Center Roy Hibbert is one of the reasons why the Indiana Pacers are an NBA-best 27-6 as of Jan. 6.
As for Hibbert, a six-year pro, all he has done to this point is make an NBA All-Star appearance in 2012.
However, with the way Hibbert has been performing (12.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG and 2.7 BPG) and helping the Pacers win games (Indy was 27-6 as of Jan. 6) in 2013-14, it wouldn't be surprising if he wins NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors and earns his first championship ring this season.
The main purpose here is not to compare James and Hibbert. Instead, we will take a closer look at why Hibbert is making a case as the second-most critical player to his team's success, next to James with the Heat.
Miami would not have won its two NBA titles in 2012 and 2013 without James. That being said, is "The Great Wall of Hibbert" the most critical component to the Indiana Pacers' title aspirations in 2014 and beyond?
The Pacers Through the Years With Hibbert at Center
Looking at the above chart, it's pretty clear that Hibbert has been consistent since his sophomore season in the NBA in 2009-10.
The only exception was his rookie year, when his post moves were still unpolished and his defensive prowess was nowhere near what it is today.
While most of his other statistical categories remain more or less consistent, the one area that stands out is Hibbert's average of 2.7 blocks per game. That is more than double his average of 1.1 blocks per game in 2007-08.
He's (Hibbert) a big body. He does a great job of contesting shots, altering shots, and is a big presence in the paint.
He does a great job defending the ball without fouling, and that's a big key for the Pacers. He takes his time offensively and does a great job going vertical on defense, instead of fouling. That's huge.
Also notice that as Hibbert's blocks average has gone up, so has the Pacers' number of wins—a testament to his intimidating defensive presence in the lane.
Another trend is that Hibbert has annually increased his playoff scoring average from 10.4 in 2011 to 11.7 in 2012 and 17.7 in 2013. During that stretch, he also upped his field-goal percentage from .444 in 2011 to .511 in 2013, according to ESPN stats.
Not coincidentally, Indy has advanced to the next round of the playoffs every season from 2011-13, culminating in an Eastern Conference Finals stint last season—thanks in large part to Hibbert's postseason offensive resurgence.
True, key acquisitions since 2010 like Paul George, Lance Stephenson, George Hill and David West have made Indy the title contender that it is today, but "The Great Wall of Hibbert" also has clearly a hand in the Pacers' success.
Making A Case for the Other Players
In analyzing the NBA.com list of NBA champions over the last 15 years, it is clear that Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs and former Los Angeles Laker Shaquille O'Neal, who each own three NBA Finals MVP awards, are the players who were the most critical to their teams' success.
Clearly, if a player's value to his team were to be judged solely by the number of titles and NBA Finals MVP awards he had won, Hibbert shouldn't even be in the conversation.
However, if the criterion is removing a particular player from a team's lineup which results in its title aspirations disappearing entirely, then Hibbert can make a case for himself.
For instance, would Indiana be the only NBA team which allows an average of less than 90 points to its opponents through Jan. 7 without Hibbert?
Would the Pacers, whose trademarks are defense and rebounding, still dominate the league standings with the presence of MVP candidate George were Hibbert not alongside him?
Can Indy get the better of Miami in the latter stretch of the playoffs without Hibbert, who has made it a habit to dominate whenever the two teams meet?
Very, very unlikely.
In terms of other title contenders, the Oklahoma City Thunder would not be as lethal without Kevin Durant. They can still make a run for the NBA Finals with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in tow, but it would be difficult.
Imagine the Clippers without Paul for good—having Darren Collison take over would make them a playoff team, but not a title contender.
High-flying forward Blake Griffin recently affirmed Paul's value in an interview with The Los Angeles Times:
No one can replace Chris. Not his voice. Not his game. Nothing. Everybody does things differently. We don't have any other guys that talk like Chris.
Even at 37 years of age, Duncan is still the heart and soul of the Spurs. They are simply not a title contender without him.
Then there are the defending NBA champion Miami Heat. Take away James from the equation and they would be hard-pressed to even make the eighth, and final, playoff spot in the East.
As for the Pacers, they would be in the same predicament as the Clippers without Hibbert—no more than a second-round playoff team, George and all.
The Final Say
Based on our findings, the Pacers' Hibbert is making a strong statement as the player who is the most critical to his team's success outside of Miami's James.
Who is the NBA's most important player outside of LeBron James?
Without a doubt, James is still tops in this category.
Hibbert's strong defensive play has helped Indiana win more regular-season games each season. He also becomes a better offensive player in the postseason, resulting in the Pacers making steady progress.
At the rate they're going, it wouldn't surprise anyone if they win their first NBA title in 2014.
However, the likes of Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan and even Chris Paul are locked in a heated battle with Hibbert for runner-up honors to James.
Now, going back to the question of whether Hibbert is the most important player outside of James. The answer is: not yet.
However, he will be when Hibbert helps the Pacers win NBA titles in 2014 and in the years to come.