Once upon a time, current Los Angeles Lakers center Roy Hibbert was a formidable NBA big man. Fitting snug in the comfy confines of a strong Indiana Pacers system bolstered by Paul George, David West, and a fun 2013-14 Lance Stephenson, Hibbert proved to be a reliable rim protector that had mastered verticality when offensive players would go marching into the paint. He was the anchor of a top-five defensive team, and notched All-Star bids in 2012 and 2014.
In 2013, the upstart Pacers dispatched of the second-seeded New York Knicks in the semifinals, then pushed LeBron James and the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, putting the world on notice.
Indiana effectively assumed the mantle as the most dangerous contender to King James and his crown, powered by their stingy defense and two-way dynamo Paul George, who became a basketball sweetheart thanks to being the underdog and pushing the best player in the world to the brink.
The following season we all knew the East would be a two-team race, as the Bulls grappled with injuries, the Knicks’ mystique from the previous season had vanished, and all of the other playoff teams had us like “Awe, you guys made it that’s cute. Let’s fast forward to the Pacers-Heat ECF please!“
Indiana started off the season rolling, with George’s name being scribed at the top of mostly everyone’s MVP ballot, and Hibbert as a legitimate contender for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. They were juggernauts of the East, and snatched the 1-seed from the Heat as Miami slugged through the season.
Then some weird omen stripped the Pacers of their spirit and swagger in the second half of the year and in the playoffs, which sent their championship hopeful vessel (Hibbert’s production tapered off in a MAJOR way during this stretch), into a puzzling tailspin that crash landed in South Beach as LeBron and his goonies beat the mentally-wounded Pacers in an uneven six-game series.
Indiana had hoped their core of George Hill-Stephenson-George-West-Hibbert could have one more crack at the Heat (most presumed that James would be returning to Miami at the time), but Born Ready darted to Charlotte to play for the Hornets to assume a healthier offensive role, and the Pacers’ biggest loss came in August during a Team USA scrimmage, when George broke his leg, which shelved him for virtually all of the 2014-15 campaign.
Frank Vogel and his crew failed to qualify for the 2015 Playoffs, finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference, and team president Larry Bird vowed that his team would undergo a stylistic shift to a faster brand of ball, signaling to Hibbert that his time in Naptown was coming to an end. Hibbert was traded to Los Angeles in July for a second-round draft pick, and the Georgetown product had his sights set on recalibrating his career with the Purple & Gold.
I had some initial qualms about the Hibbert acquisition, but after finishing last in the LaMarcus Aldridge derby and missing out on other free agent front court pieces, I surmised that Hibbert and his 7-foot-2 frame would suffice. Maybe I’m demented for thinking an embarrassing flameout in Indiana coupled with the fact that he’s on an expiring contract would motivate Hibbert to recapture the form that had once made him such an imposing paint presence.
At this point in the season, optimism has been substituted for cynicism, and I wish Hibbert would be substituted for
Robert Sacre, no Ryan Kelly, actually Tarik Black (if only Byron would play him), or just some gangly guy off the street! I cringe when the Lakers go to Hibbert post-ups that yield zilch, and the cowering becomes worse when he launches one of those hideous 17-foot jumpers.
Hibbert is averaging 6.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game on 42% from the field (a putrid percentage for non-stretch seven-footer), while rookie Larry Nance Jr. is putting up 6.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per contest on a much more robust 53%. His talents as a rim protector haven’t completely diminished, as illustrated by the nearly two blocks a night, but he’s not the intimidator he once was, and his lead-footed rotations drive me crazy.
Hibbert has also proven to be ineffective as a roll-man, bobbling beauties fed to him by the likes of Kobe Bryant, D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson. Big guys like Andrew Bogut, Greg Monroe, Zaza Pachulia and Kelly Olynyk add a richness to your offense with their ability to make plays out of the pick-and-roll (especially the “short roll”), while nothing more than fumbled footwork and bad decisions come from Hibbert out of these situations.
While head coach Byron Scott has said and done many inane things this season, one thing he has done that warrants an applause is decreasing Hibbert’s minutes so far in January. After playing close to 27 minutes per game in November and 26 in December, Hibbert is down to 23 minutes per contest so far in the new year, a result of the resurgence of Brandon Bass and Scott’s new tendency to experiment with smaller lineups featuring two of their three rotation bigs in Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Bass.
Hibbert’s heyday came prior to the small-ball craze that has pervaded the NBA today. He was tailored to play in a league that featured other giants such as Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard trekking up and down the floor as a prevalent part of their team’s offenses. Gasol is the only player out of that bunch that can still claim that to this day, but not without a hitch — the Bulls are rumored to be shopping the two-time NBA champion in hopes of finding an upgrade on the wing.
Thank goodness Hibbert will serve as just a placeholder at center for the Lakers, but for the Lakers to reach full functionality as a team they’ll need to find a center that can actually do what Hibbert was brought in to do. Los Angeles taking a flyer on Hibbert is cute during a down season in which they honor possibly the greatest player in franchise history, but ridding themselves of acts like these is completely necessary as they try to reach the top once again.