FiveThirtyEight

INDIANAPOLIS — Five years ago tonight, the Pacers needed a hero.

It was Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Knicks — a game Indiana needed to avoid a trip back to Madison Square Garden for a treacherous Game 7 — and New York was nursing a 92-90 lead over Indiana with five minutes left. The torrid Carmelo Anthony, who would finish the night with 39 points, received a post entry and spun left on a gambling Paul George before racing to the basket for what would be a massive tomahawk jam. Only it wouldn’t be.

Just before Anthony’s dunk could find the bottom of the cup, 26-year-old defensive stud Roy Hibbert, Indiana’s 7-foot-2 tree of a center, managed to get his outstretched left arm between Anthony and the rim. The rejection, Hibbert’s fifth of the evening, sent the once-nervous Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd into a tizzy and led to a Lance Stephenson bucket on the other end — the beginning of a tide-turning, 9-0 Indiana run that would seal both the game and the series for the Pacers. The block instantly became the defining play of Hibbert’s career — one he was so proud of that he made a point of placing not one but two posters of it on his man-cave wall.

Yet five years later, Hibbert, one of the best rim protectors in basketball, is out of the league.

How does that happen? How does a former All-Star and recent defensive player of the year runner-up — who’s 31, presumably still physically healthy and still has an elite skill that is always in demand at this level — find himself nudged out of the NBA in such quick fashion?

The league learned new tricks, and Hibbert didn’t.

“It’s surprising to me. I’ve talked to Roy about this, but he could still be playing in the league right now,” said Frank Vogel, Hibbert’s former coach in Indiana, who was recently let go by the Magic. “But the league has adapted, both big picture and in terms of what he was doing for us in Indiana. There’s been a severe evolution in how the league plays, and he’s been a victim of it.”

To fully understand Hibbert’s fall, you have to grasp what made him special in the first place. Hibbert, who declined an interview request for this article, could score — he averaged 22 points in the 2013 conference finals against Miami, for example — but Hibbert’s real value was in his defense around the basket, where he was a master of playing within the NBA’s rules on verticality, in which a player looking to block a shot is only legally allowed to jump straight up and down with his arms extended. Hibbert was so good at doing this that LeBron James, seemingly frustrated with Hibbert and what he perceived to be uncalled fouls against the big man, once referred to it as “his verticality rule,” saying that officials allowed him to make use of it more than other players.

His ability to jump straight up and rarely be whistled for fouls allowed Indiana to play an extremely aggressive style of defense, in which the Pacers played out on the perimeter to eliminate 3-point shots without really worrying whether an opposing player might get a path to the basket. If that happened, Hibbert would be there to clean up the mess.

With that Hibbert-centric scheme, the Pacers led the league in defensive efficiency in 2012-13 and 2013-14, according to NBA Advanced Stats. They held opponents to a meager 97 points per 100 possessions each season while making back-to-back conference-finals trips in the process. The big man finished among the league’s top five in blocks and defensive win shares both years, while holding close-range shooters almost 16 percentage points beneath their average field goal percentage in 2013-14, a rate that easily led the NBA that season.

Yet as Hibbert continued to protect the rim well, that skill by itself became less valuable in a changing NBA. Take, for example, the Pacers’ 2014 playoff series against No. 8 seed Atlanta, in which the Hawks surprisingly took top-seeded Indiana to seven games.

Atlanta, which would go on to win 60 games the following season, exposed the Pacers’ defensive scheme (and thus Hibbert’s shortcomings) by playing lineups in which all five players could shoot from the perimeter. Much like a dog who’s bound by the constraints of an electric fence, Hibbert opts to stay tethered beneath the free-throw line on defense when he can, both so he can shut down shots at the rim and because his mobility isn’t good enough to defend in open space. The Hawks nearly stole a series because of it.

This lack of athleticism is part of the reason that Larry Bird, the Pacers’ president during Hibbert’s tenure with the team, applied blunt, public pressure to Hibbert, saying he wasn’t sure whether the slow-footed center fit the plan to play a more uptempo style going into the 2015-16 season.

Hibbert spent just over 71 percent of his time on defense beneath the free-throw line on defense from 2013-14 through 2015-16, the third-highest rate in the league over that span, according to data tracked by ESPN Analytics and NBA Advanced Stats. It’s almost certainly not a coincidence that the two players ahead of him on that list — Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov — have seen their on-court value diminish in the same time frame. (Nor is it surprising that other players on the list are all better offensive players, justifying their minutes.)

NBA big men who hang back on the defense most

Players by share of time beneath the free throw line on defense, 2013-16

Includes only power forwards and centers with a minimum of 2,000 minutes total from 2013 to 2016.

Sources: ESPN ANALYTICS, NBA Advanced Stats

“It just sucks,” said George, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder, when I asked him about Hibbert. “I guess that’s the direction of the league right now: Faster, more quick up-and-down pace, to where I don’t know if teams will gamble on that sort of big that can’t move as well. But then you see a guy like (Boban) Marjanovic, who’s the biggest guy in the league, and he has a job. So I’m not really sure. But I think Roy is still ideal for a team that needs a rim protector.”

At the same time that Hibbert was struggling to have the same impact defensively, other players — ones with more mobility and better foot speed — began learning how to perfect the notion of verticality. “It’s been mimicked and copied all over,” Vogel said. “You see Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid and think about them, but even at other positions. Wings have to learn it so they can guard someone like James Harden without fouling and without bringing your arms down.”

In a way, Hibbert’s downfall just came down to awful timing. The NBA has become far more reliant on 3-point shots from everyone on the court, big men included. Players 6-foot-11 or taller now take more than twice as many threes as they did five years ago, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. On top of that, players of that height are now on the cusp of matching the league’s average shooting percentage from long range, making 35.1 percent in 2017-18 — only a shade beneath the leaguewide mark of 36.2.

The tallest players aren’t shy about taking threes anymore

Total number of 3-point shots and share of shots that are 3-pointers for players 6 feet 11 inches and taller

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Of course, these aren’t the only reasons why Hibbert is no longer in basketball. After spending years playing alongside George on defense, he had to navigate the vast majority of the 2014-15 season without the premier wing stopper, who’d broken his leg in gruesome fashion during a USA Basketball scrimmage the previous summer. Beyond that, ex-Pacers teammate David West, who now plays for the Warriors, suggested that Hibbert’s confidence took a hit when the team signed Andrew Bynum ahead of its 2014 playoff run.

“It messed things up,” West said. “It was a distraction. Not because (Bynum) is a bad guy. But anytime you bring in a 7-foot-1, 320-pound man, it’s going to create a presence.”

Hibbert’s shift from the East to the West for a one-year stint with the Lakers in 2015-16 also didn’t help. The young Lakers ranked dead-last in defense that season, a display that likely didn’t do much to help market Hibbert’s skills. At the same time, he went from ranking first and fourth in rim protection in 2013-14 and 2014-15, respectively (among players who logged at least 45 games and defended at least three close-range shots per game) to 63rd in that category in 2015-16, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

“The thing is, in Indy, we had concepts. We normally weren’t hurt all that much by the things he couldn’t do because we wanted to force teams to drive on us,” West said of Hibbert. “What hurt him — and what was out of his control — was leaving Indiana and going to the West, where everything is wide open, and it’s a totally different ballgame.”

Sure enough, Hibbert’s defensive numbers looked more normal again — arguably elite, even — when he moved back East in his last season, 2016-17, spending most of the year with the Charlotte Hornets. He held opponents to a field goal percentage 12 points below their average around the basket, third-best in the league.

It was yet another indication that Hibbert’s game and skill set hadn’t changed all that much since his glory days with Indiana. Instead, it was the rapidly changing NBA that seemed to chug right along without him.

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CORRECTION (May 18, 5:00 p.m. EDT): An earlier version of this article misattributed data on the NBA big men who hang back on defense the most. The data came from ESPN Analytics and NBA Advanced Stats, not Second Spectrum.

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