Time will tell whether All-Star center Roy Hibbert has — or is — returning to All-Star form.
But whether he is or whether he isn’t, it’s important to note a critical fact about the veteran center: He cares.
Very deeply, he cares.
Though the exact cause of his post-All-Star break struggles remain a mystery, they are not the result of complacency, laziness or indifference. The Pacers have had those kinds of players in the past (Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley and David Harrison come to mind), but Hibbert isn’t of that variety.
Not even close.
Maddening as his frequent disappearing act has been, it’s been downright devastating to Hibbert. He not only takes his role seriously, he embraces it with pride. When he doesn’t fill it, he’s crestfallen.
And it tends to compound the problem.
Equipped with most of the physical tools to be an elite NBA center, Hibbert doesn’t always have the mental strength— i.e., warrior mentality — to match. Too often, it would seem, he has to remind himself he’s 7-foot-2, 290 pounds, that he can impose his will virtually at will, that the rim — at both ends — is his.
Dunking, defending and rebounding should be as natural as breathing. But that’s not the case when he thinks about what he’s doing rather than instinctively doing what a 7-footer is supposed to do.
Though it becomes a tired refrain, coach Frank Vogel is often right about Hibbert when he says the effort is there. Big Roy always tries. He just doesn’t always get results. And when he doesn’t, as was the case for all but Game 7 of the Atlanta series, it’s to the detriment of the Pacers.
They nearly lost the series because their All-Star center was largely AWOL. There were other factors, too, but Big Roy was the arguably the biggest.
Much has been made about Hibbert’s confidence, or lack thereof, and that likely is his No. 1 problem. When the game came naturally for him during the first half of the season, he was a force. When he had a few bad games after the break, he lost his way.
Finding his way back has been slow, arduous and frustrating for the Pacers, for their fans and for Hibbert. All are keenly aware of his value and know an Eastern Conference championship, let alone an NBA title, won’t be possible without what he brings to the table when he plays like an All-Star.
When he’s on, he can defend, block shots and rebound with the best and routinely drop double-figures with baby hooks and a smooth midrange jumper.
When he’s off, none of the above happens. And that’s when the Pacers get in trouble.
They survived the Atlanta series by limiting Hibbert’s minutes and countering with a smaller lineup. They won’t survive the balance of the playoffs with a similar approach. Match-ups won’t allow it.
Somehow, someway, Hibbert has to rediscover his inner-All-Star and play like one, all the time, moving forward. There’s no doubt he’s trying and no doubt he cares. It would be easy to despise him were it any other way.
But best intentions notwithstanding, he can’t be a no-show. He has to be the center of attention.
And stay there.
Rick Morwick is the sports editor of the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org