While the perimeter casualties will likely define Indiana's 2014-15 season, getting the big man back on track should be the Pacers' main priority.
His bipolar 2013-14 campaign included both a trip to the All-Star Game and a stint as the biggest punchline in basketball. At different times dominant and dreadful, Indy's interior anchor struggled wearing any label consistently.
Rediscovering what made him a vital piece of the Pacers' puzzle—the mastered art of verticality, supplemental scoring and glass work—was supposed to be key to the reigning Eastern Conference finalists retaining their NBA elite status. With Stephenson off to the Charlotte Hornets and George potentially lost for 2014-15, that option is no longer on the table.
This isn't a matter of if the Pacers will take a step back, but rather how many.
For Hibbert, though, these losses could combine to form some type of an individual win. Simultaneous moves up the offensive pecking order and out of the NBA spotlight might be the perfect remedy to whatever ailed him last season.
The big man hit a major rough patch near the midpoint of the campaign, and he never really made it back on track.
|Roy Hibbert's 2013-14 Second-Half Stumbles|
|Period||PPG||FG%||RPG||Off Rtg||Def Rtg|
Upon first glance, Indy's offseason losses might seem like major threats to Hibbert's stat sheet.
Without George and Stephenson, the Pacers are out 35.5 points, 14 rebounds and 8.1 assists a night. Indy's already pedestrian scoring attack (22nd in efficiency) and passing game (26th in assist percentage) lost its top two contributors.
That could mean stopping Hibbert will climb the priority list for opposing defenses.
However, a featured role—or at least a supporting one behind David West—might be exactly what Hibbert needs.
Lost in the story of his dramatic decline was just how far he had fallen out of the Pacers' offensive game plan. His 9.3 field-goal attempts per game were the fewest since his rookie season, and when stretched out on a per-36-minutes scale, they were the lowest of his career (11.3).
Before his infamous "selfish dudes" swipe at unnamed teammates, he spoke of the importance of someone reducing their own role for the betterment of the team.
"I can't be selfish," he said earlier in the season, via Pacers.com's Mark Montieth. "Somebody has to sacrifice. I have to sacrifice for this team. Would anybody like to get 15 shots a game? Yeah. You're a human being and you have feelings, but you have to play through it and do what's best for the team."
The sentiment might have come from the right place, but the effects of that sacrifice seemed to linger. As his offensive involvement dipped, so did his impact in other areas.
The 7'2", 290-pound mountain of a man finished two regular season games and two playoff contests without a single rebound in his stat line. Altogether, his 12.5 rebounding percentage was the second-worst mark of his career.
Even worse, his confidence seemed to nosedive faster than his production:
But perhaps he was plagued by the knowledge he could do not only do better but also so much more.
As Indy's offense collectively sputtered, it couldn't have been easy to keep giving up shots to guys who weren't converting theirs. Hibbert isn't an electric scorer by any stretch, but his previous four seasons saw him put up 12.2 points on 47.3 percent shooting. He had proved himself reliable enough to not have fallen out of the offensive picture as rapidly as he did.
"He can score and if you get him the ball, he will score," Pacers consultant Donnie Walsh told SiriusXM NBA Radio's Brian Geltzeiler and Noah Coslov (via Vigilant Sports' Scott Agness).
Finding scoring chances should no longer be a struggle.
Even if West takes over the role of No. 1 option, it's hard to picture anyone else standing in Hibbert's way. George Hill showed even less assertiveness than Hibbert last season (8.1 field-goal attempts per game). The players most likely to fill the minutes vacated by George and Stephenson—Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, Damjan Rudez, Solomon Hill—have neither the talent nor the track record to take the ball out of Hibbert's hands.
"Hibbert will more readily develop a rhythm almost by default," wrote Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb. "Without George and Stephenson running the offense, head coach Frank Vogel will be forced into operating from the post more frequently."
Not only are more touches likely to come Hibbert's way, he should also be better equipped to take advantage of them.
At the behest of Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird, Hibbert spent part of his summer learning from Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Considering that Hibbert's most preferred and productive shot type was the hook last season (39 percent of his total field goals, converted at a 57-percent clip), it's hard to imagine a better teacher than the sky-hook savant.
Abdul-Jabbar, the most prolific scorer in NBA history, was also an expert distributor. He averaged 4.5 assists per game over his first 11 seasons in the league, and Hibbert could do a lot with a better passing touch considering the double teams that may be coming at him in 2014-15.
In terms of chemistry and comfort, Hibbert should find himself in a much better place moving forward.
Once a seemingly tight-knit group, Indy's locker room seemed to dissolve over the course of last season. The Pacers' Andrew Bynum experiment may have helped kick-start Hibbert's tailspin. And Indiana's bigs weren't the only ones having problems.
Bynum is gone now, and so are Stephenson's antics. Throw in the lack of expectations surrounding this team, and Hibbert could be as comfortable as he's been in a while.
He'll ultimately decide how much his numbers can improve going forward, but the Pacers will provide him ample opportunity to get back on track. Indiana needs him at his best, either to keep him as a cornerstone for the future or to build his value high enough to flip him on the open market.
With two years and $30.4 million left on his contract (second season is a player option), via ShamSports.com, the Pacers can't afford to have the Hibbert they don't want and no one else does, either. The 2014-15 season is about finding their difference-making defensive centerpiece and offensive secret weapon.
Indiana's summer took some unexpected turns, but it will still pick up next season where it left off after the last one—waiting for the real Roy Hibbert to return. This time around, there's a chance it could find something even better.