If all you saw of Roy Hibbert was his brilliant performance in the 2012-13 NBA playoffs, you'd probably think he was already the NBA's best big man. During the Indiana Pacers' run that fell one game short of the NBA Finals, Hibbert was a beast on both ends.
But his breakout postseason followed a regular-season campaign that could politely be described as disappointing. And if politeness weren't a concern, you could call Hibbert's regular season a flop.
By looking at what Hibbert did well during the playoffs, while keeping in mind the struggles he endured during the year, we can put together a clearer overall picture of the big man's future.
Spoiler alert: It's bright.
Night and Day
Before we break down Hibbert's game, it's important to go a little deeper on the change he underwent in the playoffs.
Statistically, the spike in his productivity was staggering.
Hibbert was better across the board. Put simply, he was often the most dominant player on the court—even when he was sharing it with Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
Assuming Hibbert's rough regular season was merely the product of poor conditioning or the added pressure of his big contract, it's likely that the production we saw from "Playoff Hibbert" could be sustainable.
So, we know the upside is there for Hibbert because we've actually seen a good portion of it already. Now we can get into the discussion of where he can improve and how he can become the league's best center.
For what it's worth, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel thinks Hibbert is ready to take the next step. As a guest on the "Grady and Big Joe Show" on ESPN 1070 The Fan, Vogel said: "I saw him yesterday in my office. He’s really bulking up and really excited about just being even more of a physical presence, especially on the offensive end—really pounding defenders down low and playing our identify of smash-mouth basketball.”
Added size probably isn't the most important thing for Hibbert, who already stands 7'2" and weighed in last year at a reported 280 pounds. But there's no doubt that much of what makes him effective on offense is his ability to catch the ball on the move, plant, withstand contact and finish.
More muscle certainly won't hurt. And it sure looks like Vogel is right: Hibbert has been hitting the weights pretty hard this summer.
Closing the Deal
Perhaps some extra size will help Hibbert become a better finisher at the rim. Last season, he shot a remarkably poor 44.8 percent from the field, including just 53.6 percent at the rim (the worst conversion rate since his rookie year), according to Hoopdata.com.
For a center, both of those figures are unacceptable.
As was the case with just about everything in his game, Hibbert improved during the postseason, hitting 51.1 percent of his shots and getting the job done at the rim much more effectively. That scoring efficiency seems sustainable—and might even be representative of a worst-case scenario—for a couple of reasons.
First, Hibbert has surprisingly good touch for a man his size. He catches the ball well on the move, can finish with either hand and has shown the ability to score in a variety of ways. Second, his patience as an offensive player is improving.
Early in the year, he would often rush shots when he received the ball in the post or as a roller. But we saw him become extremely effective in the playoffs when he simply took his time with his scoring opportunities. Hibbert has the size to simply catch the ball, gather and go up over the top of almost any defender in the lane.
As he becomes more patient, Hibbert's offense will only get better in the paint.
Stamina is another area in which the big man could stand to improve.
Hibbert only played 28.7 minutes per game during the regular season, but he upped that figure to 36.6 in the postseason. If he wants to be the best big man in the NBA, he'll have to prove he can stay out of foul trouble and sustain his intensity for at least that long on a nightly basis.
So-called "second-effort plays" are often what separate good big men from great ones. Hibbert will have to prove he can be effective (and active) for long stretches. Fortunately, he showed the ability to do that during the playoffs.
Finally, Hibbert has to become a more instinctive passer.
Nobody's saying he needs to turn into Marc Gasol or Joakim Noah, two centers who can actually run their team's offenses from the elbows. But he does have to get a better feel for where his teammates are.
Hibbert seems to understand where the ball should move when he gets stymied. But you can practically see the gears grinding as he breaks down a situation before eventually moving the ball to an open man. Because of his hesitancy, defenders often have time to recover, jumping into passing lanes that would have been open if Hibbert had acted more quickly.
In a series of stills from Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, you can see the problem pretty clearly. Here, the Miami Heat have blitzed Paul George, forcing him to hit Hibbert as he rolls to the middle.
At this moment, Hibbert should either attack Bosh with a hard dribble or immediately whip the ball to George Hill in the corner. That pass needs to happen right away so David West can pin the defender underneath with a simple screen, yielding a wide-open corner three for the Pacers.
But Hibbert hesitates momentarily, trying to decide what to do with the ball. By the time he commits to the pass, which was the right one to make a split-second ago, it's already too late. Dwyane Wade has jumped the lane and stolen the ball.
Admittedly, we're asking a lot of Hibbert here. In one breath, we're demanding patience, but in the next, we're pleading for quick decisions. Being the league's best big man isn't supposed to be easy, and balancing instinctive plays with thoughtful ones is among the toughest challenges for an elite center.
Hibbert has shown signs of the ability to do both. He'll just have to prove it over a full season.
What He Already Does Well
I know this is supposed to be a discussion of how Hibbert needs to change in order to become the best center in the league, but it only seems fair to briefly mention some of his qualities that are already elite.
At this moment, there's probably not a better rim protector in the league. Blocked shots are great, and Hibbert swatted away 2.6 per game during the 2012-13 season, but what he does especially well is prevent high-percentage attempts at close range from ever happening.
According to NBA.com, the Pacers allowed just 2,145 attempts near the rim last season, the second fewest in the league. And opponents shot a league-worst 52.4 percent on those tries. That's all Hibbert, who showed the world in the playoffs that he was the master of the NBA's favorite new buzzword: "verticality."
Hibbert doesn't need to get any better as an interior defender. He's already the best.
What He'll Never Have
No matter how much Hibbert's fitness and instincts improve, he's never going to be an agile, laterally quick defender. He's simply too big, and his limbs are too long for him to mirror the styles of Dwight Howard or Larry Sanders underneath.
But even in talking about Hibbert's limitations, there's room for praise.
That's because he'll never need to be a pouncing, cat-like presence on defense. Marc Gasol showed everyone how much ground a slow-footed big man could cover last season by displaying the best economy of motion and understanding of positioning that we've ever seen.
Hibbert does many of those same things, but his added length could eventually allow him to be an even better team defender than Gasol is.
And if the Pacers' league-best defense last season is any indication, Hibbert might already be Gasol's equal.
How Close Is He?
In looking at Hibbert's conventional numbers, it might seem like he's significantly behind guys like Noah, Gasol, Howard and Brook Lopez in the imaginary center rankings. According to ESPN, he ranked 24th in PER among centers last season, for crying out loud.
But what if that's the fault of the numbers and not an accurate reflection of the big man's actual value?
Think of it this way: Right now, Hibbert is the most important piece of the NBA's best defense. He's also among the very best individual defensive players in the game because of his shot-blocking ability and lane-clogging prowess. He has also shown signs of being a highly productive offensive center.
Too often, we rely on points, rebounds and even PER to judge players. I'm guilty of depending on the stats too much myself.
But if we're all ready to acknowledge the reality that defense is half of the game, chemistry is important and the ability to carry out a scheme matters more than most stats, isn't it easy to put Hibbert on the short list of the league's best centers right now?
We know he's working hard. We know he showed the persistence to shake off a slump. And we know he desperately wants to get better.
Maybe it's a controversial opinion, but Hibbert might not need to improve much at all to become the NBA's best center. He's almost there already.