Roy Hibbert Stars in the Puppy Who Lost his Way.

Apr 26, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) reacts to a play against the Atlanta Hawks during the second half in game four of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena. The Pacers defeated the Hawks 91-88. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Roy Hibbert can have a good game while having zero points and zero rebounds.

It would have to come as an extreme circumstance. Hibbert couldn’t be a good player over the course of a season with zero ability to score or rebound, per se. Defenses would just stop paying attention to him altogether, and rebounding would turn into a five-on-four battle that’d likely cripple the Pacers eventually.

But for one night, sure. He can have a good game with a double-zero. It’s a process thing. Roy is typically the last guy to get a look in the offense, outside of wide open looks under the hoop, and he makes such an effort protecting his own rim that the Pacers don’t mind when Lance crashes the backboard party. As long Hibbert plays his role as a last line of defense, the team isn’t hindered by his lack of contribution in the standard box score.

But that perceived lack of contribution next to his name fuels the fascination with the 7’2″ center. It overshadows the ways the rule changes allow a player like Hibbert to flourish. We’re used to centers as maestros in the offensive key, and that’s largely because the NBA didn’t allow defenses to adjust in the manner they do now. With those rules changing, the center naturally evolved to adapt to the change. We now see many one-way defensive specialists in the league, and none are built for the job like Hibbert. Yet our perception still lags behind when seeing a player so one-dimensionally built to dominate the defensive side like Roy.

The real problem, then, is when Hibbert’s lack of defensive impact combines with those box score goose-eggs. Regular season match-ups against the Suns and Hawks were the first warning signs. Both teams featured a four-out or five-out philosophy, depending on the lineup, allowing them to scheme out Hibbert’s effectiveness on defense by forcing him away from the paint. Roy couldn’t be Roy with Channing Frye pulling him away from the basket. The Hawks did the same with Pero Antic. Antic isn’t the prolific shooter Channing Frye is, but it still was effective for countering Hibbert. Again, it’s about the process not necessarily the results

That was long before the impending Hawks-Pacers series that featured hysteria in Indiana and heartbreak in Georgia. The Pacers were seen as legitimate title contenders then, and it didn’t take trained eyes to see that this was going to be a real issue. The question flipped from “are the Heat going to counter Hibbert with Greg Oden” to “how are the Pacers going to counter the Heat’s small ball lineup” swiftly.

It was difficult just to see the opposing team use a strategy that took the Pacers biggest strength and flipped it on its head, and that struggle has engulfed Hibbert. He’s really just an oversized puppy; when things were going well, his boundless energy and desire turned him into one of the best rim-protectors in the game, and you lived with the occasional broken lamp that his rambunctious shenanigans caused. Now, though, the puppy’s lost, and all of that nervous energy is focused straight into confusion and chewing on everything in Indiana’s living room.

Hibbert being neutralized on defense just brought his offensive and rebounding woes into focus, and the cries against him grew louder. He — along with the Pacers offense — got stagnant. He no longer moved about the floor, trying to create space for his teammates and setting hard screens, and instead of deterring opponents from the paint, he was clogging the lane for his own team. As for rebounding, he no longer boxed out with the same vigor. A man his size tends to grab a lot of attention whenever a shot goes up, and instead of opening up room for West or one of the wings to grab the errant shot. He wasn’t doing those little things that help his team succeed in those parts of the games, the little things that don’t show up in the stat-line — the things he has to do to be effective.

It’s tough to see such a dominating defensive force be reduced to this current form. So many questions swirl about his physical health, his mental fortitude, and his relationships with teammates, but potential answers are only assumptions while Roy stays quiet on the issue. As disheartening as it was to see him negated by extreme offensive spacing, it’s been his unraveling over the past few months that’s been the true nightmare for the team and their fans.

However, while Roy’s lost, it’d be nice to see the organization not lose faith in him. When Hibbert’s right, the Pacers defense reaches historic levels and not by coincidence. No matter where this team finishes, there will be thousands of Hibbert memes and trade rumors this offseason. Hibbert’s problem may be one that he can only face alone, but this puppy certainly will operate better knowing that his team will be behind him through thick-and-thin. And who knows, maybe David West or Larry Bird knows exactly what to say for this puppy to find his home underneath the opponent’s hoop.

Maybe then Roy will put up zero points and zero rebounds again, but with a different vibe. Where Hibbert sends home shot-after-shot with a swing of the arm, and sets the kind of crunching screens to open up a Paul George pull-up. The kind of game where Hibbert boxes out everyone, allowing Lance to grab the rebound and start one of his patented leak-outs. Where he looks perfectly in control dictating the flow defensively. The good kind of zero point, zero rebound game.

(Or he could score 28 points and grab 9 rebounds, that works too.)

Cole Patty