The Pacers split their first two playoff games to the Atlanta Hawks and are in danger of faltering to an opponent that won 38 games this year. At the heart of it all is Hibbert.
He was the leading candidate at midseason for Defensive Player of the Year, according to ESPN.com’s Winter Forecast, but his no-show coupled since mid-season with the inspired play of Joakim Noah in the second half of the season resulted in Noah earning the award.
Indiana had the second-most wins (40) in the league at the All-Star break, but the team has only posted a 16-14 record since, per NBA.com.
The Pacers had the best defense in the league through the first part of the season, but it has since fallen off in the final 30 regular-season games, which happens to coincide with Hibbert’s struggles.
Hibbert's defense appears to have progressively slipped during the year, while his offense became a train wreck.
Hibbert has never been a great offensive player, but at 7’2’’, he has consistently been able to convert shots directly at the rim. Well, those days have seemingly come and gone. Prior to the All-Star break, he hit 55.2 percent of his shots in the restricted area, but that has since plummeted to 41.1 percent post All-Star break per NBA.com.
It’s one thing for his mid-range jumper to abandon him, but he has ceased being reliable on deep catches in the paint. His field-goal percentage has dropped every month since February because Hibbert keeps missing point-blank shots.
Hibbert looked uncoordinated toward the end of the 82-game schedule for whatever reason (more on this later), and it’s hurt his production and psyche.
In Game 2 against the Hawks, Hibbert got a post touch and did this with it:
On the ensuing possession, he got a deep paint catch, and it wasn’t pretty:
His inability to convert easy looks has resulted in odd shot attempts like this one against the Hawks:
In related news, he is converting 31.3 percent of his field goals during the playoffs.
Throughout most of the year, Hibbert has mixed up his offense to some degree and attempted shots from various areas. Although Indiana never had an exceptional offense, the data reveals that it was slightly above average when Hibbert’s shot distribution was smartly spread out.
Indeed, when the bulk of his attempts occurred in the paint as opposed to the mid-range area, Hibbert’s offense thrived, and the same is true about the defense. He consistently got deep position in the post, where he patiently finished plays.
Defensively, Hibbert’s teammates funneled every pick-and-roll toward him where he waited for opponents at the rim. He expertly contested shots without fouling and forced misses.
Heck, Hibbert relishes the role, given what he tells his teammates, per Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins: "Bring your guy to me, and I'll take care of it."
Head coach Frank Vogel loves placing his starting center in the middle of the paint, where he bumps cutters and discourages drives with his mountainous frame.
That strategy helped Indiana become a fearsome defense. Bleacher Report’s Kelly Scaletta offered some insight early in the season: “He is the perfectly constructed physical specimen to be a rim protector, and he has honed and been coached to develop the skills to do it.”
Hibbert is a huge basket deterrent, and he is almost always in position to affect plays.
However, Hibbert hasn’t been as dominant late in the season. He has been slow reacting to plays, and it’s led to high-percentage looks for opponents.
It’s quite possible that Hibbert’s declining effectiveness is a product of the increased minutes he’s played. Prior to Vogel cutting back on his playing time in April and giving his starting five a night off against the Milwaukee Bucks, Hibbert was on pace to finish the year with a career-high minutes-per-game average, according to NBA.com.
What's more, Hibbert appeared in 81 games and played 2,409 minutes—the most of his career, per Basketball-Reference. Considering that he’s battled conditioning issues previously, it’s not that much of a stretch to conclude that this might be the case once more.
Paul George even stated to Pacers.com’s Scott Agness in early April that teammates were probably worn down: “We all went through a rough stretch of the season. I think it’s common for guys to be fatigued, a little tired at this point, but I think this is a great call from coach.”
Granted, one could theorize that Hibbert is perhaps injured, but given that nothing of the sort has been disclosed, we can essentially scratch that thought.
Schemes to Pay the Bills
If Hibbert was hoping to take it easy in the first round of the playoffs, he can forget about it because of Atlanta’s style of play.
The Hawks play a small unit that forces him into tough situations, and also likely tires him out. Hibbert’s size makes it difficult for him to venture out of the paint. Those 290 pounds tend to slow him down, and that’s exactly what Atlanta is banking on.
Hibbert has been assigned to defend the opposing center, and that’s often been either Paul Millsap or Pero Antic. Both players have three-point range, which forces Hibbert to leave the “friendly” confines of the painted area.
As a result, he hasn’t consistently been a great defender. Furthermore, Atlanta is doing a few things to keep him occupied out on the perimeter, which in turn may increase his fatigue level as the series progresses.
Making Hibbert camp out near the three-point line is already a tough task for him, and Atlanta has upped the ante by having him go through screens out there every now and then. In those instances, Hibbert’s been a fish out of water.
In the video below, he is at the bottom of the screen and Kyle Korver sets a back pick on him in Game 1 of the first-round series with the Hawks:
Jeff Teague can waltz to the rim while Hibbert is busy chasing a shooter.
There’s an argument to be made that Indiana could be better off without its defensive anchor against the Hawks. CBS Sports’ Zach Harper echoed that sentiment:
"Hibbert is essentially a specialist in this league and that specialty is hard to maximize against the Hawks' game plan. Going away from Hibbert and using him sparingly in this series could be the recipe for success, but it doesn't mean he doesn't belong on this team."
Some extended rest could certainly help him, and the Pacers might get more traction with smaller lineups centered around David West and Luis Scola (or Ian Mahinmi).
As ridiculous as that might sound, consider this: The Pacers defend at the same rate as the Utah Jazz with Hibbert on the court so far in this series. On the flip side, when he rides the pine, Indiana has the best statistical defense, per NBA.com (membership required).
He's been ineffective in both games against Atlanta, but Indiana managed a victory in Game 2. He's a bad fit against Atlanta, but against teams with size like the Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls, he would be an asset.
The Brooklyn Nets play a hybrid lineup that could replicate some of the problems Atlanta cause for him, while Hibbert has always matched up well against the Miami Heat. He's not generally useless to Indiana, but against the Hawks, that he is.
It will be interesting to see how Hibbert will conduct himself throughout the remainder of the series based on what he shared to Zak Geefer of the Indy Star:"I'm sure we'll look over film ... if I'm the main culprit in terms of being the weak link on defense because they have a spread-five lineup. I guess we'll have to adjust."
The fate of the Pacers rests on Hibbert’s broad shoulders. The decision to bench him could be the difference between an NBA Finals berth or a first-round exit. Vogel has to quickly make the call, otherwise he might get stuck lamenting what could have been.
All stats accurate as of April 23, 2014.