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NBA Saturday: High Stakes for Roy Hibbert this Season

Entering the final year of his contract, Roy Hibbert needs to re-establish himself as an elite defensive center.

Jesse Blancarte

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In April of last year, I wrote that Roy Hibbert should have won the Defensive Player of the Year Award for the 2013-14 NBA season.

Fifteen months after I wrote that, the Indiana Pacers traded Hibbert to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for a 2019 second-round draft pick. That’s right, a 7’2 center in his prime years couldn’t even net a first-round draft pick 15 months after finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting (166 points, eight first-place votes).

Hibbert spent the first seven years of his NBA career with the Pacers, earning a reputation as a defensive anchor and elite rim protector. However, this offseason the Pacers decided to take a dramatic shift in their style of play. The franchise decided it would embrace smaller lineups and a faster pace, which Hibbert simply doesn’t fit into.

Understanding that the league is playing smaller and faster than ever before, Hibbert changed his diet and improved his conditioning this offseason, dropping 15 pounds of fat as a result. He is noticeably slimmer and working hard to improve his mobility on the court.

“With how the NBA is going, you have a lot of quick centers,” Hibbert said at the Lakers’ media day. “It’s changed some things up. But I feel I’m in a place where I can hold my own in the post and get up and down the court.”

Whether Hibbert is actually able to play more minutes and keep up with the Lakers’ young players like D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle remains to be seen. However, it seems as though Hibbert understands that the stakes are high for him this season.

As you have certainly heard more than a few times by now, the NBA’s new lucrative television deal kicks in next season, which will likely result in a roughly $19 million jump in the salary cap. Hibbert will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and stands to earn a big-time contract if he can show that he is still one of the league’s best defensive centers. This is especially true since several teams will suddenly have significant spending power and not enough collective talent to spend it on.

Here is a list of some of the bigger-name players who will be unrestricted free agents after this season, including Hibbert:

Kobe Bryant (37) – $25,000,000
Kevin Durant (27) – $20,158,622
Dwyane Wade (33) – $20,000,000
Roy Hibbert (28) – $15,592,216
Eric Gordon (26) – $15,514,031
Al Jefferson (30) – $13,500,000
Joakim Noah (30) – $13,400,000
Nicolas Batum (26) – $13,125,307
Al Horford (29) – $12,000,000
Mike Conley (28) – $9,588,426
Ryan Anderson (27) – $8,500,000
Timofey Mozgov (29) – $4,950,000

As you can see, aside from Durant, Horford and Conley, there aren’t many real franchise-changing players in their respective primes for teams to fight over next offseason. That means players like Hibbert should be able to leverage the market and earn a deal that exceeds what these players would get in a more typical free agency period. Of course, part of that leverage is proving you are still an above average player who is worth investing in for more than a season or two.

Hibbert now finds himself in an ideal situation in Los Angeles to prove just that. The Lakers were a disaster last year defensively. They gave up 108 points per 100 possessions last season, which was only better than the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Lakers added some new faces along with Hibbert this offseason and the younger players now have an additional year of NBA experience under their belts, but this will still likely be, at best, a league-average defense. However, the difference between the 29th-ranked defensive team and, say, the 18th-ranked defensive team is a dramatic difference and will catch the attention of general managers across the league.

If that, or anything close to that scenario plays out this season, the credit Hibbert will receive will likely be well earned. How Hibbert is perceived has rapidly changed since the days when the Pacers were competing with LeBron James’ Miami HEAT in the Eastern Conference Finals. Once the Pacers were no longer competing for a trip to the Finals, all of Hibbert’s shortcomings became magnified even more than they already were (such as his limited offensive game, poor rebounding-rate, etc.). But his ability to anchor a defense didn’t go away and his overall defensive impact was still notable.

Consider that last season, according to Nylon Calculus, Hibbert saved an estimated 11.4 points per 36 minutes, which ranked him behind only Rudy Gobert and Andrew Bogut, two of the best defensive centers in the league. In addition, Hibbert held opponents to just 42.7 percent shooting at the rim last season, which again is right behind Gobert and Bogut, and ahead of other notable defensive big men like Timofey Mozgov, Robin Lopez, Nerlens Noel, Andre Drummond, Tyson Chandler, Derrick Favors, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan among others. Of course, how a defensive center is utilized varies greatly team-by-team and can impact these figures, but the point is that Hibbert still clogs the lane and is a force on defense. This assertion is further supported by the fact that, according to SportVU, opposing players, when guarded by Hibbert, collectively shot 12 percent worse than usual when shooting within six feet of the basket, and 10.5 percent worse from within 10 feet of the basket.

This data backs up what Hibbert told Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland last year: “There are a lot of shots that I don’t block, but I change shots, and obviously people don’t take that into account. It might not show up in the box score, but people around my team know what I bring.”

Unfortunately for Hibbert, his less than stellar career averages of 11.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.6 blocks per game overshadow the less tangible (but still important) things he does on the court. Furthermore, Hibbert’s style of play isn’t very exciting and comes off as even less entertaining with a growing crop of young, mobile centers like Jordan, Drummond, Gobert, Noel and Hassan Whiteside among others racking up highlight dunks and blocks on a nightly basis. But what Hibbert lacks in style, he tends to make up for in defensive substance and that’s what he needs to remind people of this season.

Hibbert is never going to earn a max or near-max contract by becoming a 20-10 player or a nightly fixture on Sports Center; that’s just not his game. But Hibbert does have the chance to prove that he can still clog the lane, alter shots and anchor a defense at an elite level. If he can do that with the Lakers and help them develop into a league-average defense, he should land a significant pay day next offseason and perhaps more importantly, he could reverse the trending perception that he is no longer one of the better centers in the NBA.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode

With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.

Dennis Chambers

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After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.

Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.

First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.

Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.

In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having  Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.

Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?

Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.

The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.

Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.

“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”

That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.

Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.

After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.

At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.

The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.

In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.

An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.

It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.

Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.

Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.

Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.

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NBA Daily: Anthony Davis is Shouldering New Orleans’ Playoff Hopes

After losing DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending injury, Anthony Davis has played MVP-caliber basketball to keep the Pelicans playoff hopes alive.

Dennis Chambers

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Nineteen games have passed since DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon during the New Orleans Pelicans game against the Houston Rockets.

At the time, Cousins was the second leg of an All-Star frontcourt combo with Anthony Davis, playing the best basketball of his career and appeared poised to send the Pelicans to their first playoff appearance in three years.

Immediately following the injury, New Orleans lost five of their next six games. In a crowded Western Conference playoff race, doubt was beginning to set in down in the Big Easy about whether the Pelicans could cope with the loss of Cousins.

Then, fitting in with the always unpredictable and chaotic nature of the NBA, Anthony Davis skyrocketed into other-worldly levels of production, and New Orleans followed suit. Before Friday’s loss to the Washington Wizards, the Pelicans won 10 straight games while Davis averaged 35.6 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, and 2.8 steals per game. Over the course of those 10 contests, Davis topped 40 points three times, and 50 points once.

Every question that was thrown Davis’ way following Cousins’ injury about whether he could shoulder the load of a Pelicans’ playoff run seemed to be answered.

The Western Conference is no joke. Currently, the playoff race is so tight that the 4th-seeded Pelicans are only two and a half games out of ninth place. While Davis has clearly been unstoppable, in order for the Pelicans to maintain their relevance in the playoff picture, he’s going to need some sort of help.

Luckily for him and his team, he’s gotten just that.

During New Orleans’ win streak, Jrue Holiday emerged as the team’s second option, looking more lethal than the Pelicans could’ve ever hoped when they signed him to an extension last summer. Holiday’s averages of 24.9 points, 8.5 assists, and 4.6 rebounds — all while shooting a blistering 43 percent from beyond the arc — positioned the eighth year point guard as Davis’ second fiddle.

This heightened production is the result of head coach Alvin Gentry’s offense finally coming to fruition in its most effective form. Gentry loves to play “pace and space” basketball, and the Pelicans’ No. 11 and No. 9 ranking in pace the last two seasons reflect that. While Cousins is fantastic in his own right, and a cross between the old-school big man and today’s new hybrid big, his insertion in New Orleans’ lineup slowed things down just a bit. Before the injury, the Pelicans were still pushing the fifth fastest pace in the league, but after losing Cousins the team is now pushing the ball faster than any club in the Association. As a result, Davis’ freakish athletic advantages are proving to be overwhelming for opponents.

With 17 games left on the schedule, the Pelicans only have five opponents remaining who are either already in the playoff picture or just outside of it. Matchups against Houston, Boston, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Golden State and Portland (among others) remain. Continuing the excellence Davis and his teammates are producing is the only conceivable way to imagine the Pelicans hosting a playoff series — or even staying in the playoff landscape for that matter.

The enhanced level of play from Davis and Holiday make the Pelicans a threat to compete every night, assuming the production continues as it did over the course of the team’s winning streak. But the injected play of the team’s supporting cast since Cousins went down is not to be overlooked while surveying New Orleans’ recent success.

Since Nikola Mirotic arrived from Chicago he’s added a scoring and rebounding punch outside of Davis that the Pelicans desperately needed. In the wake of Cousins, he’s finding success inside Gentry’s running system that allows him to shoot over seven three-point attempts a game.

All of the running and scoring the Pelicans have become accustomed to over the last month needs to be orchestrated by someone on the court, otherwise, it can turn into a hot mess quickly. By using Rajon Rondo on the court at the same time as Holiday, Rondo becomes responsible for quarterbacking an offense that needs precision accuracy and execution. At the same time, it allows Holiday to move and rotate without the ball, putting him in a more natural situation to score rather than set up an offense.

Is losing an All-Star player ever ideal for a team’s hopes at making the playoffs? Absolutely not. But when Cousins went down for the Pelicans, followed by their first week of basketball without him, the team quickly looked to be on the outside looking in of the playoff race.

Instead, with just about a month left on the regular season schedule, Davis and Co. are playing well above expectations and are in position to host a playoff series for the first time since 2008 when Chris Paul was running around in a teal jersey.

Davis is an MVP candidate, the New Orleans Pelicans are a playoff team, and Cousins in wearing a walking boot on the sidelines. The NBA is a wild ride of unpredictability.

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NBA Daily: A Reinvigorated Bench is Pushing Philadelphia’s Recent Success

Once a major weakness, the Philadelphia 76ers’ bench could provide some much-needed firepower during the postseason.

Dennis Chambers

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Consistently winning games in the NBA is one of the harder tasks in professional sports. The rigors of an 82-game schedule, playing consecutive nights, or sometimes three games in four days, can really take a toll on players. In order to be successful, the first order of business would be to have superstar caliber players. But what comes next, competing for 48 straight minutes, is arguably just as crucial.

The Philadelphia 76ers have a few star players in hand. Joel Embiid is already amongst the league’s best, and Ben Simmons seems to be climbing the ladder on a daily basis. But those two didn’t stop the Sixers from dropping multiple games earlier this season where they either had the lead or were in a close battle.

A major reason for that: the Sixers’ bench was thin. Razor thin at times, while the team dealt with injuries.

When the trade deadline approached at the beginning of February, and Philadelphia was in the middle of a playoff race, they were viewed as a team that could potentially make a move for a key veteran off the bench to ensure a postseason berth.

The deadline came and went, and president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo stood pat, unwilling to give up any assets for a rental. A frugal move, but not one that would help the Sixers realize their playoff dreams after declaring them as such for the entire season.

There’s another plus about having star players in the NBA, though. Usually, veteran guys gravitate towards them, viewing stars a way to be part of something meaningful. In the case of Philadelphia, they experienced that for the first (and second) time over the last three weeks since beginning their rebuild.

After securing buyouts with the Atlanta Hawks, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova decided to head north to Philadelphia for a playoff push. Ilyasova spent the first half of last season with the Sixers before being traded away, but he returns to a much different situation.

“It’s always great to be back here,” Ilyasova said. “It was a helluva speech Brett Brown made to get me here. We’re playing good basketball. It’s a tremendous job that they did compared to last year and they play as a unit.”

Tremendous growth almost puts what the Sixers are doing lightly. In terms of their starting unit of Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Embiid, they rank near the top of the league with their 18.9 net rating. For comparison’s sake, that’s more effective than Golden State’s starting five.

Ilyasova and Belinelli were brought on board to complement the winning basketball Philadelphia’s starters have already established. On Friday night against the Charlotte Hornets, the team’s newest bench weapon came up in a big way.

In his first game back at the Wells Fargo Center, Ilyasova played a big role in the Sixers’ come from behind win, scoring 18 points while adding four rebounds and three assists. Outside of the team’s starters, he registered the highest plus/minus rating on the team.

“Tonight you were going to see him and Dario a lot with each other,” Brown said of Ilyasova’s performance. “You see him have the ability to make great passes from that pick and roll spot.  I put him and Joel in some pick and rolls and they delivered. You saw him take a massive charge at the end of the game that he got rewarded for.”

Following back-to-back wins over Cleveland and Charlotte, the Sixers find themselves holding onto the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference. On top of that, Philadelphia is just two games behind Cleveland for the 3rd seed with 21 games remaining in the regular season.

Now that the Sixers have players like Ilyasova and Belinelli to add to their regular reserve group, Brown is excited to tinker with the team’s versatility moving forward. Having the benefit of a 6-foot-10 point guard in Simmons leads to constant mismatches on the court, and the Sixers’ head coach doesn’t want to forget that moving forward.

“All over the place,” Brown said. “Whether it’s (Ilyasova) making a three, or him passing to Joel, or him taking a charge. Him coexisting with Dario Saric. I think that flexibility, that versatility, is what excites me the most about him. It’s not like we don’t know each other, we know each other very well. He knows the system quite well. There’s still lots to refamiliarize him with.”

This late in the season, adding Ilyasova deserves just one explanation from Brown.

“He’s a massive pick up at this stage in my eyes,” Brown said.

Along with the recent additions, the Sixers also have a rotating carousel at the backup center position. Whether it’s Richaun Holmes or Amir Johnson that subs out Embiid, the team’s growing fluidity in their rotations have Brown pleased with the results.

“I think that we have something unique,” Brown said. “You know you gotta juggle and figure out with Richaun and Amir. I thought Richaun was a little down tonight, and so Amir sat back-to-back. You have those options available, and that’s a team. That’s what a team is about. If you can get a team to believe in what I just said, then you’ve got it all.”

Brown went on the boast about his team’s “legitimate locker room” saying they’re one of the most cohesive bunches he’s seen during his time in the NBA. Brown added, “I’m lucky to coach it.”

With just over a month remaining in the regular season, a hotly contested playoff race, and plenty of games to play, the Sixers are far from finishing what they started.

But with the upward trajectory of their recent play, coupled with the new bench additions, the team from Philadelphia that just spent years in the NBA’s basement is on the cusp of achieving what they set out to do at the beginning of this season.

“I think it’s a collective, progressive growth born out of rough times early in the season,” Brown said. “And now sort of delivered into March that we’re really close to achieving something in our eyes that’s special and was a declared goal. And that is to play in the playoffs.”

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