One of the biggest issues keeping the Houston Rockets from making a joy run into the playoffs these last few years has been their lack of consistent interior defense. With Sam Dalembert and Luis Scola taking a majority of the team’s minutes at center last season (Marcus Camby only filled in for 5% of playing time at the position, according to 82games.com), they allowed 44.5 points in the paint per game. Only the Kings and Bobcats were worse. There never was no reliable giant, with enveloping hands and a head the size of a small microwave, who from night to night could suit up and create a human moat around the basket for 30 or so minutes—an intimidating presence who not only would block about two shots per game, but efficiently score in the post when you chose to slow the game down.
For Houston, and almost every other team in the league, Roy Hibbert could be that player. He’s 7’2″ from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. But when he extends his arms and leaps for a rebound, that number grows to something like 13 feet. Coming off his first All-Star appearance last year, Hibbert is a restricted free agent this offseason, which is good news for his agency, and bad for his current team. Taking into account the money that centers made on first year deals this year—DeAndre Jordan ($10 million), Marc Gasol ($12.9 million), Tyson Chandler ($13.1 million), and Nene ($13 million)—if the Rockets were to sign Hibbert, there’s a chance, depending on how they play their hand with Kevin Martin, he’d become their highest paid player. When you take into account Motiejunas and the two first round picks (as of now), Houston’s cap space dramatically shrinks.
But maybe the price tag won’t be as high as everybody thinks. I’m no economics major, but take a look at the market right now. With the likes of JaVale McGee, Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby, Spencer Hawes, Omer Asik, Brook Lopez, and Robin Lopez all hitting free agency, there’s a decent supply of big man in this year’s free agency class that could presumably drive the inflated price down from what we saw in last year’s spending spree. But even if you’re paying him eight digits per year for the next four years, is that really such a bad thing? Hibbert has improved almost every area of his game in every season since he entered the league. Two years ago he gave up 0.91 PPP when defending the post. Last year that number was down to 0.72, a significant improvement. He’s getting to the free-throw line more, grabbing more rebounds, posting a higher true shooting percentage, committing fewer fouls, and playing more minutes. When shooting the ball from 3-9 feet this season, Hibbert’s been more accurate than Al Jefferson, Andrew Bynum, Marc Gasol, and Dwight Howard. And he takes over four shots from that range per game, so this is no small sample size.
After absorbing the fact that his continued improvement hasn’t been a coincidence, and that there’s no telling where the ceiling for a hungry/humble 7’2″ man lies, things get a little scary. This from a recent must read Grantland article on Hibbert’s development:
Hibbert pays Justin Zormelo, a private scout, to send him edited film and detailed reports on himself and the center he’s matched up against before every game. “The guys who work for the team are great, but they have to focus on the whole team,” Hibbert says. “It’s good to get something more personal.”
The bottom line about basketball is this: size matters. In recent years there have been various rule changes and strategic movements toward prioritizing use of the three-point shot, but so it goes, if you don’t have enough size, you can’t clog up the middle, intimidate penetrators, end defensive possessions with emphatic rebounds, tip out your own team’s misses for multiple opportunities on the same possession, or slow the game down with easy free-throws and post-up situations. As was previously said, Hibbert stands at 7’2″, and next to Andrew Bynum, he might be the tallest of all the tall guys who matter in the league. But Hibbert’s different from Bynum in that he doesn’t have a monstrous, all-consuming ego. Hibbert knows his sh*t stinks, and knows that despite his size and sometime dominant advantage on the offensive end, there are other ways for his team to attack an opposing defense. Sometimes his importance lies on the less glamorous end of the court, and Roy Hibbert appears to be okay with that.
Think about him as a member of the Rockets; what he could do with Kevin McHale in a full training camp. How does that not improve his game even further? After four years in the league with Indiana, the tenure of Hibbert’s next contract should be seen as the next chapter in his career. The expectations have changed. What you’re getting is a dominant center who could and should make the All-Star game every single year. A player who’s only going to get better. If you have Hibbert on your team, there’s a good chance you won’t have to worry about an opposing center throughout the life of his contract. He takes care of a very important part of every basketball game, and for that he’s invaluable.
One more thing to bring this pro-Roy Hibbert argument full circle. When we talk about improving the Rockets’ main defensive problem, this season the Indiana Pacers, Hibbert’s current team, had the fifth best interior defense in the league, giving up just 38.1 points in the paint per game. That’s the difference between making the playoffs and peeping through a window.