Mired in a second-half slump that has spilled over into the playoffs, Hibbert is struggling now when the Pacers need him most.
Hibbert and the Pacers must first worry about making it past the Hawks in their first-round series. Even if the Pacers survive, they'll need their All-Star center at his best to have a shot at the 2014 NBA title.
What can Indiana do to make sure he returns to his once-dominant form?
Hibbert at His Best
An All-Star in 2012 and 2014, Hibbert can be a defensive monster down low.
He's finished in the top 10 in total blocked shots five times and top six in defensive rating twice. Even when Hibbert doesn't black opponents' shots, he does a great job forcing them to change their attempts when they meet him at the rim.
Carmelo Anthony is still feeling the block that Hibbert laid on him in the 2013 playoffs.
While he's not especially skilled on the offensive end, Hibbert has averaged 15.4 points per 36 minutes on 46.7 percent shooting from the field for his career.
His size has given smaller teams fits, especially the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. In last season's Eastern Conference Finals, Hibbert averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds on 55.7 percent shooting. Indiana pushed the Heat to seven games and finished this year's regular season with the better overall record.
Despite his recent struggles, Pacers coach Frank Vogel has been quick to defend his big man. "He's our anchor," Vogel told ESPN.com. "We won 56 games with him as our starter."
We've seen Hibbert at his best, like in last year's playoffs against the Heat.
Now facing the eighth-seeded Hawks, we're seeing him at his worst.
Hibbert is having an extremely tough time with Atlanta's center-power forward combo of Pero Antic and Paul Millsap.
While neither can come close to Hibbert's physical stature, it's Antic's strength, Millsap's quickness and the pair's three-point shooting that's been giving him fits.
While he's struggled on offense for the majority of the past three months (8.9 points on 39.0 percent shooting since the All-Star break), Hibbert is having an especially tough time against the Hawks. In the series' first four games, he is averaging just 6.0 points on 33.3 percent shooting from the field.
While he's three inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter, Antic has been outmuscling Hibbert all series. The beginning of the following video demonstrates this perfectly.
Because of his physical play, Antic has prevented Hibbert from getting the ball in his usual spots, often forcing him toward the baseline and away from teammates looking to get him the ball. Antic has done a nice job staying low and not allowing Hibbert to move him out of his defensive position.
Positioning on offense is key for Hibbert, notes Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated:
As this season has progressed, his shooting numbers and shot selection have declined sharply. Before the All-Star break, 63 percent of his shots came in the basket area; since Feb. 18, that number has fallen to 52 percent. Simultaneously, Hibbert’s shooting has dropped from 46 percent before the All-Star break to 39 percent, and he’s shooting a pathetic 42 percent in the basket area.
The Pacers need to get Hibbert different looks instead of continually relying on him to post up play after play. We've seen him be effective in the past by catching the ball farther from the basket and working his way inside.
Indiana can also move Hibbert farther out and let him use his face-up game.
Hibbert isn't going to win a battle of strength against Antic, or any other center for that matter, if Indiana doesn't put him in the right positions to succeed.
Even a few simple face-up plays early may be enough to get Hibbert's offense going early, something the Pacers desperately need.
Mental & Emotional Problems/Solutions
Right now, the biggest problem surrounding Hibbert appears to be his lack of confidence.
We have all tried to talk to him, keep him confident. It's hurting him. He wants to help us. He wants to play well. He is hard on himself. We have to figure out a way to get him involved. He has to figure out a way to get himself involved. The biggest thing for us is to keep him confident, [to] let him know we still trust him.
This is a nice gesture by West and the rest of the Pacers. To an athlete on any level, confidence is key to performance. A high skill level means little if one doesn't utilize it for fear of failing.
Those higher up in the Pacers organization appear to be doing their part as well.
A recent dinner invitation was made by Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard before Game 4, according to Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star.
"Larry and I talked (earlier) and he asked if (I) wanted to go to dinner on (him). He had plans and he invited me with the three amigos." Hibbert, who has struggled through the playoff series, described the dinner as "relaxing" as stories swapped across the table."I'm not really going to go into them too much but," Hibbert said, "one thing Larry told me was to just work on my balance when I'm out there on the offensive end. I tried to do that tonight whenever I got the ball."
While Hibbert didn't exactly return to form in Game 4 following the dinner, he did have his best overall game of the series. In 25 minutes of play, Hibbert finished with six points on 3-of-5 shooting to go along with three rebounds and his first two blocks of the series.
Judging by his recent comments, Hibbert seems more at peace with himself, choosing to focus on the team and not his individual performance. Hibbert said, via the Indy Star:
I've come to understand that the series may not have gone my way in terms of offense and defense, but I'm just going to do my part and hopefully put the team in a position to be able to finish well. So if I'm on the court or on the bench, I'm just going to support my teammates, no matter what.
Winning Cures Everything
For Hibbert to return to form, confidence is key.
His skill and size didn't just go away a la some Monstars-like takeover. We still see flashes every now and then of Hibbert's dominance, especially on defense. Offensively, the Pacers need to put him in a position to succeed and not just rely on him to outmuscle his opponent in the post every play.
If the Pacers can make it past the Hawks, Indiana would then face off against the winner of the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards. Since neither starting center (Marcin Gortat or Joakim Noah) is an outside shooting threat, Hibbert would roam the paint more on defense. Getting to guard a more traditional center would be great for his production and confidence.
Winning also helps to cure just about anything. Even if Hibbert is playing poorly, the pressure on him is greatly reduced as long the Pacers are winning. If Indiana continues to slide, more blame will be piled on Hibbert, thus damaging his confidence even more.
The Pacers need to continue to support Hibbert, as they appear to be doing already.
Just 27, Hibbert should have plenty of good years ahead of him if he can quickly return to form.
-All stats via basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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