Let’s start with the good news: Roy Hibbert is going back to the All-Star Game.
Though the lasting legacy of David Stern’s tenure as commissioner probably won’t be the elimination of the center position from the ballot, it’s one of those annoying, pointless moves that marked his years.
The league may view Hibbert and those like him as anomalous, even anachronistic, but in truth he and the league’s dwindling corps of dinosaurs roaming the paint represent the very heart of the game.
While the starting lineups in the All-Star Game may lack for big men, rest assured they will be prevalent come playoff time. You don’t see the Miami Heat beating the bushes for wing players; you see them seeking out every 7-footer they can find, however damaged, in search of a potential counterbalance for Hibbert.
After Hibbert’s performance last postseason, we held expectations he might take a Georgian leap in production this year but his numbers have settled into their usual level: 12.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, every possible blocked shot.
It is particularly nice to see, even without a big statistical improvement, the coaches recognize Hibbert’s importance and value.
This second All-Star selection comes as no surprise. Coach Frank Vogel referred to it as “a no-brainer” and suggested Hibbert would’ve been a starter had the center position remained on the ballot.
“This team’s loaded with two-way players and Roy’s the best defensive player in the league,” Vogel said. “He should earn Defensive Player of the Year this year and on top of that he’s got a heck of an offensive package as well.”
Hibbert has proven, time again, he can have a profound impact on a game without producing much in the way of statistics.Which brings us to the good news: Lance Stephenson did not make the All-Star roster.
Stephenson’s snub was one of the most obvious and produced much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. Charles Barkley called it “a travesty” that Stephenson wasn’t selected.
Of course, this is the same Barkley who 10 days ago said two things concerned him about the Pacers: “turnovers and Lance Stephenson.”
There is truth in both statements.
The Pacers would not be where they are this season without Stephenson’s emergence as one of the most complete guards in the East. But there are a number of bigger factors that led to his snub, the chief of which should be obvious when considering the player that made it in his stead: Joe Johnson.
Johnson plays so quietly he often seems invisible. Stephenson, on the other hand, commands the spotlight. Though Stephenson clearly is having the better season, Johnson has a much greater body of work. He also has the respect of the league’s coaches, perhaps because he’s played for so many of them.
Stephenson’s on-court demeanor is, frankly, his greatest enemy. Pacers fans have largely accepted it as harmless entertainment, just Lance being Lance. But how do those same fans feel about Joakim Noah? Or J.R. Smith? Or any opposing player that plays with the same edge?
Had Stephenson been selected, it would’ve been a deserved reward but also a dangerous affirmation. Vogel and the coaching staff have been working for years to get Stephenson to mitigate his theatrics, and the snub reinforces the message they’ve been sending.
“One of the things we talk about in terms of his dignified celebrations is do any of the elite players behave that way?” Vogel said.
Excuse me: dignified celebrations?
“Mostly dignified,” Vogel said with a smile. “Did I say dignified? We’re trying to get them to be dignified.”
The snub also will serve as further motivational fuel for Stephenson although that’s a potentially double-edged sword because it could lead to more stat-hunting.
“I’m anxious to see how he responds,” Shaquille O’Neal said on TNT Thursday night. “He’s a tough kid. When you’re a good player on the verge of becoming a great player, sometimes it takes something like this to take you to that next level. I’m anxious to see if he plays upset but with a lot more poise.”
And then there is the financial aspect to this, because an All-Star selection would’ve further driven up the Stephenson’s market value when he becomes a free agent in July. He already is likely to command a price the Pacers could only afford by disemboweling the roster, but an All-Star appearance would’ve added a few million to the overall contract and pushed him beyond their relatively limited means.
But the greater point was Stephenson’s two-way communication with the conference’s coaches.
If they sent him a message with a snub, he sent one right back with his fourth triple-double (14 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, albeit in a 102-94 loss to Phoenix). That gives him more than all of the East All-Stars combined.
“I like triple-doubles but I like to win better,” Stephenson said. “I’m disappointed, but happy Roy made it. We have goals in this locker room. The All-Star game means nothing; we want to win a championship. It’s just the All-Star game. I just want to win real games. I’m going to keep working hard to try and make this team better.”
Those were precisely the right words.
The rest of this season will be about letting his deeds do the talking.