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Lakers free agecy: Jordan Hill's future with Lakers uncertain after strange season

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Jordan Hill's 2014-2015 NBA season was supposed to be a coming-out party for the bruising big man, who was given a starting role for the first time in his career. Instead, Hill embarked upon a disappointing season that saw him lose a bit of his identity as a rebounding machine. With an uncertain future, where does Jordan Hill go from here?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Hill's NBA career has been a strange one, filled with promise, bad luck, and a hint of irony. Through all the ups and downs, he has become a key player for the Los Angeles Lakers, and one that the franchise will have to make a big decision about this summer.

When he was drafted eighth overall by the New York Knicks in 2010 it appeared to be an odd selection given that the Knicks were coached by Mike D'Antoni, who was the creator of the "Seven Seconds or Less" offense used by the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns in their heyday. The fast-hitting, space-creating offense required big men who could space the floor with their outside shooting, something that Hill wasn't known for.

Hill was a grit-and-grind, dirty work kind of player who wanted to get in the paint, knock people around, and rebound the hell out of the ball. At best he was a square peg in a round hole. In his rookie campaign D'Antoni struggled to find minutes for Jordan, and the team unceremoniously traded him to Houston after allowing him to take the court just 24 times.

After plying his trade as a backup in Houston for two seasons Hill found himself on the move once again, this time heading to the Los Angeles Lakers. At the time the Lakers employed Mike Brown as their head coach, and it was thought that his defense-first style would fit Hill like a glove. Sure enough, Hill showed enough promise to warrant a new two-year deal with the Lakers that summer.

Unfortunately, the celebration for his new contract would be short-lived. After an eventful summer that saw the Lakers bring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard into the fold, Hill was blindsided by the ouster of Brown and the hiring of none other than Mike D'Antoni. While the Lakers brass envisioned D'Antoni recreating Showtime around their new superstar quintet, Hill found himself back with a coach who didn't value what he brought to the team.

Still, Jordan soldiered ahead and was able to earn modest minutes from his least-favorite coach. Along the way D'Antoni prodded Hill to develop his outside shot and turn himself into the stretch-four that he coveted, but it just didn't suit Jordan's bruising style of play.

Near the conclusion of the '13-14 season Pau Gasol went down with an injury and D'Antoni had no choice but to plug Hill into the starting lineup at center for the final 16 games of the season, which happened to coincide nicely with the expiration of the bruising big man's contract. With his future on the line, Hill put up career-best numbers across the board (16.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.8 blocks) before heading into free agency.

It was a near-certainty that Jordan Hill would not return to Los Angeles for the '14-'15 season. He had played more than he cared to for Mike D'Antoni and now he had the opportunity to find someplace where his style of play would be appreciated.

"If Mike (D'Antoni) was here, I wouldn’t be back .... No disrespect to Mike, but apparently I didn’t fit his system."- Jordan Hill

However, in a not-unexpected twist, the Lakers and Mike D'Antoni mutually decided to part ways, and Pau Gasol chose to move on from the Lakers and sign with the Chicago Bulls in free agency. Hill had been determined to put Los Angeles firmly in his rear-view, but now the team offered an intriguing option: he could play for a new coach and be a full-time starter for the first time in his career.

When the Lakers offered to nearly triple Hill's salary by giving him a two-year deal worth $9 million per year he couldn't turn it down, even with a team option built into the second year. When Byron Scott was hired to coach the team a few weeks later it seemed as though the skies had parted and the sun was finally shining on Jordan Hill. For the first time in his career he had a big contract, a starting role, and a coach who demanded the grit, grind, and hustle that Hill was known for.

Consequently, the '14-'15 season was expected to be Hill's coming-out party. Finally, the Predator-style dreadlocked (Preadlocked?) madman would be unleashed to do what he does best: Crash the boards, play tencious defense, and feast on broken plays and put-backs.

Or at least, that's how it was supposed to go down. Instead, a funny thing happened: for better or worse, Hill morphed into the stretch 4/5 that Mike D'Antoni always wanted him to be.

Check out Hill's 2013-2014 Heat Map (courtesy of basketball-reference.com):

Jordan Hill 13-14 Heat Map

Compared to 2014-2015:

Jordan Hill Heat Chart

What a difference a year makes, right? In what was supposed to be his season to prove to the league that he could be an effective starting center, Hill instead showed his versatility by stepping outside the paint and shooting 20-foot jumpers.

There was some method to the madness, as Hill ended up playing most of his minutes alongside either Ed Davis or Tarik Black, both of whom have next to no range. In order to provide any room inside for Jordan Clarkson and Jeremy Lin to drive into the paint Hill had to step out to the perimeter.

For Hill personally this isn't a bad move either, as he potentially could be a free agent again this summer, and if he can hit the 20-foot jumper (shot 41 percent from there last season), that will increase the number of teams that could be suitors for his services.

The problem is that Jordan Hill's unexpected growth as a jump shooter came with a heavy price: it robbed him of his rebounding. Most good-not-great NBA players have at least one elite-level skill to build around: J.J. Redick has his shooting, Tony Allen has his defense, Roy Hibbert protects the rim, etc. Players like these are all so-so elsewhere on the court, but that one thing they do particularly well keeps them a notch above the veteran-minimum journeymen.

For Hill that skill was his rebounding. What endeared him to fans and coaches was that when he came into the game he went after rebounds like his life depended on it. He was particularly effective on the offensive glass, where his ferocity allowed him to score garbage points off missed shots.

However, as Hill pushed his game towards the perimeter his rebounding was sacrificed. Furthermore, Hill's field goal percentage and number of free throws drawn took a big hit as well, resulting in his PER dropping from a very solid 19.3 in 2013-2014 to a mediocre 16.2 in 2014-2015.

Look at Hill's per-36 minute stats over the past three seasons (again courtesy of basketball-reference.com):

After the season was over Hill admitted to pacing himself in order to be able to play more minutes, which also helped cause the significant drop in his hustle stats. Fatigue also contributed to the number of  jump shots he took, as he would occasionally settle for the outside shot rather than establish position in the post.

"It was the first time I had all these minutes on my hands...decided to try and pace myself a little more"- Jordan Hill

What all of this adds up to is that this season's Jordan Hill simply did not play like last season's Jordan Hill. The rebounding, hustling, grit-and-grind machine didn't really do any of those things. He essentially acted out the character arc of Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn in Major League 2, who had become so focused on expanding his repertoire of pitches, enjoying his big contract, and lengthening his career that he lost what had made him great in the first place: his ability to throw caution to the wind and fastball batters into oblivion.

With Hill, however, we didn't get the redemption scene that Vaughn did when he rediscovered his punk persona and struck out world-class a-hole Jack Parkman with three straight heaters. Instead, we just saw more fade-away jumpers.

And here's the scary part: we likely haven't seen the last of Jordan Hill as a stretch 4/5. While he has recognized the lack of energy he showed and how it combined with his outside shooting to destroy his rebounding numbers, Hill also said, "I'm just trying to increase my game every year...hopefully get to the three-point line next year."

That's right, Jordan Hill: three-point specialist. Somewhere Mike D'Antoni is laughing maniacally.

While it's possible that Hill will be able to Frankenstein the pieces of his game together and become a stretch 4/5 who is also a rebounding monster, it's more likely that the current version of Jordan Hill simply is who he is. That's not a bad thing, as every team needs a 3rd big man who can come in off the bench and provide energy and rebounding, and if Hill can hit the outside jumper from time to time then that's icing on the cake.

For the Lakers, however, the big question is whether or not he's worth his $9 million team option and, more importantly, if he's worth a sizable chunk of precious cap space.

There is familiarity with Hill, and  he would help bring continuity to a tumultuous roster. Having a $9 million expiring contract on the books would also hold some appeal, as Mitch Kupchak is the GM who took a similar expiring deal and essentially turned it into two championships not all that long ago.

Even so, in exercising Hill's option the Lakers could be taking themselves out of the hunt for max-level free agents before it even starts, and that alone may make it too costly to hang on to the dreadlocked warrior. The SS&R team (myself included) broke down this issue recently and determined that the best course of action would be to decline Hill's option and target other players in free agency.

There is also the possibility that the Lakers decline Hill's option only to re-sign him to a cheaper, long-term deal later on. For example, if Ed Davis gets a bigger offer than the Lakers are comfortable with matching, would Jordan consider taking a three-year, $18 million deal? It's not a given that he would, but at an average of $6 million per season, having Hill stick around in Los Angeles seems much more appealing.

Of course, if the Lakers select Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor with the No. 2 overall pick there won't be much space on the roster for Hill, nor will there be if they land a player like Greg Monroe, Brook Lopez, or Marc Gasol in free agency. Hill's eventual exile may end up being no fault of his own but rather a matter of simple logistics.

There is no question that Jordan Hill's career has been a strange one. He spent what seemed like a lifetime fighting the push towards stretch bigs, only to become one at the least likely moment. No one knows which version of Hill we will see next season, or even what uniform he will be wearing, but maybe his NBA career is simply destined to be one filled with uncertainty.

--Follow Trevor Lane on Twitter @16ringsNBA