Roy Hibbert's Resurgence Is More Critical Than Ever for Indiana Pacers

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2014

MIAMI, FL - MAY 30: Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers shoots against the Miami Heat in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 30, 2014 in Miami, Fl. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE  (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Even before Paul George's leg snapped in two and ruined the Indiana Pacers' 2014-15 title hopes, Roy Hibbert was working to reinvent himself.

After two summers training with San Antonio Spurs icon Tim Duncan, Hibbert has turned his attention to a storied legend.

Former Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been teaching Hibbert the big-man ropes this summer, and he's doing so in the wake of a season in which the Pacers center looked out of sorts and sometimes bordered on irrelevance.

Hibbert also enjoyed a dinner with Abdul-Jabbar and team president Larry Bird, using the opportunity to pick their well-traveled brains.

"Good things are happening in the Pacers Fieldhouse," Abdul-Jabbar posted on Instagram. "Big men just need other bigs to learn & practice with in order to sharpen their skills. Roy is a hard worker & I'm really looking forward to seeing him play this season."

Pacers fans won't have much else to look forward to.

That's a sad commentary on the state of a franchise that lost the emerging Lance Stephenson to free agency and George to one of the more disturbing injuries in recent memory.

If Hibbert is as good as it gets, it may not get very good.

The 27-year-old's 10.8 points per game last season represented his lowest average since his rookie year in 2008-09. Worse yet, Hibbert's production declined over the course of the season in what seemed from the outside to be some kind of psychological breakdown.

After the All-Star break, he averaged just 8.9 points and 4.7 rebounds in 29 games.

The slide continued in the postseason even as Indiana desperately needed another contributor. During one four-game span that covered the first round's final three contests and the first game of the second, Hibbert posted zero points and just two rebounds in three games.

It wasn't until a 28-point explosion in Game 2 of the conference semifinals that the former All-Star rediscovered his aggression and poise. He went on to average 12.3 points in the series after tallying just 5.3 points per contest in the first round.

As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes surmises, "Isolating the cause of Hibbert's dichotomous season is tricky, and like most real-life mysteries, the answer probably isn't simple."

That multilayered explanation probably begins with what became a toxic environment in Indiana. By all accounts, the club's locker room was rife with dysfunction.

MIAMI, FL - MAY 30: Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers looks on prior to the game against the Miami Heat in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 30, 2014 in Miami, Fl. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

From Stephenson and Evan Turner doing battle in practice to the unpopular acquisition of Andrew Bynum, the franchise was spiraling in the wrong direction. Bird's operation never seemed equipped to deal with the pressure of being an early title favorite. A once-aspirational and improving young team suddenly appeared uninspired.

Some of that had to rub off on Hibbert.

In turn, his exposure to Abdul-Jabbar may have as much to do with getting his head straight as retooling what he does on the floor.

On the other hand, there are very real basketball challenges for a lumbering big man in a league increasingly defined by speedy backcourts, athletic swingmen and shooters everywhere.

As Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer put it, "[Hibbert] is the last of the NBA’s true giants, an old school center that mixes fits of domination with instances of acting as the worst player on the court, a man out of time in a league that has already dashed past half-court."

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 28:  Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers reacts against the Miami Heat during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 28, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: U
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Hibbert sometimes finds himself in trouble with his back to the basket, reacting slowly to defenders that swarm or otherwise frustrate him into poor decisions. Beset by inconsistent touches and production, he also forced mid-range offense on occasion, departing from his bread-and-butter interior scoring.

The solutions are undoubtedly as multifaceted as the problems, as much about mindset as mechanics.

But for all the recent challenges, Hibbert's 2014-15 campaign will also be characterized by virtually unprecedented opportunity.

At the very least, he won't be lacking those touches.

Hibbert has never averaged more than the 12.8 points per game he posted in 2011-12. That could change soon enough, especially if he rediscovers the efficient 49.7 field-goal percentage that got him there.

Last season, indicates Hibbert made 43.9 percent of his field-goal attempts and just 39 percent of them after the All-Star break.

Becoming more of a focal point in Indiana's offense may be half the battle. Hibbert will more readily develop a rhythm almost by default. Without George and Stephenson running the offense, head coach Frank Vogel will be forced into operating from the post more frequently. 

To be sure, Hibbert's versatility will be tested. In a perfect world, he'd do much of his work from the high post and spend equal time facilitating and scoring.

In other words, he'd do a lot of what Joakim Noah did for the Chicago Bulls last season.

Without point guard Derrick Rose, Noah became a jack-of-all-trades, averaging a career-high 5.4 assists that led all centers by a long shot.

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 14: Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls takes a moment to himself before the start of a game against the Orlando Magic at the United Center on April 14, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Magic 108-95. NOTE TO USER: Use
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

At the moment, it's hard to imagine Hibbert playing that role, but any step in the general direction would be progress. George and Stephenson were Indiana's chief playmakers, more so than point guard George Hillwho averaged just 3.5 assists last season.

Hibbert won't take the ball up the court, but he could certainly become a more skilled decision-maker and distributor once the ball gets to him.

Besides the obvious room for improvement on the offensive end, Hibbert's most significant contributions may be defensive in nature. This team's identity has always been about getting stops, and its hopes of making the playoffs ultimately rest on slowing games down and pulling out some ugly wins.

Elite rim protection would go a long way toward making that happen.

On that note, you'd also like to see Hibbert become more aggressive on the glass. He snagged 8.8 rebounds per game in 2011-12, but just 6.6 last season despite playing virtually the same number of minutes per contest.

This is the season when Indiana has to do all the little things. There's no superstar savior or capable sidekick. It will invariably be a team effort—an effort that Hibbert could certainly help lead.

This isn't about a return to form for Hibbert. That might not be enough.

The Pacers need an altogether new iteration of their center—redefined and refocused. They need his leadership every bit as much as they need his points, rebounds and blocks.

This isn't just Hibbert's chance to make amends for a disappointing 2013-14 campaign. It's his chance to salvage a season that seems destined for disaster.


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