With one vicious block of Carmelo Anthony late in the Indiana Pacers’ 106-99 series-clinching win over the New York Knicks during the 2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Roy Hibbert had, in NBA-playoff parlance, officially arrived.
Anyone who needed more proof could’ve simply scanned the box score: 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks over 42 dominating minutes.
It’s only one year later, but Pacers head coach Frank Vogel has to be wondering whether his All-Star center hasn’t aged tenfold in that time.
Dragged down in large part by Hibbert’s horrendous play—eight points, eight rebounds and a minus-11—Indiana saw its home-court advantage fizzle away in embarrassing fashion in a 101-93 Game 1 loss to the No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night.
Sadly, the stats only scratch the surface of the story below.
Truth be told, Hibbert wasn’t the only one who looked disgruntled and defeated; save for Paul George and Lance Stephenson—neither of whom was especially efficient—Indiana looked...well, like a team that entered the postseason having dropped nine of its last 15 games.
But no Pacer has been ensconced in quite the hoops hell as has Hibbert, whose recent struggles in many ways mirror that of his fast-fracturing team’s.
That is why, in this series anyway, Vogel should seriously consider scaling back Hibbert’s minutes. Only, the reason is not what you think.
That fatigue might be to blame for Hibbert and company’s on-court woes isn’t news, of course. As far back as March 20, CBS’ Ken Berger hinted that Vogel’s overreliance on his starting five—the most oft-used in the league, according to NBA.com—might have cost them more than just fresh legs:
But there is a dilemma that the Pacers may have to confront before it is too late. Indiana’s Big Three of George, Hibbert and West have played in every one of the Pacers’ 68 games this season. Not a single game off for any of them. This is in stark contrast to how Gregg Popovich has handled the Spurs for years. Erik Spoelstra has strategically scheduled nights off for his stars, too.
Finally, after an embarrassing April 6 loss to—you guessed it—the Hawks, Vogel hinted at erring on the side of rest for his lumbering big.
"I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down; he’s a 7'2" player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare," Vogel told Candace Buckner of the The Indianapolis Star. "He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to me to be worn down."
Still, suggesting Hibbert’s poor play is merely a product of a punishing workload doesn’t quite stand up to statistical scrutiny.
Indeed, according to NBA.com, Hibbert finished the regular season ranked 24th among centers in minutes per game (29.7). And while Indiana’s center started 81 of his team’s 82 tilts, the 29.7 mpg would still put him behind Joakim Noah, DeAndre Jordan, Marcin Gortat, Andre Drummond, Spencer Hawes and Robin Lopez for centers that logged 80 or more games.
What we’re seeing, then, is less the result of excessive mileage than a sheer crisis of confidence—the physical and psychological atrophying of a player many assumed on the cusp of perennial All-NBA accolades.
But if Vogel is looking for an excuse to scale back Hibbert’s minutes, he needn’t look further than the evidence yielded by the Pacers and Hawks’ four regular-season meetings.
|Finding the Right Fit|
|Butler, Granger, Mahinmi, Scola, Watson||11||118||101.2||16.8|
|Granger, Mahinmi, Scola, Stephenson, Watson||14||110.5||100.4||10.1|
|George, Granger, Hill, Mahinmi, West||9||92.6||85.0||7.6|
|George, Stephenson, Hill, Hibbert, West||50||102.1||103.4||-1.3|
|Allen, George, Hill, Stephenson, West||8||51.8||81.3||-29.3|
|George, Granger, Hibbert, Hill, West||21||81.6||142.3||-60.6|
|Butler, Mahinmi, Scola, Sloan, Turner||6||67.3||145.5||-78.1|
Obviously, Danny Granger is no longer part of the equation. Still, to the extent that one of Granger’s principle roles was to serve as a backup to Paul George, you can easily imagine the former serving as the small forward in some of the more productive lineups.
More telling is how much more effective Ian Mahinmi was than Hibbert, albeit in a predictably more limited role.
Part of the reason might well lie in Hibbert’s postgame comments, via SportsCenter*:
“I’m sure we’ll look over film,” Hibbert said. “I’m the main culprit in terms of being the weak link on defense because they have a spread-five lineup. So we’ll just have to adjust. We’ll see what happens.”
Judging by the team’s plus/minus and net-rating numbers, Saturday night’s performance was hardly an aberration: Hibbert’s minus-4.8 was fourth worst on the team in that four-game stretch.
The last time Hibbert recorded more than 10 rebounds in a game was March 21, a stretch that includes nine games in which the Georgetown University product failed to tally more than five boards.
In that span, Hibbert’s rebounding percentage (in short, the percentage of available rebounds a given player actuates) is fourth worst in the NBA among centers (8.7 percent), behind the likes of Jeff Withey, Robert Sacre and—that’s right—Ian Mahinmi.
Since March 11, Hibbert has hit on at least 50 percent of his shots just once—a 92-86 loss to the New York Knicks wherein he hit on eight of his 10 attempts—and has shot 7-of-37 over his last six games.
At a position where defense, rebounding and offensive efficiency are of the utmost, Hibbert’s poor play has become the main millstone about the Pacers’ necks. Factor in Atlanta’s impressive floor-spacing—punctuated by the shooting of versatile center Pero Antic—and even Hibbert’s most consistent strength is effectively neutralized.
If the Pacers have any hope of resurrecting the frightening phoenix that lorded over the NBA for the better part of the season, an effective, engaged Roy Hibbert is absolutely paramount.
But to survive this series, Vogel might have to consider sacrificing his star center’s singular verticality for a few more breaths on the bench.
NBA.com media stats are subscription only. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of April 19 unless otherwise noted.
*Quote heard firsthand during airing of SportsCenter.