Searching for a Smallball Four: The Case for Using Solomon Hill Against the Raptors

The Indiana Pacers have thrived with Solomon Hill alongside the starters. He deserves playoff minutes.

The story of the 2015-16 Indiana Pacers could be summed up in one phrase: Consistently inconsistent. And nothing has varied more than the production and success seen at the power forward/stretch-four position.

It started in training camp with Paul George expressing his apprehension about moving to the position where team president Larry Bird envisioned him. “I don’t know if I’m cut out for a 4-spot. I don’t know if this is my position,” said George after the first preseason game.  “It’s still something I have to adjust to – or maybe not. Or maybe it’s something we can go away from.”

And went away from it, they did.

The team scrapped its original plan, and it has since has played a game of musical chairs to fill the spot. C.J. Miles, Lavoy Allen, and Myles Turner have all had their chances to start at the 4, all with varying degrees of success.

Miles was too small to bang in the post and rebound. He wound up injured and unable to shoot even when he could play. Allen is what he is: a career back-up miscast in a starting role, albeit with some best-on-team +/- numbers. Turner may have had the most success of all the options, but the “Rookie Wall” does not move for anyone, and Turner ran head first into it in March.

There is one option, however, that Frank Vogel has not employed as a starter. And it is one that could work as the Pacers head to Toronto to start the playoffs.

Enter Solomon Hill.

To say Solo has had an interesting year would be an understatement. On the heels of being the only Pacer to play in all 82 games in 2014-15, while leading an injury-riddled Indiana roster in minutes played, the team declined to pick up the fourth-year option on his rookie deal, a fate no young player wants to experience. He racked up DNP-CDs for most of the first half of the season and did not impress in the limited minutes he received.

His performance even prompted one silly fan to tweet this:

But Hill’s recent performance has me wondering how to erase my Twitter history. Nearly every time he is inserted into the lineup, the energy, and effort of the team improves.

The numbers prove it out.

Since the All-Star break, the George Hill/Monta Ellis/Paul George/Solomon Hill/Ian Mahinmi lineup has a net rating of +23.7 in 97 minutes. This isn’t just small sample theater, either, as this is Vogel’s third most used lineup.

Insert Allen for Solo — the Pacers current starting lineup — and the net rating is only +0.3 in 103 minutes. The defense takes the biggest hit. While that lineup with Solo has an incredible defensive rating of 94.8, that figure balloons to an obscene 112.2 with Allen.

Hill may not be a long-term answer at the position, but he may be the best option the Pacers have to guard Toronto’s pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop game.

It is interesting that Frank Vogel seemingly discovered this successful lineup by accident. After the All-Star break, as Myles Turner became seen as a threat to opposing defenses, opponents increasingly employed a spread look to neutralize — and at times overwhelm — the Pacers’ big lineups. Turner often looked lost, unable to come out of the paint to chase smaller players and fouling a lot even when he was able to stick with his man.

So Vogel, in what seemed like an act of desperation, starting using Solo instead of Turner along with the four other regular starters. And those opposing spread lineups tended to lose their effectiveness when Solomon was on the floor. His ability to switch and keep his man in front of him on dribble penetration gives the defense a dynamic that it lacks with Allen and Turner.

Offensively, the Pacers play a faster pace and at an efficiency level higher than their average with Hill on the floor. He’s also shooting a career-high percentage this season. Even those perimeter “shot puts” have been going in recently, evidenced by his 7 (!!!) 3-pointers in the regular season finale in Milwaukee.

Hill may not be a long-term answer at the position, but he may be the best option the Pacers have to guard Toronto’s pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop game. The Raptors use Luis Scola and Patrick Patterson on the perimeter to create driving lanes for their two All-Star guards, Kyle Lowry, and DeMar DeRozan. Scola and Patterson can both effectively pick and pop out to 3-point range, an action the Pacers have had difficulty covering most of the season.

Hill gives the Pacers more defensive options to cover that action than Allen or Turner, mainly the ability to switch onto the ball handler. He may not cure all the defensive issues in a series where the Raptors are clearly the better team, but he may give the Pacers enough consistency at the 4-spot to make this a long series.

That’s something nobody would have thought coming into the season.