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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.

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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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