A funny thing is happening while the NBA Nation is watching the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers. Instead of us all bearing witness to what was supposed to be another inevitable easy run at a second straight championship, the best player in the world, LeBron James, and the rest of his ''superteam'' are getting some resistance.
The main cause of this resistance is coming from the Pacers' 7'2'' center, Roy Hibbert.
Instead of it being the all-LeBron show, Hibbert is the player dominating the series against the Heat's smaller, suspect front line. In the first four games of the series, Hibbert is having his way with the likes of Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Chris Anderson or any other frontcourt player Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra puts out on the court.
For the series, Hibbert is putting up 22.75 points and grabbing 11 rebounds per game. These averages far exceed his regular season averages of 11.9 points and 8.3 rebounds. Furthermore, his regular season numbers against the Heat were also somewhat pedestrian, as he averaged just about 10 points and eight rebounds.
So, why the Hibbert coming-out party in these Eastern Conference Finals?
Two possible reasons: one, that games become more slow-paced during the playoffs, which is more suited for his back-to-the-basket, post up game. And two, the familiarity with the opponent, which in turn gives a team/player the tools to exploit said opponent more than if the same team/player was facing the same opponent once a month, like during the regular season.
Whatever the explanation for Hibbert's eye-catching performance, he is putting his name in the running for the title of best young center in the NBA.
While some arguments can be made for up-and-coming centers such as Nikola Vucevic, Greg Monroe or Omer Asik, Marc Gasol deserves to be in the conversation also. One of the most deserving young centers is fellow one-time All-Star, the somewhat forgotten Brook Lopez
Which makes me wonder, is Roy Hibbert better than Lopez? Moreover, if the Nets went on to beat the Chicago Bulls in the first round, which would have setup a Brooklyn matchup with the Heat, would Lopez had put up similar numbers against Miami? Better numbers?
The similarities between Lopez and Hibbert are small. Both play center, both are seven footers, both were in the same draft and both were named to an All-Star team once. That is where the similarities end.
While Lopez has a much more polished offensive game, getting his points from driving to the basket, a variety of low-post moves and spot-up jumpers from just inside the three-point line, Hibbert seems to have more of a defensive game focused more on rebounding and setting picks for teammates. Hibbert gets his points on the offensive end, mostly with tip-ins and putbacks.
For their careers, so far, Lopez is averaging 17.4 points per game; Hibbert is averaging 11.3 points per game.
The six-point discrepancy between the two can be argued with the way Hibbert was slowly brought along by the Pacers'. Hibbert only played 14 minutes per game his rookie year, 25 mpg. his second, 27.7 mpg his third, 29.8 his fourth and 28.7 this season.
In contrast, Lopez has never played less than 30 minutes per game in each of his five seasons. This is without counting last season when he only played an average of 27 minutes in five games due to a broken foot.
The main cause of concern and why Lopez is dismissed by head coaches, fans and prognosticators of not being in the upper echelon of all NBA centers is due to his low rebounding numbers and the myth that he cannot rebound.
In fact, Lopez's career average of 7.4 rebounds per game actually exceed Hibbert's career average of 6.4.
This season, Lopez averaged 6.9 rebounds per game. For a seven-footer, 6.9 does not seem like enough. However, when put in perspective, 6.9 is not the travesty it seems.
That's especially true when compared to this year's Defensive Player of the Year and more highly touted fellow center, Marc Gasol, who averaged 7.8, slightly more than just one rebound per game.
One explanation for Lopez's poor rebounding could simply be easily explained as Lopez being a victim of circumstance.
Lopez's game is just not focused on rebounding, no matter how tall he is. This fact even goes back to his Stanford University days when he was playing alongside his twin brother, Robin Lopez.
At Stanford, the Lopez brothers split the game in two. Brook concentrated on offense while Robin focused on defense.
Brook's game is to run the floor, quickly set up in the post or get to a spot to hit a jumper. His job is not to solely secure a rebound and pass it ahead.
He just does not have to fight for rebounds when having the luxury of playing alongside two of the NBA's leading rebounders during his career, first in Kris Humphries and second in Reggie Evans.
There simply was and is no need to waste time fighting for rebounds if it subtracts from his offense when a teammate is more than likely to secure the rebound.
This ''rebounding problem'' can be seen in his numbers. Brook is actually not a horrible rebounder. In Lopez's rookie season, he averaged 13 points per game with 8.1 rebounds per game. In his second season, he averaged 18.8 points and 8.6 rebounds.
Then, in his third season, the rebound dropoff happened. As his role switched to him being the focal point of the offense combined with Kris Humphries pulling down 10.4 rebounds per game alongside him, Lopez only averaged a career low 6 rebounds. His scoring went up and his rebounding went down.This is without counting his five-game, 3.6 rebound average last season.
This season, Brook raised his rebounding and blocks per game average, all while being the NBA's leading scoring center with 19.4 points per game. His 2.1 blocks per game ranked seventh overall in the league, tying him with Joakim Noah and leaving him 0.5 blocks short of Hibbert.
Still, Lopez's numbers weren't enough for the fans or coaches to vote him as an All-Star until he was finally selected as an injury alternate.
Similar to Hibbert, Lopez was able to raise his game in the playoffs. In his seven games against the Bulls, Brook recorded two double-doubles while averaging 22.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and three blocks per game.
Which us brings back to our earlier Hibbert/Lopez comparison.
Lopez's early exit from this year's playoffs leaves a few questions. For one, if he was able to put up those kind of numbers against a Noah-led frontline, what kind of numbers would he have put up against the Heat's frontline?
If a non-offensive center like Hibbert is able to average close to 23 points per game against the Heat, just what would have Brook put up?
Would Lopez also be entering into the best young center in the NBA discussion ahead of Hibbert if he had a monster series against the Heat? As it is, with the NBA Nation being prisoners of the moment, Hibbert is looking like an absolute beast of an up and comer and may just be the NBA's best young center.
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