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Can Hilton Rebound?

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Ha ha ha, I'm funny.

Hilton Armstrong will have earned approximately $8.5 million dollars at the end of this season. It's a sum most of us can only dream of. More importantly, Hilton won't see such money again barring a quick turnaround.

The Hornets surprised me by picking up Armstrong's 2008-2009 option as quickly as they did. He did, after all, put up one of the most abysmal seasons (07-08) by a center in recent memory. In fact, only two centers have posted inferior sophomore seasons (Olowakandi, Diop), given comparable playing time, in the last two decades (win shares). I thought the Hornets would make him sweat at least a little.

They didn't, which makes me averse to flatly predicting that this will be his last year. New Orleans has a 3.85 million dollar option on him for next year. How good does he need to be to justify that contract and will he achieve it? It's unclear whether the front office seriously asked that question last offseason. Next summer, they may have no choice.


And this is why. If there is one thing Armstrong can do to save his career, it's reversing the above trends. Forget catching the ball, forget shooting the ball, forget anything and everything else. If Hilton can't stop this slide, his NBA career is effectively over. Sure, the Hornets might end up picking up a 2010-2011 option anyway. But being out-defensive rebounded by a guy a foot shorter than you is just plain ridiculous.

It's important to note that Armstrong wasn't always this bad. With a 17% D-reb rate as a rookie, he provided himself with a nice jumping off point. Granted, he never took advantage of it. But he was once at that point. If nothing else, he provided the team with solid boardwork now and again. Honestly, I think that's all it would take for the Hornets to give him another year.

Pinpointing the exact reasons behind the slide is difficult. I'm surely not alone in observing zero strength gain in the past three years. We've seen David West bulk up considerably, Chris Paul become much stronger, and even Sean Marks toughen up as last season progressed. But Hilton doesn't look much changed. The bigger problem with him seems to be not one of rebound anticipation, but inability to execute on box outs and positioning. It strikes me as a strength issue above all else.

My other main concern is a lack of footwork. This hinders his rebounding ability, and more importantly, his defensive skills. When a post player faces up on Armstrong, Hilton does a good job of using his length and height to deny most passing angles or the face up shot. The moment the offender makes a lateral move, though, everything falls apart. Of course, this quickly leads to him slapping the offensive player on the arm. Last season, Hilton averaged 6.0 fouls per 36 minutes... which was actually an improvement from his 6.4/36 the year before.

Moving to the offensive side, Hilton improved quite a bit last year. After a 57% true shooting performance as a rookie, he dipped dangerously to 50% as a sophomore. Last year saw him recover to almost 59%. I hate to keep hating on Hilton here, but there are signs that the recovery was illusory.

Most importantly, Hilton saw a sharp spike in his on-floor minutes with Chris Paul (due to Tyson Chandler's absence). Qualitatively speaking, it's fair to say big men are more efficient scorers with Paul around. There's quantitative evidence too. In his sophomore campaign of 45% shooting from the floor, Armstrong was assisted on a paltry 46% of his buckets. Last year, playing alongside Chris Paul more often, he was assisted on a significantly higher 59% of his field goals. In other words, there isn't much evidence suggesting that Hilton will maintain similar production, as he returns to a full time bench role.

Other flags: his ability to get to the free throw line (one of the best measures of isolated offensive performance) dipped again last year. Despite a decent increase in his jump shooting ability, he only converted on about 35% of them... not nearly efficient to justify the shot selection. Finally, he was blocked on 19% of his close range shots.

As much as I enjoyed seeing Hilton break out in three or four games last season, the numbers suggest he has an entirely new challenge ahead of him with an exclusive bench role. At this point, Sean Marks has to get the nod as the first C off the pine. His defensive rebounding is simply much beyond Armstrong's. Marks certainly relies on his teammates' shot creation just as much as Hilton, but until Armstrong can match the rebounding and defensive intensity, he should be saddled with the the 3rd string big man role.