Roy Hibbert looked like he was worth every penny of that max contract.
As the "Godfather of Verticality", the former Georgetown Hoya (sidenote: what is that? I've been wondering my entire life) was the anchor of an Indiana Pacers defense that finished first in efficiency two seasons in a row (from 2012-2014). He absolutely dominated the interior behind excellent wing players like Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill, serving as a 7'2" deterrent from any player that dared come into the paint. He was slow and looked unathletic at times, but at nearly 300 pounds and with a massive wingspan, Hibbert played his role well with the physical attributes he had. In fact, he did so to such an extent that many called Roy the MVP of the only team that looked to challenge the LeBron/Wade/Bosh era Heat for Eastern Conference dominance.
In many ways, Indiana revolved on the orbit that Hibbert's gravity created. That team made their bones on their tough nosed defense and a grinding offense that beat teams from the inside-out. David West, George, Hibbert, Hill and Stephenson pounded the interior and used their extraordinary length to shorten games. Roy certainly wasn't the first offensive option the Pacers hit every time down the court, but he certainly wasn't an afterthought -- he finished in the team's top-four of field goal attempts four seasons running. In many ways, the Pacers game plan started and ended with him. Those two All-Star appearances were more than just a lack of options in the East.
Roy Hibbert was absolutely worth nearly $60 million... and maybe more. So how did we get to where we are now in 2016, with Roy looking like a relic of the past? A slow, plodding big man who appears to be a back-up role player, at best?
Hibbert currently anchors the worst defense in the NBA. While Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams and Nick Young are the cheese whiz canister to the wheel of aged gouda that was the George/Stephenson/Hill trio on the perimeter, the big man was once thought of as a defense unto himself. Offensively, Hibbert is a shell of his once modest production. Whereas we once saw a competent big man that could operate a little in the post and knock down a 10 footer, we're now seeing a hesitant player attempting half as many field goals as his career average.
What's most alarming isn't just that Hibbert is playing poorly this season. He's on arguably the worst team in the league and inarguably the worst Lakers team of all time. To tweak a phrase from a great man, everything is awful and no one's happy. So it's not just that.
It's that his decline from just two seasons ago is unbelievably acute. He's careened down a hill at such a rapid pace that it's hard to fathom that you're watching the same player. Just 24 months ago Hibbert was perhaps the most vital cog in one of the league's most deadly squads. Now we're wondering if he'll be in the league in three seasons.
So what is it? What could have precipitated such a sharp downturn in production?
A changing NBA
I hate to throw out the most obvious reason as the strongest factor, but it's hard to ignore the big red blinking light here.
The easiest and truest answer has to be that the NBA is changing and Hibbert's lack of versatility is keeping him running in place. The league is getting smaller and faster, with big men like Draymond Green, Chris Bosh, Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Love and Karl-Anthony Towns being preferred over the lumbering centers of the past. These new bigs can shoot from distance, handle the rock and pass, yet still playing a competent inside game with the ability to bang on the defensive end. Positional versatility is key and the skillsets once belonging solely to European forwards and centers are now seemingly prerequisites anyone over 6'7".
Hibbert, without many of these attributes was always going to be de-emphasized in nearly any team's offense and be targeted during many opponent's defense with how the league is moving these days. Even defense-first centers without much of a shooting stroke, like Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard are so athletically explosive and laterally quick that they're able to negate some of the limitations making HIbbert more and more irrelevant.
The truth is that between the Lebron-era Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors, the NBA was ushering in an era of change that Hibbert doesn't have the physical gifts for. None of this is a surprise considering how the rest of the league plays, but perhaps from a bigger picture perspective, it's surprising how quickly the league itself changed.
Defensively, either he's lost a step or...
Overall, according to SportsVU tracking, opponents are hitting 48.3 percent of their attempts against Hibbert and connecting on 56.7 percent of shots within six feet of the basket. The past two seasons? 41.4%/47.2% and 42.5%/44.6%, respectively. For a player who's made his money on protecting the rim, that's a gigantic decline. Hibbert is also blocking less shots than two and three seasons ago, though his averages and percentages are consistent with last season.
There's quite a few arguments why this could be happening. Teams are employing more and more big men that can shoot (or at least, attempt to shoot) from long range, pulling Hibbert away from the rack. With more distance to cover, who's to say whether or not some of these possessions are in recovery or as a secondary defender? They could also be as a response to the increasing number of high pick-and-roll possessions, where Hibbert is left on an island covering quick guards with no one to cover for him down the lane. Or perhaps we're just looking at a veteran player who's playing on a crappy team and just not trying as hard. That's the beauty of basketball -- we can look at all the numbers we want, but ultimately it might just come down to human nature.
...it's a result of his teammates
Many people say that clothes make the man, and if that is truly the case, then Roy Hibbert went from wearing an Armani suit to JNCO jeans and a stained Enyce sweater.
Like the half-life of a fading comet, Hibbert's teammates over the past three seasons have gotten worse and worse. The center spent over half his time on the court surrounded by Paul George, George Hill, Lance Stephenson and David West, each (besides PG-13) playing at their career apexes in what looks like the peak of his prowess. Last season, with Stephenson gone via free agency and George out with a broken leg, he spent over 600 of his 1,900+ minutes on the court with some combination of Solomon Hill, George Hill, C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey and David West.
This year? Nearly 500 minutes with a combo of Kobe, Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson and rookies Larry Nance Jr., Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell.
In the past three seasons, the style of his team's play has radically changed, from the George/Hill/Stephenson/West core to a more uptempo, guard oriented team with Hill/Stuckey/Miles and finally, into ... whatever Byron Scott is running with the Lakers. However, most jarringly, the quality of Hibbert's teammates has changed. Once surrounded by confident veterans with their eyes on a title, he's now looking around at a bunch of first and second year players who aren't making anyone look good on the court.
No more mid-range game
It's not just that Hibbert doesn't look like a the defensive stalwart he once was in Indy -- it's also that as an offensive weapon, he's turned into a ghost.
Part of the explanation is simply that he's not a point of emphasis in the offense any longer. That can't be a surprise--Hibbert is a post player who can stretch out to 10-to-15 feet away from the basket, at most. If "pace and space" is the name of the game, he can't do either.
However, if he's going to be used, it's going to be from mid-range. But not only is Hibbert shooting less mid-range jumpers, he's making far fewer of them. He's on pace to shoot around 120 3-to-10 footers this season at just a .297 clip, down from 282 on .443, 401 on .414 and 443 and .433 the three seasons before. In other words? One of Hibbert's most effective weapons isn't being utilized anymore. Not here, not anywhere, really. It's easy to understand why his shooting numbers would go down as well -- less reps, less made shots.
More to the point, Hibbert's used more and more as a catch-and-shoot type of offensive player. His catch-and-shoot possessions are up to 26.6 percent of his total field goals. That's up from 23 percent last season and 19 percent two seasons ago. For a player with a slow release, zero lift and is getting a limited amount of touches to begin with, it's not entirely helpful to his scoring game.
In short, Hibbert doesn't serve as the same point of emphasis as he once was because of the changing direction of the league, as well as the rapid changes in personnel around him. Offensively, the teams he is on are taking away the most reliable weapons he has in his arsenal and he doesn't quite have the skills necessary to adjust in lock step. Just look at his usage percentage -- he's tumbled to just 13.2 percent this season, down from 21.3, 19.4 and 22.5 the three seasons before, in just three less minutes on the court per game. Defensively, there isn't one obvious answer, but most likely we're just seeing a player who is easily being taken out of his comfort zone in the paint and has awful defensive teammates on the perimeter serving as human sieves.
I'm not sure that Roy Hibbert is that much of a different player that he was three seasons ago. He's in great shape and is just 29 years old with less than eight seasons on his odometer. He's played in big games, had huge expectations put on him ... and he's delivered the goods as well as he can. Hibbert certainly has value even in this modern NBA, especially with his length and willingness to do the dirty work on the floor. However, for the type of player he is, it's very clear that the league and the teams he's been on have made him into a much less important player than he was. And I'm not quite sure that will change any time soon.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino