Their season will depend on it.
Rapid, startling declines like the one Hibbert endured last season are rare, and it's hard to pick out the specific spot when things went south. But the difference between the big man's pre- and post-break numbers is stark enough to make the point:
|Before All-Star Break||52||11.8||7.7||2.5||.464|
|After All-Star Break||29||8.9||4.7||1.8||.390|
Everyone seems to remember Hibbert's postseason effort as the nadir of his lost season, but his averages of 9.3 points and 5.5 rebounds on 44.9 percent shooting in 19 playoff games weren't as bad as his second-half stats. If we only look at the numbers, Hibbert actually played a little better in the postseason than he did down the stretch of the regular campaign.
Maybe that's where we should start: with the hopeful side of things.
You don't have to go back very far to find "Good Hibbert." In fact, he existed throughout the 2012-13 season rather conspicuously. Per Basketball-Reference, Hibbert posted the fifth-most defensive win shares in the league that year, with his figure of 5.9 rating ahead of guys like Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Tony Allen and Serge Ibaka.
In that season's playoffs, he became one of the biggest storylines in the game.
Controlling every contest from the paint, increasing the popularity of the term "verticality" by approximately 10,000 percent and cranking out incredible defensive highlights, Hibbert was a monster. After the Pacers were eventually eliminated in a spirited Conference Finals, there was little doubt that Hibbert was on the short list of the league's most impactful stars.
Seemingly overnight, the idea that rim protection was valuable became part of the NBA dialogue. Hibbert was responsible for that.
Easy to forget though it might be, the Pacers center was nearly as good before the break in 2013-14. Even including his post-break decline, Hibbert still defended the rim brilliantly, limiting opposing shooters to a conversion rate of 41.4 percent at the rim, per SportVU data provided to NBA.com.
Any guesses as to how many players were better at snuffing out success at point-blank range last year?
The overall numbers and two-year run of statistically dominant play don't change what everyone saw in the 2014 postseason, though: Hibbert wasn't the same. He rushed every shot he took and stopped rebounding entirely—especially in Indiana's first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.
In that seven-gamer, Hibbert averaged just 5.3 points and 3.7 rebounds on 37.2 percent shooting.
Though he played better in each of Indy's subsequent series, the damage was done to his reputation. And when those zero-point, zero-rebound games started coming, there was no place for Hibbert to hide, as the barbs from retired players like Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady indicated:
Me and Roy Hibbert had the same amount of points and rebounds tonight.— Tracy McGrady (@Real_T_Mac) May 6, 2014
Isolating the cause of Hibbert's dichotomous season is tricky, and like most real-life mysteries, the answer probably isn't simple. Though, for what it's worth, there's good reason to believe Lance Stephenson's poisonous influence on the locker room last year had something to do with it.
After Stephenson missed out on the All-Star team, he changed. He started a bit of a personal vendetta against East coaches, wanting to personally send a message in those games, which took him further out of the flow on some nights, sources said. Overall, the team noticed a shift in Stephenson from a more team-oriented approach to a more self-oriented focus, where he started obsessing about his statistics. ...
...He has always had a habit of so-called "stealing rebounds," jumping in front of or over a teammate who had an uncontested rebound to get it for himself. This phenomenon reached a new level in the back half of the regular season. Hibbert, who had his rebound totals heavily analyzed by the media and fans, was often a victim in these friendly-fire rebounds.
That said, Hibbert can't hide behind his (former) loose-cannon teammate. He's responsible for his own play, and whether the issue was mental or physical, it's on him to sort it out.
By all accounts, he's trying.
Hibbert has been spending time with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar this summer in an effort to solidify his shaky offensive game.
Watching Kareem teach is a true honor. pic.twitter.com/yyygHR2UC0— Kevin Pritchard (@PacersKev) July 24, 2014
It seems unlikely he'll ever be a go-to threat on the block, and I suspect the Pacers would prefer he continue to focus on defense and rebounding. But the fact that Hibbert is putting in time and making an effort to improve says a lot about his prospects for next season.
Just finished the best week ever!— Roy Hibbert (@Hoya2aPacer) July 26, 2014
When you consider all of the information at hand, it feels like the question about Hibbert's upcoming season really isn't a 50-50 proposition. Instead of wondering which version of the center Indy will get, we should probably be asking a rhetorical question: Why can't Hibbert be his old, dominant self?
He's not injured, he's only 27 and he's been the defensive anchor for a team that has visited the East Finals in each of the past two years.
It's far from a lock, but the betting crowd would be wise to put its money on "Good Hibbert" returning in 2014-15. Guys in the middle of their primes don't just suddenly lose it. A summer off and a little work on his sky hook might be all Hibbert needs to recharge and refresh.
Not a moment too soon, by the way.
The East figures to be feistier than ever this season, and even if it lacks a proven champ at the height of its powers, the Chicago Bulls are vastly improved, the Washington Wizards should take another step and the Cleveland Cavaliers might be ready to make noise.
I hear they signed a free agent of some note.
If Hibbert returns to form, Indiana should play elite defense once again, which will be good enough for 50-plus wins and a top-four playoff seed—at worst.
Maybe it isn't en vogue to believe in Hibbert and the Pacers, especially after they continually disappointed those expecting a full turnaround last year. But logically, there's just too much information pointing to a better performance from the Pacers big man.