A lot has been made of the decision of Indiana Pacers’ head coach Frank Vogel to put center Roy Hibbert on the bench for the final pivotal play in overtime. Social media exploded and it seemed everyone was pointing fingers at the coach for the decision that was seen to have cost Indiana a game one road win in the best of seven series. The general consensus was that had Hibbert been in the game, LeBron James would not have been able to drive to the hoop for an easy, game-winning layup as time expired.
But let’s dig a little further into the decision to take Hibbert out, and why the loss shouldn’t be placed solely on the head coach.
The Plan that Went Wrong
LeBron James caught the inbound pass with 2.2 seconds remaining in overtime. He caught it with one foot just outside of the three point line after adding separation between himself and Paul George. (Freeze the video at the 0:02 mark).
The paint is clear, three other Miami shooters were set up outside of the three point line, and James’ only impediment is George.
Paul George at this point in the play was supposed to “front” James. This means that he was supposed to keep his body squarely infront of James. By doing so, with two seconds and the clock ticking away, James would have had the opportunity for a couple of dribbles either to the right or left of George, and eventually a pull-up jump shot.
Forcing a James jump shot was what Indiana wanted. Why?
Breaking down the percentages throughout the season, James shot a fairly average percentage (43%) from the area of the court outside of the paint but inside of the three point line. Inside the paint, his percentage jumps to 49%. Close to the rim, his percentage sky rockets to 76%.
If George does not over-pursue and give James a lane to the left to drive to the rim, the odds are in Indiana’s favor that he misses a game-winning field goal attempt.
The Absence of Hibbert
Folks immediately began clamoring for Hibbert to have been in the game. While he is a top tier defender at the center position, there is little guarantee that he would have been able to stop James from penetrating to the rim. That is also assuming the fact that he would have camped out near the basket for the chance to take James on one-on-one. The most likely outcome in a scenario in which James got past George and was left with Hibbert in the way was a full speed collision of the two players. Hibbert already had five fouls and would have likely drawn his sixth, as the referees are quick to blow the whistle in the favor of James and other superstars whenever there is a 50/50 moment. Had James drawn the foul, he would have gone to the line for two shots, trailing by only one point.
He shot 75% from the free throw line during the regular season, which would have given him a 56% chance of making both free throws and winning the ball game from the line.
The Bosh Effect
The minority that understood Vogel’s reservations in keeping Hibbert in the game point to Chris Bosh as the primary reason for the decision. With James penetrating the paint, Hibbert would have been sucked out to the perimeter to keep a defender on Bosh. If he had stayed inside the paint to double up on James, Bosh would have been left wide open for a field goal attempt. Bosh, a much better shooter from the perimeter than James, sank roughly 53% of his field goal attempts from that range.
The Percentages Lead to the Decision
While LeBron James is capable of amazing feats, his weakness still remains a steady and consistent jump shot from outside of the paint. Vogel played the best odds to win the game, with the hopes that George would have stayed in-front of James forcing him to take a contested shot from an area where he averaged a 43% clip. The fact that George had a breakdown in assignment is part of the game of basketball, just like someone drawing a royal flush in Texas Hold’em is part of the gamble in poker.
While the internet masses were quick to point a finger at Vogel for taking out Hibbert, there was a method to the madness and examining the details that were used in making that decision paint a bit of a different picture than initially seen.