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The Pacers’ Roy Hibbert Conundrum

In July 2012, things were going well for Roy Hibbert. He had just come off an All-Star season in which he averaged nearly 13 points and nine rebounds on nearly 50 percent shooting to go along with elite defense, and as a restricted free agent, he was about to cash in.

When free agency began that summer, the Portland Trail Blazers struck fear in the heart of every Pacers fan by offering Hibbert the maximum four-year, $58 million contract. At the time, the Pacers hadn’t offered Hibbert the same amount, and he was leaning toward signing the offer sheet, according to Sam Amick.

This came at a bad time for Indiana as Larry Bird was stepping down as president of basketball operations while David Morway was leaving as general manager. ESPN’s Ric Bucher reported that at the time, should the Pacers not match the Blazers’ offer, that Indiana would pursue Chris Kaman and/or JaVale McGee. Oh, how things would have been different.

Instead, Donnie Walsh took over Bird’s role and the team promoted Kevin Pritchard to general manager after spending time as the team’s director of player personnel. The offer sheet with the Blazers was never signed because the Pacers had indicated they’d match, and Indiana wound up signing Hibbert to the same four-year, $58 million contract.

At the time, there was mixed reaction amongst fans and people close to the team – some said there was no way the Georgetown alum and 17th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft deserved to be paid the max, while others understood that options were limited for Indiana and they didn’t have much time to react.

Hibbert’s reaction: “I’m ready for this responsibility.”

The following year (2012-13), the big man’s numbers dipped a bit, especially in terms of offensive efficiency during the regular season. Where his shooting dropped though, his defense picked up as he began to average more blocks. Some thought the dip in efficiency may have been a result of more usage, while others were beginning to get concerned that Hibbert was already showing signs of underperforming. However, Hibbert put some of those concerns to rest for the time being with a monster postseason.

That year, Indiana finished first in the Central Division and third in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers made it past the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals thanks in part to this iconic play on Carmelo Anthony:

The Pacers made it all the way to the Conference Finals against Miami that year, a series they lost to LeBron James and company in seven games. While Pacers fans were far more focused on the fact that Paul George was emerging as an incredible talent and one of few able to hold his own against LeBron in the postseason, Hibbert dominated the Heat with averages of 22 points and 10 rebounds, although it wasn’t quite enough.

In 2013-14, Hibbert changed again. In the preseason, all Roy wanted to talk about was defense; that he was the best defensive player in the league and would again prove as much. Roy remained impressive defensively, showing how verticality can work in the favor of the defender, but again took a hit in points per game (10.8), rebounds per game (6.6) and field goal percentage (44 percent). He was named to the All-Star team again (a selection that surprised many), but his performances from March on would make you wonder how Indiana was even starting him, let alone how he was an All-Star.

The playoffs rolled around and Indiana again won the Central Division, but this time also captured the No. 1 seed in the East, something the team felt was crucial in order to make it to the NBA Finals. The Atlanta Hawks were the No. 8 seed that year and faced Indy in the first round – and that’s where there was real trouble. The Hawks were a bad matchup for Hibbert, and he struggled mightily throughout the series and saw his minutes cut because of it. In Games 5 and 6 of that series, he had 0 points and two rebounds COMBINED, although the Pacers went on to win in seven games.

Things were so bad that ESPN’s First Take, known for their controversial opinions, went as far as comparing Hibbert to notorious NBA bust Kwame Brown:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-S_Ipl55IV0

Indiana moved on to face John Wall and the Washington Wizards, and Hibbert put forth another goose egg in a Game 1 loss. But then the big man turned things around, putting forth his best effort of the postseason in Game 2 with 28 points and nine rebounds, and that was followed up by two more stellar performances in victories. Game 5 was rough, but Indiana finally got past Washington in six games, setting up another date with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

It was here that Hibbert momentarily hushed his many critics. In Game 1, the Queens native challenged everything at the rim, gave Chris “Birdman” Andersen more than he could handle, and was ultimately the decisive force in a huge victory. Hibbert used his height and length almost perfectly, forcing the ball away from the paint to help Indy survive the tandem of Dwyane Wade and James. Game 2 featured much of the same, and Miami struggled to get around Hibbert despite winning a tight one, 87-83.

Here, Hibbert showed off his offensive game against the smaller Heat team in Game 2:

Then Bad Hibbert showed up for most of the rest of the series.

Hibbert wasn’t awful in Game 3 as he scored 16 points, but he only grabbed two rebounds in a 12-point loss. He then put up his fourth goose egg of the playoffs in a Game 4 loss, and he pinned some of the blame for his struggles on head coach Frank Vogel, which wasn’t a good look. The big man wasn’t particularly impressive the rest of the series, and Indiana lost in six games.

After George’s freak injury last summer, Hibbert was expected to show out more for the 2014-15 season, but that didn’t really happen. The big man still did his thing as a rim protector, but there was little offensive improvement, as he put up just 10.6 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting. This without the team’s leading scorer in George nearly all season, and the Pacers wound up missing the playoffs.

So, what’s the point of all this?

First and foremost, the point is Indiana initially made the right decision giving Hibbert that big contract. He was on the upswing and appeared to have a bright future ahead of him, and the other options weren’t nearly as appealing. The problem is that Hibbert peaked not long after he signed that deal, and while still a strong rim protector, he’s not much of an offensive threat and is just a so-so rebounder.

These days, it’s hard to find centers who are major contributors to their team on both ends of the floor. It’s why Houston tried so hard for Dwight Howard, why DeAndre Jordan has become such a major part of the Clippers’ starting five and why guys like Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins are so coveted around the league. When you have a player of that size making an impact like that, it’s hard to cover and even harder to beat from a team’s perspective. But when you pay a guy as much as one can be paid in the league and he begins to underachieve, there are a lot of questions asked about both him and those who awarded him that money.

VERDICT: Did the Pacers make the wrong move giving Hibbert that big deal? Ultimately, probably not, because hindsight is 20/20.

Without Hibbert, it’s unlikely that they would have made the Eastern Conference Finals and unlikely that they would have challenged as well as they did.

Could the Pacers have made a better decision? Maybe.

When you have guys like Paul George around you, you’re making almost $15 million a season from your team alone and you still don’t win a ring or even get to the Finals, you draw criticism. Hibbert responds to criticism poorly, and it’s what has led to him shutting down as a consistently effective Pacer like we saw in prior years:

Hibbert has a $15.5 million player option for next season, and it seems unlikely that he’d pass up that kind of money given his recent performance and the fact that the cap is set to spike in 2016. If he opts in and has a good season, he could cash in next offseason thanks to that cap surge.

But should he choose to opt out and look elsewhere, Pacers fans can’t say there weren’t signs. Not only has he publicly criticized his team in the past, but his fan section Area 55 is disbanded for the coming year – a decision announced by Hibbert. He also has chosen not to participate in the Indianapolis Celebrity All-Star Softball Game, an event he has traditionally participated in for the past few years.

Just speculating, but something tells me Hibbert is unhappy in Indy and the feeling may be mutual. Bird and Vogel recently talked about playing a more uptempo style next season while dropping some hints that Hibbert may see a reduction in playing time because of it. Things certainly haven’t gone the way everybody envisioned with Hibbert, and it’ll be interesting to see how things play out moving forward.

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