Early in the season, Roy Hibbert was a no-questions-asked candidate for the league’s most improved player award. Pacers Coach Jim O’Brien had elected to run his offense with Hibbert as the focal point, and the natural progression of Hibbert’s basketball skills made that decision a wise – if unexpected – one.
Indiana had ranked in the top three in pace and in the top four in 3-point attempts during each of O’Brien’s first three seasons, a testament to the fast-breaking system he installed in an attempt to maximize the Pacers’ limited offensive potential. That experiment failed; the run-and-gun Pacers never approached offensive solvency, and though they tried to run the break and throw up as many 3s as possible, Indiana was claiming the few victories to its name on the defensive end.
Then O’Brien opted for a change in approach. When given a talented but plodding center to work with in Hibbert, O’Brien proved to be a traditionalist at heart, after all. The Pacers offense was restructured to feature Hibbert both in the high post and the low post, while Indy’s pace and 3-point attempts dipped accordingly. Hibbert played well, and for the first time in four seasons the blueprint for improvement in Indiana seemed clear.
Since that point, however, Hibbert’s production has plummeted. After averaging 18.3 points and 10.0 rebounds a game in October and 15.6 points and 9.4 rebounds a game in November, Hibbert has dropped to just 7.8 points and 7.6 rebounds a night in January.
Hibbert scored 12 points Sunday night against the Denver Nuggets, but it was the first time he had reached that mark this month. For comparison’s sake, Hibbert topped 12 points in 10 of the season’s first 11 games.
A closer look at Hibbert’s monthly splits reveals another interesting wrinkle: his minutes per game have dropped significantly in each month this season, which would seem to account for his regression from a quasi star to a role player. He played 21.8 minutes per game in January, a strangely low average given the Pacers’ lack of competent alternatives at center.
If only it were that simple. If only one could point to an abundance of fouls as Hibbert’s folly, or paint O’Brien as some star-crushing villain or power-tripping egomaniac. Neither is the case, as there is no one to blame for Hibbert’s gradual regression this season other than Hibbert himself. The causality begins with Hibbert and goes outward; the Pacers center has played less because he has struggled, and not the other way around.
The worse Hibbert has played, the fewer minutes he has played. O’Brien’s approach with Hibbert has become meritocratic, an unfortunate (but not indefensible) circumstance for the third-year big man, who could likely do well with a bit more slack on the reins. But it’s high time that O’Brien and the Pacers produce, and Hibbert hasn’t done so effectively since the season’s opening stage. Hibbert’s assist rate has dropped while his turnover rate has climbed. His true shooting percentage has dropped every month, and sits at a miserable (and, really, miserable doesn’t quite do it justice) 37.7 percent for January. He is making far fewer of his attempts deep in the paint, and somehow attempting more midrange jumpers despite his drop in minutes. The kicker: even if one tried to explain away Hibbert’s drop in production as a byproduct of his drop in minutes -– which it’s not -– that notion would be countered by the decay of Hibbert’s numbers on a per-minute basis
No matter how you slice the data, it speaks to a genuine backslide in Hibbert’s play, one that justifies his decline in minutes. Fatigue is almost certainly at play, but the more logical explanation (as well as the Pacers’ offensive struggles on the whole) is the discord between system and personnel. Hibbert is fine for O’Brien’s system, if a bit out of his league; if he really is to function at the center of the Pacers’ offense, then Indiana needs a superior supporting cast to relieve defensive pressure and better space the floor with shooting and cutting. Hibbert isn’t talented enough to key an offense without excellent help, and the Pacers’ roster is lacking in that regard.
Consider Hibbert’s poor play an extension of the same principles behind a “sophomore slump.” He was surprisingly effective initially, but as teams began to game plan for his new role and the Pacers’ revised offense, Hibbert became easier to guard and Indiana’s offense became solvable.
All of this is meant to explain, not excuse.
Though Indiana’s system and roster have their limitations, the responsibility is Hibbert’s to counter the counter. N.B.A. players face all kinds of schemes and defenders on a nightly basis, and the onus is on them to produce regardless of circumstance. So goes the logic that the league’s biggest stars cannot be stopped so much as hindered. When featured prominently on the scouting report, today’s Hibbert can be stopped. The goal for tomorrow’s Hibbert is to overcome that limitation, and take a step toward stardom.