Heading into the 2012 season, the biggest concern regarding the team's young starting center was whether he could find consistency as an NBA player. Many of the early issues he had, such as foul trouble, or struggling to work down low, had been addressed through his stellar work ethic, but after a hot start to the 2010-11 season, Hibbert slipped into being a fairly average player, partially self inflicted, some falling on the curious head games Jim O'Brien deemed appropriate.
So it came as no surprise when Hibbert once again flew out of the gate, averaging a double double, and shooting close to 53% through the first full month of the regular season. Roy not only displayed that solid play, but featured a steady demeanor with the ball in the paint while being an anchor on the defensive end. Hibbert learning how to play in the post, on both sides of the ball, proved a huge advantage for the blue and gold, so much that coupled with the relative lack of starting quality big men, Hibbert eventually began to draw All-Star talk.
When Hibbert was officially named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, it was something of a watershed moment. Hibbert wasn't only the Pacers first All-Star since 2009, but that it was Roy, a player who many doubted could make it in the NBA, made it especially special. Unfortunately, the Pacers were unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension, as a relatively weak month forced the Pacers to wait and see if the big fella could pull out the slump, or if he simply couldn't sustain a full quality season.
As the All-Star break approached, Hibbert strung together some quality outings (including a 30 point, 13 rebound effort against New Orleans) that eventually gave way to a series of ups and downs as the regular season progressed. While much of the Pacers interior defense relied on Hibbert, the team also benefited from him as an offensive weapon, stumbling to a 10-12 record when Roy scored 10 or less points.
Certainly, with Hibbert's inconsistencies, the team seemed wise stepping back and watching Hibbert earn his payday for a player who was relatively ineffective a third of the season. Heading into the playoffs, it was paramount for Roy to perform at a high level in order for the team to succeed. Hibbert spun perhaps his best defensive game in 9 block effort that was one shy of the NBA playoff record (one Andrew Bynum would steal the spotlight for in his own 10 block effort) in Indiana's frustrating Game 1 loss to Orlando.
For Games 3-5, Hibbert played at a higher level despite defensive struggles being able to stick to Glen Davis, but his contributions were enough to lead the Pacers to a win against the Magic. With the series against Miami looming, the front court tandem of Hibbert and David West appeared to be the key matchup advantage, this before Chris Bosh would find himself out for the series halfway through Game 1.
Hibbert played well in Game 1 despite extensive foul trouble, but when Roy dominated as he did in Game 3, with 19 points and 18 rebounds to go with his series high 5 blocks, the blueprint couldn't have been easier for the Pacers to march to a series upset. As the series progressed, the team's inability to find Hibbert, coupled with Hibbert's own lack of aggression to get the ball led to an underwhelming front court effort from the Pacers in the three game losing streak that would end the season.
Roy Hibbert benefits being a true post center in a league with a small handful of them. Hibbert finally built a consistent post game and more often than not, the big fella played like he was 7'2" unlike past seasons where he seemed to shrink. This led to Hibbert's best season (and his first All-Star bid), continuing to give him an upward curve that he can continue to ride moving forward in the NBA.
Despite him having his best season, Roy continued to fade away too often. For an All-Star caliber player, he lacked true consistency of the league's other All-Star centers, or in the case of Bynum, the game changing level of play he uses to cover up his own inconsistencies. Hibbert still needs to pack on more weight so he can contend with the bigger bodies and conversely the smaller, thicker centers that are more prominent in the league. Stamina has improved, but he's shown to wear down against immovable big men.
And the Future
The toughest decision the team will have to make is with Roy Hibbert. After Game 3, it seemed a no-brainer, but ineffectiveness the rest of the series allows those questions to crop up again. The question isn't so much is Hibbert worth the money; from a positional standpoint, being the true premium he is, he is worth an extra boost, but for the Pacers to continue spending wisely, going over an appropriate amount to retain the services of a player who absolutely wants to remain a Pacer.
The team needs to look at how they can improve themselves without Hibbert. Indiana's front court is severely undersized without Roy, and would a player like Chris Kaman be a quality answer for the time it might take for them to find a long term replacement? Would Hibbert's own inconsistencies be addressed with a better point guard to involve him more often to allow him to work through his struggles? The Pacers retain a fine line in retaining a fan favorite, a necessary piece of their success, but still allowing them the opportunities to continue to improve and maintain cap flexibilities.
Unfortunately, while the Pacers will originally plan to pay based on their own needs, the needs of an entire league for a true post presence could either cripple another franchise financially, or in turn limit the Pacers own growth. It only takes one team to think Hibbert is worth a max contract to change Indiana's outlook as much as the blue and gold are sure to hope against it.