Larry Bird, Indiana's President of Basketball Operations, was uncompromisingly forthright when expressing his negative opinion of Roy Hibbert's play this season to the assembled media at the Pacers' end-of-season press conference last Friday afternoon. From underscoring the 7-footer's decreased productivity to laying out plans to reduce the lumbering center's role, Bird's pointed remarks read less like a motivational tactic as much as they did a calculated attempt to prod Hibbert into opting out this summer.
The problem is, though somewhat dependent upon personal interpretation, some of Bird's barbs do not tell the whole story. Here are the facts about Roy Hibbert's season and future:
Claim: Bird's negative assessment of the 7-footer's play: "I didn't think he played well, to be honest ... I thought at times he played well, he always plays hard, he's very durable — but I don't think he had a great year."
First and foremost, Hibbert needs to be evaluated through the lens of defensive impact. Being the first, second or even third scoring option is not Roy's primary purpose on this team, so why criticize him for something he is not readily being asked to do?
Per basketball-reference, in addition to missing six games this season, Hibbert attempted six or fewer field goals in 16 contests this season. Opportunity goes along way toward explaining why the big man failed to average double-figures in scoring.
Speaking of opportunity, Roy's minutes saw a steady decline after the All-Star break while head coach Frank Vogel experimented with smaller lineups.
Take a look at this month-by-month minutes comparison to understand why the 7-footer's numbers naturally would have seen a dip.
|Roy Hibbert Splits||G||MP||FGA||PTS||TRB|
On the whole, Hibbert was still an elite rim protector this season. Per SportVU defensive impact data, Hibbert allowed just 42.6% of opponent field goals at the rim, good for fourth-best in the league minimum 7.0 opponent field goal attempts. The maverick of verticality also saved 2.62 points per 36 minutes, via the rim protection stats provided by Nylon Calculus.
Most recently, the "Hibbert effect" was on full display in a must-win game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Surviving Russell Westbrook's 54-point scoring barrage, the Pacers edged out their opponent, 116-104. Per Player Tracking, Hibbert thwarted six of the Thunder's 11 field goal attempts while he was defending the rim, which means he saved a minimum of 12 points.
Did Roy Hibbert "play well" this season?
Frank Vogel may have the most level-headed response to this question, per the Indy Star:
"He's got to work on his craft, like all of us do, and he'll do that. He'll come in and work hard in the offseason and try to improve. I think some of his numbers are down because his minutes were down, so I think it's a little bit misleading. I thought he was still a great rim protector for us, which is his primary goal..."
Verdict: Half Truth
Claim: Bird with a classic line on Hibbert’s struggles: "Well, I don’t think Lance is stealing his rebounds."
— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) April 17, 2015
While this quip likely ushered in plenty of laughs (ha ha ha... Lance left a year ago), it ignores the facts. Hibbert did grab 7.1 rebounds per game this season, which is slightly above his season average from a year ago (6.6), when he shared the floor with Lance Stephenson. At 21.9%, he also posted a career-high in defensive rebound percentage (an estimate of the percentage of available defensive rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor).
Though these numbers may seem far from mammoth, it is important to note that, per SportVU, Roy was in position for more rebounding chances per game (12.0) than any other Pacer this season, which means he made the effort to put himself within the vicinity of the ball (3.5 feet). Hibbert only recovered 59.3% of his rebounding chances this season, but that figure likely can be explained away by the fact that he is actively blocking out within the designated vicinity in order to better facilitate his teammates ability to grab the rebound.
It might also be worth it to consider just how inconsequential Roy Hibbert's rebounding numbers are when his team is grabbing 44.7 boards per game, good for fourth best in the NBA. As long as the Pacers are finishing defensive possessions with rebounds as well as generating second chance points on offense, should player-by-player distribution of those boards really matter?
Claim: Larry Bird on the probability that Hibbert's role will be reduced if he decides to take his player option, "We assume he's going to be back and if he comes back, we're probably going to play another style. And I can't guarantee him anything. He's going to have to earn it."
Assuming "he's going to be back," implies that Roy is more driven by dollars and cents than other intangible motivators such as fit, role or even basic pride.
For months, it has been assumed by the Pacer faithful that it would be financial folly for Indiana's center to leave $15 million on the table this summer. Not only would Roy potentially cost himself millions in the immediate by taking a gamble on himself, he would be sacrificing the opportunity to hit free agency in 2016, when the salary cap is projected to increase exponentially to $90 million.
Hibbert has a $15.5 million player option for next season. Hard to see him passing that up but never underestimate agent David Falk.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) April 17, 2015
But what if the 7-2 big man came to terms on a two-year deal with a third-year team option, a la Lance Stephenson. With this type of contract structure, Roy would have two seasons, in different surroundings, to prove himself and could potentially hit free agency in or after 2017, when the cap could balloon by yet another $20 million, as further expounded upon here by Grantland's Zach Lowe.
Should he stay in Indiana where the plan is to play faster and smaller, a decrease in minutes next season could result in a decrease in production which, in turn, could likely equate to a decrease in pay grade. In the end, Hibbert might end up losing less by opting out than staying put.
The only hitch here is that, if he does not take his player option, he will be entering free agency alongside a huge crop of centers this summer: Marc Gasol (unrestricted), DeAndre Jordan (unrestricted), Tyson Chandler (unrestricted), Robin Lopez (unrestricted), Omer Asik (unrestricted), Brandon Wright (unrestricted), Al Jefferson (player option), Brook Lopez (player option) and Enes Kanter (restricted).
However, to the original point, there is no guarantee that Roy and his agent, David Falk, will approach free agency solely from a financial standpoint. The possibility of being benched after having once anchored a team which made two consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals may be reason enough to consider other options.
So, will Roy take his player option?
"Roy, I have no idea," Bird said. "We just talked about different things and whatever he does, he does. I don't know what he's going to do."
It depends on what it is that motivates him.
Verdict: Half Truth.