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Did Grant Hill Have an All-Time Peak?

Since Michael Jordan‘s first retirement in 1993, the NBA has been searching for the next Jordan. Even during Jordan’s second three-peat, fans were pining for a new heir to the throne. Most people associate the generation of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Vince Carter as the next in line. However, they miss the link between the two generations: Grant Hill.

This article is meant to be a companion piece to the YouTube breakdown of Grant Hill’s game, so I’m going to write this in the style of a quick question and answer sheet to add more detail to the video and fill any information that I missed.

Please watch this before reading the rest

How Good was Grant Hill at His Peak?

During the 1996-97 season, there’s a good argument that Hill was a top-5 player in the league. Granted, the late 90s were a weaker transition period in league history; however, top-5 is top-5. As I referenced in the video, Hill was 2nd in Basketball references BPM (behind Michael Jordan) and 3rd in Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM (behind Jordan and Karl Malone) meaning that he scores out as one of the most statistically impactful players considering both the box-score and on/off numbers. Furthermore, he finished 3rd in MVP voting.

One might point to fact that both the Jazz and the Bulls neared 70 wins while the Pistons only won 54, but both Malone and Jordan had significantly better help. Three of Jordan’s teammates had a BPM above 3 (Scottie Pippen had a 5.7), two of Malone’s teammates had a greater than 3 BPM (John Stockton had a 6.6), and Hill had zero teammates with a BPM over 3. Hill’s best teammate by this metric was Terry Mills at 2.7. Even with significantly less talent, the Pistons boasted the 6th highest SRS.

It’s clear from watching those Pistons that Hill was the sole offensive engine of the team. When he was on the court, they rarely had a possession that he didn’t initiate as the point-forward (including bringing the ball up the court). I didn’t hand-track the possessions, but the majority of his offensive possessions were either in isolation or in the pick-and-roll. He excelled at scoring and setting up teammates in either kind of possession.

How Good Would Grant Hill have been in Today’s NBA?

Rule Changes

Many people reference the rule changes in the NBA that would’ve allowed historical players to dominate in today’s NBA. Prior to 2004-05 season, defensive players were allowed to hand-check meaning that they could put their hands on offensive players while defending on the perimeter. Many people cite this rule change as making it significantly easier for guards to score; however, people ignore the illegal defense rules that change in 2001. Prior to 2001, defensive players had to specifically guard or double-team an offensive player: they couldn’t “cheat” off to play a faux zone. This made it much more difficult for off-ball defenders to help and prevent guards from driving.

Conclusion: great scorers in any era would’ve been great scorers in any other era.

Grant Hill’s Skillset

With that said, Hill’s tremendous abilities in the pick-and-roll and isolation make him a prime offensive candidate in today’s heliocentric NBA (heliocentric meaning the offense revolves around one “star”…get it???). His driving attack helped the Pistons make the 7th most threes at the 3rd highest percentage in the league while he was personally 3rd in free throw attempts. In other words, he was tremendous at creating high-efficiency shots for his teammates and himself. However, The main issue with Hill can be summarized in this Tweet:

During the season 1996-97 playoffs, Hill didn’t attempt a single three-pointer, and as you can see in the video, he actively avoided open attempts. He finally started shooting threes when he took a major backseat on offense while teaming up with Steve Nash in 2007. Granted, he only took about 1 per game, but for a couple of seasons, he shot around 40%.

This is a long-winded way of saying that as the main offensive option, Hill would be a tremendous player in today’s league. Seeing as he averaged 21-9-7 in his third season and on a team that averaged an absurdly low 84.5 possessions a game, it’s not ridiculous to imagine Hill having a Russell Westbrook-like season where he averages a triple double with about 25-27 points per game. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Hill’s possible peak in today’s NBA would be better than Westbrook’s peak meaning that he could probably be placed on a random team and make them a viable playoff contender with an above average offense.

However, like Westbrook, I’m not sure how well Hill would scale next to other superstars. His shot selection is significantly better than Westbrook’s, so it’s possible that he could fit next to another high-usage player (say Harden), but he would lose value. He’s good, but like Harden or Westbrook, he might not be good enough to lead or co-lead a team to a championship.

You Haven’t Said Anything About His Defense

You’re right. Defensive impact is extraordinarily difficult to measure. I’ll bore you with that dissertation on another day, but for now, let’s talk about Hill’s defense.

The Good

Hill was freakishly athletic which translated well to man-to-man defense. I only saw one instance of him being burned by his man. That ability to contain would be invaluable in a modern, switching defense because he could theoretically handle any guard or forward for at least a possession or two.

Moreover, he used his quick feet as a help defender to cut off his teammates’ assignments. I only saw him draw one charge, but he had a few other instances of a quick rotation to either force a turnover (rare) or a kick-out.

The Neutral

The comparison between someone like LeBron and Hill should end immediately after seeing how they play defense. While Hill was technically sound, I didn’t see him make a single high-leverage defense play where he blew up an offensive set. This could range from a help block at the rim, a chase-down block, or just a high IQ rotation that obliterates an offensive play. In other words, his defensive IQ and instincts were, at maximum, neutral.

The Bad

While his defensive IQ was maybe a neutral, there’s stronger evidence that it was bad to the point of being detrimental. It seems that Hill was instructed to double-team often, but he would sometimes either A) do so at an inconvenient time or B) poorly contest his original man on a kick-out.

One such instance was against the Lakers. Hill doubled Shaquille O’Neal and left his man, Jerome Kersey, open under the basket. Of course teams had to double Shaq but never to give up a layup or foul at the rim!

Hill’s lack of contests was actually the aspect of his game that stood out the most. I won’t belabor this point because it’s in the video, but he often wouldn’t even put a hand up when his man took a jumper.

Defense: Conclusion

If we replaced a perfectly average defender with Grant Hill, the defense would either not change at all or improve only slightly.

How Good Could Grant Hill Have Been Assuming No Injuries?

I have lots of charts coming up, so be prepared.

Hill’s best season (both from film and advanced metrics) was his 1996-97 season which was only his third season. To see what he might have been, it’s necessary to compare him with both post-Jordan contemporaries and modern forwards. Below is a chart comparing Hill with 7 other players in their third season. For explanations of the three metrics, click on the links for descriptions.

Players in Their
3rd Season
BPMPIPMLoad
Grant Hill8.25.247.9
LeBron James9.14.152.8
Tracy McGrady3.51.336
Vince Carter7.64.844.8
Kobe Bryant2.11.736.8
Kevin Durant7.16.143.6
Jayson Tatum3.94.439.4
Paul Pierce4.41.741.9
BPM – Box-score estimate of impact; PIPM – A combination of box-score and luck adjusted on/off data to measure impact; Load – How much did a player do on offense

This chart shows that Hill’s third year was not just on par with similar players but actually better than most! He had the second highest BPM, PIPM, and Load (behind LeBron, Durant, and LeBron respectively). The next question is why does this matter? How much do players improve after their third season? The following two graphs show how each of these players grew in their first three seasons along with their peak BPM (1st graph) and PIPM (2nd chart). Tatum doesn’t have a peak because he’s still in (or just finishing???) his third season.

Our first conclusion is that LeBron is otherworldly. You knew that already though. The second is that only one player peaked in his third season in BPM (Carter) and three in PIPM (Carter, Durant, and Pierce). If we assume that we can draw meaningful conclusions from this truncated study, then it’s wholly possible that Hill’s peak could have rivaled Durant’s or McGrady’s. However, Because of the aforementioned defensive difference, I can’t see Hill reaching LeBron.

Both McGrady and Durant were much better three-point shooters than Hill, so if he never developed that shot, then I don’t see him approaching either. Yet, if his latter years with Nash prove that he could somewhat reliably shoot, then his combination of passing and driving might conceivably challenge either of their peaks.

This is also a good time to remind you that McGrady and Hill were teammates in the early 2000s. No, I have no idea how that would have worked out, but, like LeBron and Wade together, at least one or both of their abilities would be at least slightly minimized since they’re both ball-dominant on offense and neutral slightly positive on defense.

I’m Currently in an All-Time Draft. Where Should I Draft Grant Hill?

NBA Twitter is bustling with wannabe GMs testing their all-time NBA knowledge in these fantasy drafts (that’s not a judgment. I’m doing the same). The most common variation requires GMs to pick a player’s specific year to play in the modern game (in other words, how would 1996-97 Hill adapt in today’s league).

At this point in his career, Hill was still a solid step below other offensive forwards like Durant, McGrady, Kobe, and LeBron. Wherever you would draft Pierce and Carter is likely where you should consider Hill depending on your team build. Pierce is much more scalable because of his leadership, defense (not amazing but better), and three-point shooting. Carter’s shooting is enticing, but his professionalism track record didn’t align with his prime.

If you picked Stephen Curry in the first round and these three are available late in the second round, I wouldn’t mind a gamble on Hill. Having Curry allows Hill to maintain his on-ball dominance while having the literal best floor spacer in the game. If you picked a center like Shaq, Hakeem, or Kareem, then consider Hill, but also consider the other two. If you picked a ball-dominant scorer in the first round like Harden, Kobe, or LeBron, then pass on Hill.

Ultimately, Hill should fall as a late second-round or early third-round pick.

Conclusion

Grant Hill peaked as an MVP candidate with no real shot of actually winning it. His combination of an all-time driving ability, solid scoring, and top-tier passing make him a nearly perfect “heliocentric” archetype. His disinterest in three-pointers until later in his career makes me nervous, but solid efficiency with Nash provides a glimmer of hope.

I’m skeptical that Hill was anything more than a neutral defender, but I don’t think he would be a negative defender. His court awareness and inability to make offense-busting defensive plays are extremely worrisome, but I don’t think they outweigh his quick feet.

If we consider his contemporaries’ trajectories, it’s clear that he was on a potential path towards an all-time peak for a forward. I don’t think he would’ve reached the likes of LeBron, but he might have topped out around Durant and McGrady while more than likely having a floor above Carter or Pierce.

Follow me on Twitter at @codyhoudek and follow us @OT_Heroics for more great content! I also run the Overtime Heroics – NBA YouTube channel, so make sure to follow us there too!

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