

The Great Wall of Hibbert – Defending the Post Up

Twenty-eight percent. That’s the field-goal percentage Hibbert is allowing when defending the post up, per Synergy, good for 5th in the league. It’s not just the result of small sample size either, for this is the play that Hibbert defends the most, accounting for 35.6% of all his defensive possessions.

There’s not that much to it – Hibbert has a huge frame that is very hard to back down on the low block, he rarely bites on pumpfakes and always maintains good position.

However, worth noting is that last year he allowed 11 field-goal percentage points higher on post ups (39%).

A change that big is never just coincidence – let’s compare a typical Hibbert post-up defensive possession of last season, to one of this season.

In 2012-13, Roy was guilty of biting on pump-fakes far more often than he should, considering he can alter just about anyone’s shot without even jumping. See here, in this clip from the 2012-13 season, as he bites on a shot fake by Greg Monroe, who makes an easy step through and scores.

Had Monroe shot the ball instead of the pumpfake, Roy could have contested it just as well without jumping.

Now check out this instance in the 2013-14 season, with Hibbert guarding Marc Gasol on the low block. He doesn’t bite on his fake and stays in front of him – great defense.

Hibbert barely left the floor the whole play, but still blocked Gasol’s shot.

Not leaving the floor on these fakes has helped Hibbert make the jump to a top-five post defender this year, since it forces opponents to make tougher shots (i.e., running hooks, face-up jumpers, fadeaways and so forth), and makes Hibbert far less vulnerable to giving up layups.

Final Thoughts

Roy Hibbert is both the best and most valuable defensive player in the league.

He’s the most intimidating presence in the paint, and when combined with his ability to defend both the pick and roll and the post up at an elite level, it’s really not even close.

It truly says a lot about his reputation when you see guys that would normally finish strong at the rim, opt instead for pull-up jumpers or floaters when Hibbert is helping in the lane.

Speaking of reputation, I’m surprised to say I got through this whole piece without use of the word “verticality.” Well, don’t even get me started on that …

Want to discuss? Get at me on twitter @TimWritesNBA.