Roy Hibbert had a poor center of gravity. His lack of foot speed prohibited the Pacers from matching the pace and space of opponents, and his offensive production very notably ebbed and flowed with his ever-changing level of self-confidence. Yet for everything he quite clearly was not, he was without a doubt one thing: a dominant rim protector.
In fact so much so, that head coach Frank Vogel admitted outright that he is concerned about the team's ability to compensate for the loss of the two-time All-Star's safety net-like defensive presence at the rim.
"I am," Vogel conceded while speaking on the live edition of the "Blue & Gold Breakdown" with Pat Boylan and Mark Boyle. "(But) that just means were going to have to work that much harder. We're not going to lower our standards on what's expected on the defensive end just so we can get up and down the floor and run."
Here's how the Pacers plan to balance utilizing their speed while still protecting the paint.
They won't try to be the Golden State Warriors:
Just because the Pacers will be opting for a faster and smaller brand of basketball this season does not mean they plan on having Paul George or another wing player man the middle (a la Draymond Green).
"We will have rim protectors out there, I hope, at all times, whether it's Myles Turner or Ian Mahinmi or to a lesser degree Jordan Hill or Lavoy Allen," said Vogel. "We do not plan on playing five smalls, as some teams around the NBA have done."
Mahinmi is expected to get the starting nod, but utilizing the career backup as Hibbert's full-time replacement is not without its pitfalls. While the Frenchman allowed just 45.5% of opponent field goal attempts at the rim (only a shade off of Roy's 42.6%), he has a penchant for committing fouls (racking up 5.4 per 36 minutes) and his poor free throw shooting can make him more of liability than an asset at the end of games.
Let your nemesis be your guide:
Without the luxury of having the Kingpin of Verticality lying in wait at the rim, the Pacers will have to rely on their speed, rather than their size, to disrupt the offensive flow of opponents.
"It will be a change," said George with regard to how the team will maintain their defensive preeminence. "This year, we'll probably have to play a little faster. We have to trap a lot more. We have to double-team a lot more. It will be a chaotic type of defense; but, with the personnel we have, we're fully capable of doing so."
George's description sounds eerily similar to the half-court swarming defense employed by the LeBron-era Miami Heat on their way to two consecutive NBA Championships.
In their hey-day, Miami made hay forcing opponent pick-and-roll ball handlers into turnovers with blitzing double-teams, which they then converted into transition buckets at an alarmingly high rate. They did this mostly by transforming hard contact shows or hedges into smothering traps.
With multiple guards capable of aggressive blitzing (George Hill, Rodney Stuckey, Monta Ellis), a disciplined on-ball defender (Paul George) and a defensive anchor (Ian Mahinmi, Myles Turner) more suited to making quick rotations, the Pacers have the personnel and quickness needed to evolve from a defense predicated on physicality to one fueled by ball pressure.
Less of the same old, same old:
With Roy Hibbert holding down the paint, the onus was always on the perimeter defenders to corral the opposing teams guards. Tasked with covering the roll-man and going straight-up (as he termed it) while simultaneously cursed by his own lack of mobility, the two-time All-Star never ventured far from the restricted area to hedge on screens or contest shots.
But with Mahinmi and possibly Myles Turner both more capable of covering a larger area, Indiana may actually be better equipped to keep opponents guessing next season.
"We have great mobile bigs," said George Hill. "We (have) bigs that can actually do a little bit more as far as in the pick-and-roll, as far as trapping, and things like that. It's (possible) for us to change the schemes up, so teams (are) not just locked in on one thing that we do."
Roy Hibbert will still be here in spirit:
Just because Roy Hibbert is now employed by the Los Angeles Lakers does not mean that the techniques he learned while in Indiana went away with him never to return again. In fact quite the opposite may end up being true, if Paul George has anything to say about it.
"Having (had) Roy here, I know what a center is defensively, "George explained. "I know their job. I had an All-Star as a center. That is something I'm grateful for, that I can teach to Myles (Turner) and Rakeem (Christmas) and get them prepared. They have the same skill set."
Frank Vogel once explained the NBA's principle of verticality to Roy Hibbert and designed a two-on-one drill to refine the 7-footer's ability to contest shots at the rim, what's to say the same cannot be done for Myles Turner?
Because Paul George is right, Turner does have a similar skill set. As a freshman at Texas, he led the Big 12 in defensive rating and total blocks (89), resulting in him being named the Big 12 Conference's Freshman of the Year. He averaged 4.3 blocks per game at the Orlando Pro Summer League.
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Replacing or duplicating what Frank Vogel today termed as Roy Hibbert's "pure dominance at the rim" is going to be a tall order for this group right out of the gate. With 990 career blocks, the Big Dawg ranks fourth in Pacers franchise history. But what the Pacers lose in paint presence, they gain in speed, pace, versatility, and new-found opportunity for up-and-comers. Indiana cannot replace 'The Great Wall of Hibbert' and they shouldn't try, being different -- diversifying schemes, employing quicker rotations, utilizing speed and versatility to create turnovers, and incorporating new faces -- is the how the Pacers will protect the paint moving forward.
"Roy was special," Paul George opined. "He will be missed, but the show must go (on)."
The time to embrace newness is now.