The grumbles have turned to applause.
But like the stock of Tiger Woods, public opinion has quickly changed to favorable. Thanks to the playoffs showcase of his defensive gifts, paired with his improving offensive game, Hibbert is quickly proving his value.
Last July, the Pacers matched the competing contract offer by the Portland Trail Blazers to hang on to their 7’2” restricted free-agent center. Criticism of the deal was understandable, as the former 17th overall pick was turning 26 and he had never averaged averaged more than 12.8 points or 8.8 rebounds, both highs in his 2011-12 season.
His sour offensive start this season, shooting just 41.4 percent for 10 points per game before the All-Star break, only fueled the distaste for his misguided contract. Hibbert was not thought of as a franchise player and the deal appeared to be a bust.
Early in the season, Hibbert lacked touch around the basket and because of that, his back-to-the-basket post game rarely drew double teams.
Kelly Scaletta @KellyScaletta
Hibbert's .393 FG% is the worst by any player 7'2" or taller who takes at least 10 FGA/G. Worst EVER. Earn that max contract baby!2012-12-20 22:40:35
Tommy Beer @TommyBeer
How relieved are the Blazers that the Pacers matched their offer max contract offer sheet?@JoeandEvan: Remember when Roy Hibbert was good?2013-1-11 02:58:07
Grantland’s Bill Simmons listed Hibbert as “overpaid but undeniably productive” on his list of the worst contracts in basketball.
Hibbert’s saving grace, though, has always been his defense. Hibbert has averaged 1.8 blocks per game through his first five seasons, including a career-high 2.6 blocks in 2012-13.
A research study by Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss, noted in the Simmons column and presented at the SLOAN sports analytics conference, exhibits just how valuable Hibbert is as a rim protector.
The study demonstrates that Hibbert is one of the most effective interior defenders in the league. Tracking data from the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, Hibbert allows the lowest percentage of made shots that he faces at close proximity to the basket.
As this postseason has progressed to the conference finals, interior defense has proven vital to team success. Hibbert has anchored a Pacers team that has reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2004. His 2.46 blocks in the playoffs is highest of any remaining player, and only Zach Randolph (9.8) averages more rebounds than Hibbert.
“That’s a big reason why we (paid him all that money),” “... He’s one of the best rim protectors in the game. He’s really grown and learned how to understand angles and getting no calls, playing without fouling and staying in the game. All the analytics say he’s the toughest guy in the league to score against at the rim.”
Offensively, Hibbert began to heat up late in the season. He shot 50.8 percent after the All-Star break for 15.7 points per game. The early-season shooting slump may have been related to a lingering weak wrist, but the theory of its healing is the only one that offers tangible evidence to Hibbert's offensive transformation.
Even he and his coaches don’t seem to know how to pinpoint the change, as reported by Kevin Arnovitz at ESPN.com:
Ask him, his coach or his teammates where anything has changed about his form or mechanics, and all you get are shrugs. So what's Hibbert doing now that he wasn't at the start of the season? "The tougher question is, 'Why wasn’t he finishing before?'" Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "What he’s doing now is what we’ve come to expect."
Hibbert offered his own theories: "Don't force things," he said. "I come in on my days off and try to get better. I try to mimic David West's workouts." Vogel offered another theory prior to the game. When Hibbert couldn't buy buckets earlier in the season, Vogel encouraged the center to focus on anchoring the defense. Sure, be mindful of opportunities on the other end, but do it with less deliberate effort and more in the flow of the offense.
Whatever is happening, it’s working.
Hibbert is averaging 14.4 points on 47.6 percent in the playoffs.
He scored 19 points on 9-of-18 shooting in Game 1 of the conference finals against the Miami Heat. A national browbeating took place against Vogel in defense of Hibbert, who was left on the bench during two defensive lapses late in the overtime of the Pacers’ Game 1 loss. Hibbert’s absence in a moment when he should have been defending the rim may have cost Indiana a chance to steal Game 1.
It’s been a dramatic shift in narrative. Hibbert went from the target of criticism for not living up to his contract to receiving the backing of the basketball commonwealth.
It was his play in last season’s playoff run against Miami that started it all. When the Pacers lost in six games to the Heat in last season's conference semifinals, Hibbert averaged 12.3 points on 47.5 percent shooting and tallied 11.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.
His dominance in that series no doubt led to such a large offseason contract that he's living up to now.
As Hibbert continues to display his worth into the conference finals, no one is doubting him or his contract any longer.