For the past several seasons, Roy Hibbert was at the foundation of the Indiana Pacers’ strategy and success. While not necessarily their best player––that honor belongs to Paul George––the hulking, 7-2 big man certainly had an argument for being the most important, as his elite rim-protecting abilities served as the crux of Indiana’s entire defensive scheme, and the Pacers were a top-three defensive team during Hibbert’s peak seasons.
That was then. Now, Hibbert is gone, shipped off to the Los Angeles Lakers at the beginning of July for scraps: cash and a second-round pick for the former All-Star center. Indiana’s front office was clearly more than ready to be rid of Hibbert, who had worn out his welcome in Indianapolis and did not fit the franchise’s new approach of “smaller and faster.”
Breaking up with players who have developed that kind of stature and tenure within a franchise is rarely clean-cut, however. Memories of their contributions linger, and they leave behind a legacy––although in Hibbert’s case, remembering his best days practically requires a time machine at this point. Those continual troubles are a big reason why his breakup with the Pacers escalated almost strangely quickly, going from seemingly the most integral piece of the team’s championship puzzle to being out of the picture entirely in less than a year.
The frantic purge didn’t leave much time for reflection on either side, something Bird wasn’t interested in anyway–just check his press statement regarding Hibbert’s departure. On the other hand, Hibbert has never had a history of shutting up, even when it would behoove him to do so. In a recent interview with NBA.com’s David Aldridge, he ran down a variety of topics about his old team, but there was one bit that caught many people’s eyes.
When Hibbert was asked about how he would return to his previously dominant form, his answer veered into how he was excited to embrace his new experience in LA and what he was excited about with the Lakers:
Hibbert: … And I wanted to play for a coach who actually played in the league if I had my own choice. Not to say that Frank [Vogel] wasn’t great. I had some real good times with Frank and we played well. But I told my agent that I possibly wanted to play for a coach that played in the league.
Aldridge: Why is that important to you?
Hibbert: Just playing for [Brian] Shaw (the Pacers’ former associate head coach under Vogel), he went through the things that a player has gone through. He had a lot of real good insight to help myself, my game, with other guys on the court. Because he went through those things. And when you had two sets of four games in five nights, he was real with us. He would say, ‘if I’m tired, you’re tired.’ It’s not a huge thing, but I’m really lucky to be in this position.
Hibbert’s apparent desire to play under a coach who has been a player in the NBA caught many by surprise, especially considering the success that he enjoyed playing under Frank Vogel in Indiana, a guy who didn’t even play Division I college ball. What was he trying to say about his former coach, if anything?
To be fair to Hibbert, in the context of the interview, he was simply noting a preference for having a coach with playing experience in certain situations, and he points that out when talking about Brian Shaw. Before he became the Denver Nuggets head coach, many Pacers players formed close relationships with Shaw, particularly the team’s young core of Hibbert, George, and former Pacer Lance Stephenson, and his experiences surely helped foster those bonds. It is true that Vogel simply cannot relate to players’ NBA experience in the same way that guys like Shaw can, and Hibbert is totally entitled to prefer the latter type.
He did go out of his way to call Vogel “great” and recognized that they enjoyed success together, but he ultimately reiterated his desire to play for a former player, even though it’s not a “huge thing.” Again, Hibbert is allowed his preference of coach, but he definitely sounds like guy trying to downplay something.
After all, it was only last spring that Hibbert called out his lack of touches and “the gameplan” during post-game interviews in the middle of the Eastern Conference Finals, the same Hibbert who, just weeks earlier, had gone public about his discontent with some of his teammates. Even last season, when a rejuvenated Hibbert would have helped Indiana make up for the season-long absence of George, the big man played inconsistently on defense and poorly on offense, floundering even when the opportunities were there.
All of this gets at the idea that Hibbert probably wasn’t happy with the way the Pacers had been handling things since he and the team crumbled midway through the 2013-14 season. With that in mind, he probably was throwing a little shade here, even if it’s not particularly indicting.
Whether this bodes poorly for Vogel remains to be seen. The young coach obviously still has many questions he has to answer, though more to do with his ability to implement a new offense than his relationship with his old center. Another former Pacer, Donald Sloan, echoed Hibbert’s sentiment on Twitter:
When enough players talk, it’s worthwhile to listen. Having said that, one must consider the sources in this case, which are a volatile personality and a benchwarmer. Sloan wasn’t necessarily even echoing anything negative about Vogel, who has always had a strong reputation as a player’s coach. Questioning that will require more than this.
Heck, staying with Hibbert too long almost cost Vogel his job when the Pacers almost suffered one of the ugliest first-round upsets ever against last year’s Atlanta Hawks, and this offseason, he sounded like the only member of the Indiana brass who seemed reluctant to make this offseason’s strategic switch.
Until we hear more, or something else changes, these comments shouldn’t affect the way Vogel is viewed, even if they invite a healthy dose of additional scrutiny. Vogel will have plenty of opportunities to prove his worth after the Pacers’ dramatic roster transformation this offseason. He’ll be busy developing his new and improved version Hibbert, Myles Turner.
Hibbert will get his wish this season with Byron Scott still at the helm in LA, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Scott has shown himself to be bizarrely draconian coach during his time in LA, eschewing the three-point shot from his strategy, embracing some strange developmental tactics, and patently rejecting analytics.
The only way this might benefit Hibbert would be an increase in offensive touches, which, hilariously, is something Hibbert said he’s no longer concerned with in the same interview. Honestly it’s a bit sad how well Hibbert fits Scott’s outdated style of play. At least they’ll have each other’s NBA experience.
Vogel was the interim coach who changed Hibbert’s role from what it had been under Jim O’Brien and eventually encouraged him to embrace verticality, subsequently altering the course of his career. That alone is enough to question the validity of Hibbert’s subliminals, not to mention if he was sending them at all.
Considering the fuss his comments eventually made, what Hibbert said immediately after talking about looks hilariously ironic yet appropriate in retrospect:
“…I’ve said things in the past to the media that wasn’t the best thing to say at the time. Obviously it’s a work in progress, and I’m looking forward to changing that. I’ve got to be smarter.”