It feels almost surreal today, but Roy Hibbert was an All-Star just last year, less than 18 months ago. Not only that, but the Pacers’ big man was considered by many at the time to be the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year.
How quickly things can change.
To say Hibbert’s play since then has been uneven would be like saying jogging through a mountain range is uneven. It’s true, but it doesn’t properly appreciate the all the rising and falling along the way, along with how much bitching there was the entire time.
When Hibbert played in the 2014 All-Star Game, his former teammate Lance Stephenson, despite enjoying a banner season back them, failed to get voted into the contest, and that’s when everything started to go to hell for Hibbert and the Pacers, allegedly.
That was when Stephenson started doing him and pretty much only him, apparently salty from his perceived snub from the All-Star Game. He started shooting more and passing less, but his gravest sin, at least with regard for Hibbert, was skying in from the perimeter to steal routine rebounds away from Hibbert and David West. West would simply give Stephenson a look on the court, but as Hibbert started struggling on his own terms, and people began to mock his low rebounding totals, the big man went public with his complaints about Stephenson, delivering his epically ironic “There’s some selfish dudes in [this locker room]” comment.
At that point, everything pretty much exploded, and Indiana’s demise was well-documented from there. As the Pacers and their Big-and-Long defensive identity started falling apart, the rest of the league was latching onto the small-ball trend that has come to define today’s NBA: the space-and-pace philosophy, if you will.
In another bit of irony, it was Hibbert’s own impact that helped birth this style, which first became widely known after Chris Bosh got hurt during the Indiana’s 2012 conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat. Without Bosh, the Heat suddenly found success by playing the smaller Shane Battier as a “stretch-four” to counter Hibbert’s rim protection, and the rest is history.
The small-ball trend has seemingly picked on the Pacers in particular: the Heat used in consecutive postseasons to twice-oust Indiana, then Atlanta almost used it to pull a historic upset against Indiana during the first round of last year’s playoffs before Miami finished them off––via small-ball, mostly––for a third year in a row.
Now, the trend has signaled the end of Hibbert’s tenure in Indiana. Team president Larry Bird said during his end-of-season press conference that the team planned to play smaller and faster in the future, then, unfortunately for Hibbert, went out of his way to point out that Roy’s level of play in 2014-15 was unsatisfactory and that his role would almost certainly be reduced going forward.
It’s not a surprising move, given that Andrew Bogut, a similar player to Hibbert, was played right off the floor by the style of game that the NBA Finals evolved into. Even when his lack of mobility wasn’t hurting him on the defensive end, he couldn’t produce enough on offense and other areas of the game to warrant his floor time. Hibbert represents an even worse case of such a scenario, since he’s an even slower, less gifted player than Bogut on offense.
On draft night, when the Pacers drafted the Myles Turner, a 7-foot shot-blocking center who can also shoot threes, the pick signaled a desire for an immediate change at the position. Woj at Yahoo! removed any doubt about their intentions for Hibbert, and all indications are that Bird and the rest of Indiana’s front office are actively shopping the big man right now.
Moving Hibbert, however, could prove to be a difficult task, given the strategic context of today’s NBA, along with the fact that he’s due $15.5 million next season, not including a 15% trade kicker that will be enacted should the big man be dealt. It’s the final year of his contract, so teams might not have as difficult a time paying the man as much as finding the salaries to match and bring him over in a deal. Between that financial reality and the general lack of teams who want a player like Hibbert, there aren’t a lot of great options for the Pacers to pair with in a trade, at least not right now.
There’s currently a glut of centers on the free agent market, and many of them are better players than Hibbert: Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, and Brook Lopez headline the list, with a handful of lesser-but-solid options hitting free agency as well. With so many options on the open market, it’s hard to imagine a team making a serious play for Hibbert, who will require some type of compensation in return.
Once that shuffling of centers works itself out, the Pacers might find themselves with more takers for Hibbert, especially depending on which teams get left out in the cold.
Portland seems like the most intriguing possibility if Robin Lopez were to leave town. GM Neil Oshey was the guy who forced Indiana to max-out Hibbert three years ago, and with Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Wesley Matthews all becoming free agents, they would have the cap space to simply absorb Hibbert’s contract if they lose or renounce the rights to at least a pair of that trio.
Even if those guys wind up coming back, Portland has the right kind of “meh” assets for a Hibbert deal. They could easily send Chris Kaman and Gerald Henderson to Indiana for Hibbert without losing much, while the Pacers would simply be happy to get rid of a big man who has been temperamental both on and off the court for them.
Other possibilities are less interesting. While the Lakers could also easily take on his salary given their cap room, Hibbert does not seem like LA material. Kobe Bryant might actually eat him alive. As Zach Lowe suggested in his recent column about Hibbert and the Pacers, the big guy would also would be a bad fit in the pace-and-space systems of Brad Stevens with the Celtics or Alvin Gentry’s Pelicans. It’s hard to imagine the Mavericks missing out on enough free-agent bigs that they would need Hibbert.
Out of the teams in the Center Sweepstakes, that pretty much leaves Milwaukee, but even they seem like an unlikely destination given that they play in the same division as the Pacers. Still, if the teams were to pull something off, it wouldn’t be completely out of nowhere, given that Larry Bird has had serious interest in the Bucks’ O.J. Mayo for years, and now that O.J. Mayo is fat, the Bucks would love to trade him.
Clearly, it’s going to be difficult to craft a trade around Hibbert, who’s become an outcast of today’s NBA, but still can offer teams something with his size and rim protection during the course of an 82 game season plus the playoffs. Larry Legend has demonstrated himself to be a decent negotiator, though, so perhaps he can get it done. He should; as mentioned, an unhappy Hibbert has not boded well for the Pacers’ chemistry and success in the past.
Regardless of what the Pacers wind up getting in return for their big man, when it finally happens, it will surely pale to the type of elite defensive impact he was making for one of the league’s best teams less than two seasons ago.