Remember when Roy Hibbert was an All-Star?
At this point in the 2013-14 season, it's hard to believe that was only in the middle of February, because the Indiana Pacers big man has regressed rather significantly on both ends of the court. And while he's faltered, so too has the team as a whole, slumping and only remaining in the No. 1 spot for the Eastern Conference because the Miami Heat have been unable to muster up any sort of momentum.
Hibbert is still protecting the rim well, but his Defensive Player of the Year campaign is slipping away rather quickly. Joakim Noah should have passed him by now on most ballots, and there are a few players who deserve serious looks at a spot ahead of the former front-runner.
But the former Georgetown Hoya hasn't been making up for his defensive slippage with a corresponding rise in offensive value. He's gotten worse on that side of the court as well.
So, that begs the question—what's wrong with Hibbert?
Defense Can't Pick Up Slack
The Pacers and Hibbert are providing us with the newest version of the classic inquiry about the chicken and the egg.
Which spurred the other on to the greatest extent? Was it the Pacers defense making Hibbert look like a DPOY favorite, or was it the 7-footer making the point-preventing unit look like such a historically excellent one?
There's no definitive answer to the classic version of the question, but there does seem to be one when referring to the Indiana version. Hibbert has shown that he's largely a product of the tremendous defensive pieces around him—pieces that make him appear to be more than a stellar, but limited, individual stopper.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, the Georgetown product is facing 10.2 shots per game at the rim, and he's holding opponents to only 41 percent shooting in those situations. Those are excellent numbers; in fact, no one in the Association has produced better ones.
Among players who have faced at least five attempts per contest, only Brook Lopez has done a better job preventing opponents from dropping the ball through the hoop. And since he's played 50 fewer games than Hibbert—who is No. 2 in the rankings—it's rather difficult to argue against the Pacers center as the best rim-protecting player in the league.
Quite surprising is the fact that he hasn't fallen off lately, even if he's seemed scarily unable to function as the defensive centerpiece he was throughout so much of the 2013-14 campaign:
|Hibbert's Defensive Decline (?)|
|Portion of Season||FGA Faced at Rim||FG% Allowed at Rim|
|Through Jan. 8||9.3||40.4|
|After Jan. 8||11.2||41.5|
|NBA.com's SportVU Data|
If anything, Hibbert has gotten better at protecting the rim during the latter portion of his season. That's not the problem leading to his decline, though.
His individual numbers are still excellent, but he's unable to function outside the role he typically plays.
When Paul George, George Hill, David West and Lance Stephenson aren't going about their business at high levels and shutting down their individual assignments, Hibbert can't pick up the slack. He's been tremendous at stopping looks right at the basket, but his inability to switch and provide high-quality help defense has been quite problematic.
Even though those individual numbers are impressive, his defensive rating has been anything but.
On the season, Basketball-Reference shows that the former Hoya has a 97 defensive rating. During his last handful of games, though, he's been on the wrong side of that mark with alarming frequency. Here are his last 15 defensive ratings, in chronological order: 98, 103, 107, 92, 102, 111, 102, 109, 121, 124, 124, 94, 95, 101, 94.
His average defensive rating during the stretch? A sky-high 105, which pales in comparison to the 95 DRtg he boasted heading into the stretch of futility.
Hibbert is still a great defensive big, but he's been exposed during Indiana's slump. It's now hard to view him as the impetus behind a potent point-preventing unit. Instead, he just seems like another excellent piece when everything is clicking.
Unfortunately, it's not only his defense that has been exposed.
It's hard to determine exactly what has led to the diminished production on offense, though the common train of thought indicates that it seems to stem from a combination of fewer opportunities and a definitive lack of confidence.
Hibbert has never been an offensive stalwart, but he's taken that to a new level during the Pacers' stretch of losing basketball.
During his last nine outings, the 7-footer has averaged only 7.9 points per game, and he's shooting only 42 percent from the field. Those are pathetic numbers, ones that can't help but remind me of the very beginning of the 2012-13 season, when it seemed as though Hibbert was going to have an awfully difficult time justifying the enormity of his new contract.
At times, it seems like the big man couldn't put the ball through the rim if it were the size of a hula hoop.
"I just haven't been playing the best," Hibbert told NBA.com's Mark Montieth after he was held to eight points against the Philadelphia 76ers. "I have to do better. But we're winning and I'm happy for that. It was just good to see one of those baskets go in."
That's where the confidence comes in.
Hibbert is well aware that he's struggling, and he admitted that he needs to see the ball go through the hoop.
If you've watched any NBA action over the past few years, you've surely heard an announcer talk about the importance of an offensive player dropping in an easy bucket early in the game. As excellent as the mechanics of these professional athletes may be, they still receive a jolt of confidence from witnessing early success.
It's why those early dunks and layups can often trigger scoring runs. It's why a made free throw can get a player out of an in-game slump.
Hibbert is dealing with that frustration, but he's also trying to overcome a lack of involvement.
As Montieth writes, "The Pacers usually make a point of getting Hibbert shots early in games, and then tend to go away from him. Getting more shots for him as games progress will have to be a collective effort, one that includes his ability to get open for shots, and hit more of the ones that he gets."
The splits, per NBA.com, aren't what you might expect, though:
|Hibbert's Quarter-by-Quarter Breakdown|
At first glance, it appears as though he's getting less involved but actually improving his level of performance. But let's dig a bit deeper to question the involvement:
|Hibbert's Declining (?) Involvement|
|Quarter||Minutes||FGA||FGA per 36 Minutes||FG%|
There's definitely a decline in usage here, though not to the extent that the first table hinted at. However, there's no corresponding drop in effectiveness. If anything, he's been best when he hasn't been as heavily involved, which goes exactly against the prevailing notion that he needs touches in order to be successful.
At the root of Hibbert's struggles are two problems: a lack of offensive ability (something that has been plaguing him throughout his NBA career) and a confidence issue.
The involvement is irrelevant.
Until Hibbert regains his confidence, which could come with just one performance against a lackluster frontcourt, he's going to continue posting unimpressive offensive numbers. The Pacers need at least a little output from the center, but it's not like they're asking him to become a scoring superstar.
And if anything, the defense is more concerning, simply because Hibbert has proven so reliant on the success of his teammates. He doesn't have very long to become increasingly comfortable playing more than an arm's length away from the rim.
But the big man needs to adjust, because without him dominating in the paint, Indiana is a severely flawed contender.