Ed. Note: Evans Clinchy is a Bostonian and active member of the hoops blogosphere. He’s covered the Celtics for five seasons, with his writing appearing on CelticsBlog, NESN, and SI (among other places). You can follow him, his thoughts, and his writing on Twitter.
It’s gosh-darned close to impossible for anyone, even with inside-out knowledge of the on- and off-court exploits of the Indiana Pacers, to pinpoint exactly what’s gone wrong with that team over the course of the last two months. Everyone can toss their theories out there (and at this point, who hasn’t?), but it’s extremely unlikely that any of us has the full story.
It’s a complicated question, and the only thing for certain is that everyone’s simple answer is wrong. There’s no such thing as simplicity here. Breaking down the Pacers requires an in-depth understanding of economics (maybe they invested too much dough in players with limited skill sets?), physics (maybe all those Paul George jumpers are just taking funny bounces off the Fieldhouse rims?), statistics (maybe it’s just regression to the mean after the team’s unreasonably hot start?) and psychology (maybe everyone just hates Lance Stephenson and it really is that simple).
I think all this complexity is what makes basketball so beautiful. There’s so much going on at once, and you can’t boil it all down into a 140-character solution. Even if they’re watching every game, crunching every number and probing with every behind-the-scenes source (and lord knows I’m doing none of the above, I’m just a blowhard on the internet), no one can come up with a perfect answer to questions like this.
But we all need fodder for our blogs and our talk radio shows and whatnot, so we make stuff up. And often, even though basketball is a team game with gazillions of factors all interacting at once, we reduce our explanations to focus primarily on one guy. In this case, that would be Roy Hibbert.
Sure, Hibbert. Why not? You can’t miss him – he’s the 7-foot-2 (or so he’s listed) behemoth in the middle of the painted area of the floor fumbling rebounds and missing layups. With his $14,283,844 paycheck and two All-Star teams and Parks and Rec cameo under his belt, he’s the closest thing the small-market Pacers have to a celebrity, and he’s increasingly become the focal point of the team ever since Frank Vogel took over as head coach three-plus years ago. When things go wrong, he’s a logical fall guy.
It’s an oversimplification, but in fairness, it does go both ways — Hibbert gets too much blame when things go wrong, but also a great deal of credit when they go right. So in this postseason, in which the Pacers are currently 5-4 with a lots of ups and downs, Hibbert’s reputation has been jerked all over the place. The team was down 3-2; Hibbert was the worst. They battled back and beat the Hawks; he had found himself again. Then the Pacers lost Game 1 to the Wizards; he was back to being terrible. Then they won Game 2; you get the picture.
It’s kind of arbitrary how we focus on Hibbert every night and not George Hill, whose erratic performances have been just as noticeable — few people talked about how his 1-for-11 shooting night killed the Pacers in Game 3 against the Hawks, or conversely about how his defense against John Wall was a lifesaver in Wednesday’s Game 2. We’ve reached the point where every TV broadcast and every postgame news conference is a referendum on Hibbert — his stat line, his mental state, all of it. We ignore the other good stuff about their wins and the other bad stuff about their losses.
The epicenter of the Pacer earthquake has always been Hibbert – this is nothing new. Remember, this is the same Hibbert who was the talk of Game 1 against the Heat last year because of a play where he wasn’t even in the game. Rather than harp on how Paul George failed to guard against LeBron James’ game-winning layup, we instead turned our attention to the Hibbert hypothetical. Forget about the five guys who actually played – Roy should have been in there!
It became one of the great “what ifs” of the postseason. If Hibbert had been on the floor, LeBron wouldn’t have driven to the rim; maybe he settles for a jumper; maybe he misses; maybe the Pacers win Games 1 and 2 at Miami; maybe they head home for Game 6 up 3-2 instead of down; maybe they close it out.
Maybe they win a title.
Or maybe it’s not as simple as all that, and it never really is. It’s hard to say. Hibbert is an influential player, but there’s nine other guys on a basketball court.
All I know is I wouldn’t want to be Roy Hibbert. Too stressful. Too many fans and media types sizing you up, psychoanalyzing you daily. Being a defense-first big man – getting the crap beat out of you on the regular, and rarely getting to fill out a box score – is already a thankless job. It’s probably far worse when you’ve got to put up with America’s crazy mood swings.
I think we’re stuck in this state of Hibbert-induced schizophrenia for a long time. This team has been built around the big man for a while, and 7-foot-2 behemoths with $14,283,844 paychecks tend to be fairly immobile, both physically and contractually. Hibbert’s going to be Mr. Pacer for years to come, for better or for worse. We might as well get used to it.