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As Indiana Pacers struggle, Roy Hibbert focuses on how he can improve

By Zach Harper | NBA writer
Hibbert has started the season slowly, but he's ready to improve. (Getty Images)

After a breakout season for the Indiana Pacers in 2011-12, the team has struggled to get going early this season. A lot of that can be attributed to the loss of Danny Granger, whose knee injury is expected to keep him out for three months.

Other Pacers will have to make up for his loss on both sides of the ball. And while their defensive effort has been productive compared to what Indy did last season, the offense has been abysmal. They're currently ranked 28th in the NBA in offensive rating, with a paltry 92.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.

At the center of the Pacers' offense, especially with Granger out, is one of the tallest players in the league, 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert.

Many people now recognize Hibbert in today's NBA. He's been on a couple of episodes of Parks and Recreation, had an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live and even had a viral video in which he and other Pacers fanatics performed Gangnam Style in an Indianapolis mall.

Hibbert is also one of the newest members of the NBA's max contract club, after signing a four-year, $58 million deal this summer after Indy matched the max offer sheet from the Portland Trail Blazers.

However, Hibbert hasn't started out the season well. He's averaging just nine points and seven rebounds per game. Even though he's quickly come to have a reputation as one of the more entertaining players off the court, Hibbert says he's all business as he focuses on figuring out both his own struggles and the team's.

“Up and down right now,” the 2011 All-Star center said when I asked him how he sees the Pacers performing. “We're trying to figure things out with Danny [Granger] out. Couple possessions away from being a pretty good team, pretty decent team.”

Those few "possessions" would mean the world to the Pacers right now. Against the Charlotte Bobcats, George Hill kicked out to a wide-open D.J. Augustin with the team down one and the clock winding down. Augustin missed the 3-pointer as time expired. Against the Hawks, the Pacers took Hibbert, their best paint protector, out of the game on their final defensive possession, only to see Lou Williams give the Hawks a three-point lead with a dunk. On the next possession, Paul George missed a game-tying trey.

Friday night against the Timberwolves, the Pacers fought back in the final minute to tie the game, only to see the Wolves find a game-winning basket at the rim when Andrei Kirilenko found Chase Budinger for a layup.

A couple of bounces the other way and the Pacers would be 5-1 -- instead of 2-4 and trying to figure out what's going wrong.

One of the things going wrong right now is the play of Hibbert, and he knows it.

“That's a real rough patch right now,” Hibbert said before the Minnesota game Friday. “I'm just not playing as well as I want to.”

So what's wrong with Hibbert's game so far this season?

“I'm just not making shots.”

Looking at the numbers, it's pretty evident he's missing a lot of shots he'd normally make.

Hibbert's shot charts from 2012-13 (left) and 2011-12 (right) (NBA.com/stats)

Hibbert shot a career-high 49.7 percent from the field last season, but so far this year he's made only 43.1 percent. His field-goal percentage in the restricted area has fallen from 55.2 percent to 47.2, and he's not making shots from the lower right block, where he excelled last season.

Why isn't he making shots? Sometimes, we over complicate things when trying to analyze why a player is or isn't performing up to par. We dip into the psychology of the player, trying to uncover some deep-seated angst or distraction. With Hibbert's new max deal, it could be a source of pressure for him to perform at a certain level. So is it?

“No, I've been feeling great. I don't really feel a lot of pressure [over the contract]. My shot is just not falling. I'm just figuring things out. But no, I haven't been thinking about the contract too much.”

The Pacers center, however, is helping Indiana remain a top defensive team and one of the better rebounding teams in the NBA.

“Make sure I protect the paint,” Hibbert said when I asked him about his role in the defensive scheme. “Anything that gets in there, nine times out of 10 I'm at the rim making a play on the defensive end. I'm learning to be more vocal, but my natural instinct is to protect the rim.”

While his defensive rebounding numbers are down (3.2 per game from 5.5 the previous season), his offensive rebounding numbers are up (tied for 10th in the NBA with 3.8 per game). The Pacers are seventh in offensive rebounding percentage and 13th in defensive rebounding percentage.

“We've been rebounding so well, but I need to go after more rebounds myself. Offensive rebounds, I'm getting them; I'm not really sure how much I average. But defensively, we've just been rebounding well and I probably still need to be better on the defensive boards.”

Hibbert's self awareness right now is a tool to help him get through his struggles to start the season. If it's simply a matter of making the shots he's getting, it could help solve the problems of Indiana while they adjust to life without Danny Granger. If Hibbert can make shots inside, it could open up everything for his teammates. It means defenders start leaving David West at 18 feet, Paul George on the perimeter and George Hill becomes a better pick-and-roll threat.

It becomes a collective effort, which is something the Pacers used to be the third best team in the Eastern Conference last season.

“It's unfortunate that he's out,” Hibbert said. “He brings a lot to the table for us, but we as a group collectively have to do better.”

This isn't to put the onus all on the Pacers big man. He's just a big piece of the puzzle.

“Offensively, I'm getting the shots I want -- but it's just not falling.”

When those shots do start falling, we'll probably see the Pacers back where they were last season -- near the top of the Eastern Conference and focusing on the struggles of their opponents, instead of their own.

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