2015-16 Stats: 81 G, 23.2 MP, 5.9 PTS, 4.9 REB, 1.4 BLK
It doesn't feel like it was all that long ago that the Indiana Pacers challenged LeBron James and the Miami Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy. How quickly things change.
The strength of the Pacers was their defense. Their defense was anchored by Roy Hibbert. Truly, Hibbert was one of the very best in the league, alongside Larry Sanders and a step ahead of everyone else. Now, like Sanders, Hibbert has almost completely disappeared from the NBA universe. One key difference - Hibbert is still in the NBA.
There's a completely unscientific saying that when a center loses it, they just lose it. It could be injury, it could be the excessive force applied to their ginormous frames, it could be something else altogether.
Hibbert is looking to defy that notion and there might not be a better place for him to do so than in Charlotte. You see, Charlotte has Steve Clifford. In three seasons of Clifford coaching, the Bobcats were fourth in opponent points per game in 2013-14 and the Hornets were seventh and ninth respectively in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Clifford is one of the very best coaches in the entire league, even if he doesn't get the adoration afforded coaches in larger markets.
The size of the market could also help Hibbert out. While he was with the Pacers, in the middle of Indiana, he was at his best. His lone season with the Lakers was anything but great, despite his love of films and the potential lure of Hollywood. Honestly, that is probably a stretch. It was likely more coincidence that his game continued to fall off in Los Angeles, which was something that started long before he left the Pacers.
However, there is reason for hope. Not only do Clifford squads play great defense, but the Hornets are considerably better than the Lakers - not a statement that could often be made during the history of the Charlotte franchise. Hibbert was marooned in the land of Kobe Bryant, a deck hand on a ship with a captain that was taking his crew down with him in a final blaze of glory. There wasn't a lot of help for Hibbert in Los Angeles. He started all 81 games that he played for the Lakers, but he played the fewest minutes per game, 23.2, since his rookie season in 2008-09.
His traditional stats are also worryingly low, but with some good reason. While his scoring numbers were down, it mostly was down to his reduced attempts. He averaged just 5.1 field goal attempts per game, the lowest number of his career. Between Kobe, Nick Young, and D'Angelo Russell, there was a lot less opportunity to go around for the rest of the team. His field goal percentage was right on par with his previous three seasons where he averaged double digits in scoring each year.
There are risks with a player like Hibbert, but Charlotte has all the reason in the world to feel comfortable with signing him on. His contract is just one season at $5 million, which translates to pocket change in the ever-changing world of NBA salary caps. For comparison, the New York Knicks just shelled out $72 million over four years for a player who is of a similar offensive capability, who is on a string of injuries and slowly succumbing to time. Noah and Hibbert are vastly different players on the court, even if their reputations are similar, but regardless of reputation and skill, getting a guy that you can put in the same sentence as Noah for a fracture of the time and money is a big win for the team, even if Hibbert turns into a net loss this season.
It's hard to picture Hibbert as a total loss, however, as he won't be asked to carry the majority of the load. He has a history of being a starting center, but that could change under Clifford. The Georgetown product might be able to abide that, he might not. Either way, it doesn't really matter. If Clifford needs to start Hibbert, that probably won't cause an issue. Hibbert's playing time is nearly at an all-time low and the Hornets have Cody Zeller.
The good rapport that Zeller and star guard Kemba Walker built last season will hopefully be a foundational piece again for the Hornets in 2016-17. Essentially, Walker is the starting guard and they will likely want to keep Zeller on the floor with him for any stretch of the game which requires an emphasis on offense and then bring in Hibbert to get his 20 or so minutes, knocking bodies and playing determined defense.
His rim protection numbers via Nylon Calculus aren't all that inspiring from last season, but I would recall your memory that he was in Los Angeles last year. Nearly every player that did a stop-gap turn with the Lakers can be chalked up as collateral damage. Thankfully for Charlotte, the Snapchat effect of Russell and Swaggy P, along with the terrible, awful, no-good season Los Angeles had in the standings probably helped drive the price down on Hibbert.
The outlook for Hibbert is that he fills a need for the Hornets at a very cheap price. Zeller will still get the majority of minutes at center, regardless of starter status for either player. If there is any team, coach or locale that better suits Hibbert at this point in his career, I can't name it. He's numbers last season were down, but can partially be attributed to being stuck with a terrible Lakers squad. He isn't going to suddenly turn into the Hibbert of old who averaged over two blocks per game, but he is one of the most successful shotblockers active in the NBA today.
I would expect a bounce back from Hibbert on the defensive end of the floor and a slight improvement on offense, particularly in his reps with the bench units where they'll be looking for some production alongside players like Jeremy Lamb, Ramon Sessions and Frank Kaminsky. That situation bodes much better for him than standing around while Kobe bids farewell 50 shots at a time.