Jordan Hill's role ebbed and flowed with the constantly changing nature of the 2015-16 Indiana Pacers. When the Blue & Gold experimented with small-ball early in the season, and later opted to promote rookie Myles Turner to the starting power forward position, he was a steady contributor off the bench, averaging 8.5 points and six rebounds in about 20 minutes per game. But for the other 19 games of the season, the 28-year-old's minutes waxed to as many as 35 when he filled in for the injured Ian Mahinmi in Sacramento and waned to as few as zero when he watched his team scrape and claw their way into the playoffs from the sidelines late in the season.
But even well-before he was pushed to the end of the bench by the arrival of Ty Lawson and head coach Frank Vogel's ill-advised moves to surround his team's new acquisition with speed, Hill admitted to being vexed by his inconsistent playing time.
"I'm getting the ball when I'm out there, so I've able to show that I can score. I can get rebounds, do a little bit of this, little bit of that, but my minutes fluctuate sometimes," Hill told Basketball Insiders prior to Lawson's arrival. "That can be frustrating to me sometimes, but I know we've got a lot of guys that can play. We all can play, and that means it's a good rotation for us. I'll be alright."
On the season, the middle Hill was the only player on Indiana's roster to both start 10 or more games and earn at least eight DNPs.
How did Jordan Hill impress?
As was alluded to above, Indiana's backup center was at his finest when he was earning regular minutes in the second-unit alongside Lavoy Allen. Indiana outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions with the Hill-Allen frontcourt tandem on the floor, making them the most productive two-man lineup by which Hill was a part this season (minimum 650 minutes played). The duo, though not particularly adept at defending against spread lineups, was able to get the better of opposing bench lineups by generating extra possessions. Indiana grabbed 29.7 percent of the team's misses with Hill and Allen on the floor, a higher rate than the Pacers overall (23.4%).
By season's end, the tandem's lack of foot speed became reason enough for head coach Frank Vogel to banish both players from the new look second-unit and, later, the rotation. An odd decision given that stretch-fours such as Kevin Love and Patrick Patterson were basically salivating at the chance to victimize Lavoy Allen in the starting lineup. Meanwhile, Indiana's bench with Ty Lawson at the helm got thoroughly exposed against Toronto's in the first round of the playoffs. Moving to fortify a second-unit slated to face the East's top bench was a necessary adjustment, but opting to do so with speed, instead of staggering the minutes of George Hill, Monta Ellis, and Paul George, was ill-advised.
Granted, Allen and Hill could not keep pace with Lawson's acceleration in the open floor; but this only brings to question why a player the Pacers added mid-season became the impetus for Vogel strengthening the bench at the expense of the starters. Especially considering that, for the first few months of the season, the Pacers were content with George Hill, Monta Ellis, and Rodney Stuckey consuming all but a few crumbs of the available backcourt minutes.
Whether those changes were the product of more stylistic differences of opinion between Vogel and Bird or simply short-sighted strategy remains to be seen, but it is certainly strange that a player who showed himself to be a capable option off the bench only made it on the court in garbage time in the first round of the playoffs while Lavoy Allen struggled to produce in the starting lineup and Ian Mahinmi was limited by a sprained lower back and intermittent foul trouble.
Perhaps, there is more to this story.
How did Jordan Hill disappoint?
Indiana's late season match-up with the Orlando Magic, in which it was difficult to distinguish the team mathematically eliminated from playoff contention from the one playing at home with a berth on the line, may provide some context clues.
Back on March 31, Orlando's desperation, unlike Indiana's sense of urgency, was not sorely lacking as the team wearing pinstripes scored 56 points in the paint, forced 19 turnovers, and held the Pacers to a measly 15 fourth-quarter points.
Here, when the Blue & Gold trailed the Magic by three points early in the second quarter was when things started to unravel. On this particular possession, Andrew Nicholson had already rebounded a miss from Jason Smith before Smith was inexplicably quicker to the ball than three Pacers standing in the vicinity of it. The lack of effort displayed by Jordan Hill resulted in a substitution at the next timeout.
In retrospect, the resulting 20-point loss in this contest seems to lend some credence to Bird's post-season assertion, though tactless in its delivery, that his team may have tuned out Vogel's voice.
Following the above shown play, Hill played five minutes in the second half. The next game he was no longer part of the regular 10-man rotation.
Still, Vogel told the Indy Star's Nate Taylor his decision to change the bench's style of play was the catalyst for Hill's exodus. "...It was just that dynamic more than anything Jordan did."
Indiana's most-used bench lineup with Ty Lawson, Rodney Stuckey, C,J. Miles, Solomon Hill, and Ian Mahinmi, got outscored by 45.9 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs.
What's next for Jordan Hill
After being eliminated from the playoffs by the Toronto Raptors, Hill divulged to the Indy Star's Candace Buckner that the rationale for him being pushed to the end of the bench was never made clear to him:
"Yeah, it's tough, but I can't do anything but be supportive and a great teammate. Especially when I feel like I did pretty good this season," Hill said of averaging 8.8 points (the team's best post scorer) and 6.2 rebounds. "Just to be out of the rotation like that is definitely frustrating, especially when you don't know what happened or what you did. If you did anything wrong; if you don't think you did anything wrong, nobody told you you did anything wrong. So now I'm like: ‘Question mark! Question mark! Question mark!' What happened?' "
If Bird ties up cap space this summer trying to pursue pieces better capable of making his small-ball vision a reality, than it is not outside the realm of possibility that Mahinmi's improved play this season may out price what the Pacers can offer him. Should this turn out to be the case, will Indiana be less willing to move on from Hill?
If so, the new head coach's ability to define his erratic role may give the Blue & Gold a better chance of retaining him.