And so we arrive at the crux of the matter, the middle of everything, the center of attention: Roy Hibbert’s mood.
When it is good, Hibbert is one of the best centers in the league, a two-time All-Star, an elite defender and a productive low-post option.
When it is sour, Hibbert is a comprehensive liability, a hulking, sulking presence that can bring down his entire team.
As it was six years ago, so it remains today.
The only difference was that in 2008, the future seemed bright.
Now, past is prologue, offering little hope for anything other than more of the same tired pattern: half a season of mysteriously bad play, half a season of encouragingly strong play, and just enough flashes in the postseason to tease coaches, teammates and fans that next year just might be the one in which Big Roy finally puts it all together.
You probably know the numbers by heart but here they are again, just in case: 11.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, .464 shooting before the All-Star break; 8.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, .390 shooting afterward.
“Around All-Star time, even before that, he didn’t play well for a long period of time; why, I don’t know,” said Larry Bird. “I talked to Roy briefly a number of times. He would always ask me, ‘What do you see?’ And I would tell him. But I’d like to see Roy more consistent. I thought the first half of the season he was very active, contested a lot of shots, just playing big. Maybe he didn’t block the shot but guys were missing around the rim.
“But when Roy loses his confidence, he struggles at times. I hope he can come back strong. I hope he can do the things necessary to get better.”
Though his mysterious decline sent the media into some extremely dark corners searching for answers, the greater truth was this is just how it is with Hibbert. He did the same thing in 2012-13, albeit flip-flopped, averaging 10 points on 41 percent shooting before the All-Star break, 15.7 points on 51 percent shooting afterward.
He did the same thing in shorter bursts in 2010-11, starting quickly, falling into a funk that was blamed on Jim O’Brien’s unforgiving nature, and then rebounding when Frank Vogel replaced O’Brien with a confidence-building approach. Vogel also made Hibbert the centerpiece of the team’s offensive philosophy, which no doubt perked up the big man but with the emergence of Paul George and then Lance Stephenson as better options, Hibbert’s role diminished, taking with it his confidence, focus and drive.
“I think he’s just got to continue to work, like everybody, and continue to raise his level of play,” Vogel said. “As he does that, we’ve got to make sure we have a firm idea of what our team’s identity is going to be and what his role is going to be offensively. He’s known what his role has been the last few years here. I think we had Lance Stephenson and Paul George take giant steps in their personal development and it shifted the load, so to speak, of the offensive attack. It’s just something we’ve got to make sure we’re all tied together with that.
“I think he needs to improve his game so he can improve his role or increase his role on the offensive end, not adjust to a lesser role.”
Hibbert has given no indication of gradual progression toward becoming something more. In fact, his scoring average and field goal percentage both have declined the past two seasons.
Hibbert’s greatest strength, his low-post defense, has become increasingly mitigated by teams able to exploit his lack of mobility and agility by spreading the floor, drawing him away from the basket and forcing him to make tough decisions in pick-and-roll defense. The Hawks rendered Hibbert moot in the first round, and Miami – the team Hibbert was dominant against in 2013 – reduced him to a bit player this time around.
Ian Mahinmi has basically been what the Pacers expected when they acquired him from Dallas in the Darren Collison deal two years ago: an athletic, active and capable backup to Hibbert. What Mahinmi doesn’t pose is any kind of threat to start. He is far too foul prone and even less of an offensive threat; in fact, he seems to have regressed in that area since joining the Pacers.
Which leads us to Andrew Bynum, who played in just two games but my have had a profound impact on the Pacers’ season. When Bynum was signed on Feb. 1, the Pacers were 36-10 and Hibbert was averaging 12.3 points and 47 percent shooting. The Pacers went 20-16 the rest of the regular season and Hibbert went immediately and completely into the tank, averaging 8.7 points and 40 percent shooting the rest of the way.
In the playoffs, Hibbert averaged 4.6 points on 36 percent shooting in eight games before the Pacers severed ties with Bynum; thereafter he averaged 13.5 points on 49 percent shooting in 11 games.
If this was mere coincidence, it was remarkable. If it was not, if Hibbert went into a shell because he perceived either some kind of threat from Bynum, or some kind of disrespect from the Pacers, it would be even more telling.
THE FINAL GRADE: C
Back in the days when beasts roamed the NBA, 11 points, 7 rebounds and 47 percent shooting would get you ridiculed. Now, it makes you a two-time All-Star. Hibbert may well be one of the better centers in the league but that is only because there is so little competition.
If he was able to arrive at those numbers consistently, without the constant drama that seems to have become a permanent fixture in his career, Hibbert would be a much more serviceable player. But because he has proven so erratic, he is well on the way to losing the trust of his coaches and teammates, once and for all.
It’s no longer a matter of how much better the Pacers think Hibbert might become, but rather how low he can go. And they can only hope he bottomed out in 2013-14.