From 1990 to 2006, a span of seventeen seasons, the Indiana Pacers franchise only missed the playoffs once (1997) and even then the club was in the mix for a berth. The past success is becoming more and more of a distant memory as the team's recent fortunes has the squad in the midst of a four season playoff drought.
Long gone are guys such as Reggie Miller, Jermaine O'Neal, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley who kept the team relevant in the Eastern Conference power structure in the early to mid 2000s. In is a new core led by Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison who are not necessarily household names, but have the 14-20 Pacers positioned as the Eastern Conference's seventh seed if the playoffs were to begin today.
However the continued taste of losing close games and not being near the .500 mark is still a point of frustration inside the Pacers' locker room despite the fact the team is on pace to surpass their win totals from last season (slightly) . The acquisition of Collison before the campaign began raised expectations significantly and while no one expected the team to finish in the upper half of the conference, the prevailing thought was that Indiana would be on the north side of .500.
Hibbert the team's starting center and a candidate for the league's Most Improved Player award isn't finding any moral victories in the constant losing and believes the team has underachieved up until this point.
"We're not (happy)", said Hibbert to HOOPSWORLD on the team's performance this season. "We let a lot of games slip away that we thought that we could finish. Obviously we need to a better job in the end with closing out games in the fourth quarter. But we're starting to play (better) together now. We're getting used to each other and we should be able to pick it up."
The Pacers will have roughly $30 million in salary coming off the books at the end of the season, so there are expiring contracts that can be used before the trade deadline next month that could help the team get over the hump this season. However Hibbert refused to play general manager.
"I have no idea," said Hibbert on if roster changes were coming. "Whatever happens; happens."
The third year center is having a career year posting highs in points (13.2), rebounds (8.2), blocks (1.8), assists (2.5) and minutes (28.6). The last statistic may be the most telling in his emergence as a player this season. Hibbert lost an estimated 25-30 pounds during the offseason in an effort to become more fluid and active on the defensive end of the floor and as a result of last summer's regimen he's seen his minutes rise and his ability to stay out of foul trouble improve.
While there was talk early in the season of Hibbert wanting to put most of the weight back on for fear he was being outmuscled in the post, he now feels totally comfortable and willing to roll with his newly developed frame over the long term.
"I feel like I'm moving better and I feel like I'm stronger," said Hibbert in regards to his weight loss. "I've been talking it over with my strength coach and some of the assistant coaches and started looking over some film maybe to put back on some weight. Another five pounds not back up to twenty. I've been eating real healthy but they actually want me to eat a little more junk food to help put on some more weight and get some more calories in me."
The lack of dominant centers in the league today has become more of a topic in recent years and while the newest crop aren't in the class of Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing from the 1990s the latest stable of Andrew Bogut, Al Horford, Dwight Howard, Hibbert, Brook Lopez and Joakim Noah will lead to some interesting Eastern Conference pivot clashes in the future.
Hibbert agrees and does admit to wanting to play well against those guys.
"At first (I think) what can I do to stop those guys," said Hibbert to HOOPSWORLD. "Andrew is an exceptionally good big guy. Al Horford is really unique because he's like a smaller guy that can pick and pop and he's strong. He knows how to use his body pretty well. I have my hands full with those guys; they can be All-Star centers (every year)."
One of the short term keys to the Pacers' success is getting Hibbert back into a comfort zone offensively. Hibbert has shot a woeful 60-for-169 (36 percent) from the floor since December 1.
Either way, the Pacers appear poised to start another streak of playoff appearances, provided that the front office continues to make the right moves acquiring talent.