For all their relative youth and inexperience, the Indiana Pacers were one team that seemed to understand and embrace its manifold roles.
Paul George is the best player, no doubt about that. David West, he’s the leader—the physical and spiritual linchpin from which the team achieves maximum torque. Lance Stephenson: the wild card, as ripe for next-level leaps as dumbfounding flights of fancy.
However, there’s only one player for whom “most important” makes the moniker: 7’2” All-Star center Roy Hibbert—he of the perennial Defensive Player of the Year consideration and hefty $58 million contract.
Hibbert’s atrocious play of late—punctuated by a horrendous performance in a Game 1 loss to the Atlanta Hawks Saturday afternoon—only underscores that fact.
Now, with his team reeling and in danger of flaming out in epic fashion, it’s put up or shut up for the Pacers pivot.
Judging by a string of somewhat defeated comments given to the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer following Indy’s 101-93 defeat—“dour” is the word Keefer uses—Hibbert certainly seems to recognize the gravity of the situation:
"I'm gonna keep working at it. I'm gonna come in and keep doing what I do in practice, work on my hook and get in position down low. Hopefully when I'm called upon I can do it consistently."
Hopefully. Not exactly a word choice brimming with confidence.
On Sunday, we laid bare the myriad reasons why head coach Frank Vogel ought to seriously consider reducing Hibbert’s minutes in the short term—the most compelling case centering around how Atlanta center Pero Antic’s unique floor-spacing ability has effectively neutralized his Indy counterpart’s defensive presence.
That might work as a quick-fix solution. But even if the Pacers use a platoon approach to survive Round 1, there’s scant chance they’ll survive Round 2—against either the Brooklyn Nets or Toronto Raptors—without a significant two-way contribution from Hibbert.
How significant? Take a look at Hibbert’s production in both the regular season and playoffs since the 2012-13 campaign.
|2012-13 regular season||11.9||8.4||97||17.3|
|2013-14 regular season||10.8||6.6||98||13.5|
|2014 playoffs (1 game)||8.0||8.0||115||-1.2|
The Pacers were able to make it to the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals thanks in large part to a number of players—George and Hibbert most especially—stepping up their respective games.
So what, exactly, has been holding Hibbert back? It shouldn’t be the mileage; his minutes this season were up only slightly and actually saw a slight decline compared to the lockout-shortened 2011-12 slate, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Short of an undisclosed injury—unlikely, given the instantaneous nature of news dissemination—Hibbert’s poor play can only logically be chalked up to two, not so mutually exclusive possibilities: a crisis of confidence or a lack of offensive touches.
Concerning the latter, Hibbert’s above-cited comment might lend some insight, however speculative, into his somewhat reduced offensive role.
Hopefully when I’m called upon…
Without delving too deeply into the semantic sciences, Hibbert’s use of when does seem a bit strange—as if even he believes it’s a precarious prospect at best.
While the case for scaling back Hibbert’s minutes remains a compelling one, might a middle road—wherein Hibbert’s role is at once reduced and emphasized—be possible?
Last week, Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley outlined the case for bringing Hibbert off the bench, hoping the move would serve as a wake-up call for Indy’s struggling center:
Vogel could get creative here, too. He doesn't simply need to plug-and-play the player that most resembles Hibbert. ... But if the Pacers really want to spice things up, maybe they could unleash a potentially explosive small-ball attack with West moving over to the 5 and Chris Copeland getting the nod as a stretch 4. With Indiana running more of a perimeter-focused offense around George and Stephenson, having a shooter like Copeland (41.2 three-point percentage) would give the wings more room to operate.
Just as important as Vogel finding a strategic salve for his team’s festering offensive wounds, however, is how Indy chooses to utilize Hibbert in his new—hopefully temporary—reserve capacity.
By pounding the ball down low as a kind of go-to option on the second unit, Hibbert could at least have a chance to put more pressure on his opponents—perhaps even getting Antic or Elton Brand in foul trouble, thereby throwing Atlanta’s own rotations off course.
At this point—down 1-0 and showing little to no sign of recapturing its early-season magic—Indy simply can’t afford to keep leaning on the status quo.
Out of excuses and in danger of becoming a Pacers pariah, Hibbert’s immediate role certainly warrants due debate.
And while what’s ultimately decided might be out of his control, how Hibbert deals with the decision—either by recoiling further into a fast festering funk or using it to fuel a frenzied resurgence—will be the biggest bellwether for how far his team can ultimately go.