Over 31 wholly mediocre minutes in the Indiana Pacers’ 92-80 series-saving win over the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, Roy Hibbert managed to keep the narrative demons at bay—back at a safe enough distance to incite, however slight, some modicum of hope.
Forty-eight hours later, we’re right back where we began, reading into Hibbert’s zero-point, zero-rebound performance Monday night—a 102-96 Game 1 loss to the Washington Wizards—a possibility that a few months ago would’ve sounded utterly ludicrous.
Roy Hibbert, All-Star center and low-post defensive presence, is never coming back.
Hibbert’s travails are, by now, a matter of stone-etched record. The baby hooks and beastly putbacks are no longer vertically gifted givens, foes seemingly half his size having found ways to root him past the paint.
His defense, wielded with a nimble grace that betrayed his burly frame, seems defeated even when the positioning is poised and true.
The body language: speaking, it seems, in tortured tongues.
Even if the Pacers end up bowing out to the Wizards—a distinct possibility, if John Wall and Bradley Beal’s Game 1 outbursts hold constant—their much-publicized collapse, shared as it’s been, will pale in comparison to the summer of hell lying in wait for the man in the middle.
When word surfaced that Indiana had inked Hibbert to a four-year, $58 million tender ahead of the 2012-13 season, skeptics practically sprinted out of the woodwork to question the contract.
And while the critiques subsided for a time, the quiet had less to do with Hibbert’s on-court production (his numbers dropped near across the board from 2011-12 to 2012-13) than it did Indy’s collective success, punctuated by its late-season surge and seven-game Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Miami Heat.
Through the season’s first few months, Hibbert at least looked the part of a player poised to keep pace—his numbers, while by no means spectacular, were at least as serviceable as they were predictable.
By March, the losses were mounting, and Hibbert—fresh off his second All-Star appearance—began in earnest a nosedive that has yet to subside.
Sadly, neither have the barbs: With nearly $30 million owed to him over the next two seasons (the second being a $15.5 million player option), Hibbert—as his play stands now, anyway—is likely to remain a Pacer for the duration.
For a small-market team more prone than most to penny-wise practices, it doesn’t get much more macabre than that.
Which leads us to perhaps the most pressing question of all: Can Hibbert’s colossal collapse be chalked up to a mere crisis of confidence? Or is there a more positivistic explanation at play, namely the sheer physical deterioration—however subtle and sequential—of a once mighty player?
That there may exist a more nuanced explanation—not just for why Hibbert has struggled so much, but for why Indiana opted to pay him as much as it did—is well worth considering.
Writing at CBSSports.com, Zach Harper posits that Hibbert’s value is not necessarily that of a basketball panacea, but rather as a situational cog capable of turning a game or a series—so long as its the right game and right series:
Fast-forward to an Eastern Conference finals appearance and he’ll be needed to punish the Miami Heat for going small. But his specialty is exploited quite easily against the perimeter-fixated Hawks. At a certain point, the price tag of Hibbert becomes irrelevant because it cannot change. People will focus on him being a max contract, but really the only thing that matters is whether or not he can fill his role when called upon.
Against the New York Knicks in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, Hibbert’s presence was pure and indispensable, his 7’2” frame forcing Carmelo Anthony and co. into ill-fated foray after ill-fated foray until the Pacers wound up taking the series in six.
That all feels like years ago now, with the Pacers once again facing the prospect of a playoff upset.
If there’s a silver lining to Indy’s Game 1 drubbing, however, it’s this: Unlike Atlanta, which boasted a center (Pero Antic) tailor-made to make paint-bound centers rove beyond their scopes, Washington’s main threat lies in its ability to score at the rim, which it did at the fourth-highest clip in the league this season, per NBA.com.
So long as he stays out of foul trouble, something he failed to avoid Monday night, Hibbert will have chances aplenty to salvage something sweet from what has been an endlessly sour sojourn—and, if the perfectly timed vertical leaps return and the languid look subsides, maybe save his career.
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