Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shot to national prominence some fifty years ago as a standout center at Power Memorial high school, before moving on to be a championship-earning legend at UCLA, with the Milwaukee Bucks, and most famously with the Los Angeles Lakers. He still stands as the NBA’s leading scorer, but he also retired nearly a quarter-century ago, and no NBA team has seen fit to sit him on the sidelines as an assistant coach for more than a year at a time.
With the game moving farther and farther away from the pivot, valuing perimeter play and shots directly at the goal as opposed to low post play, it might be debatable as to what role Kareem could play in teaching what he knows best to a current player that needs it the most.
Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert, however, truly needs it the most. He is the last of the NBA’s true giants, an old school center that mixes fits of domination with instances of acting as the worst player on the court, a man out of time in a league that has already dashed past half-court.
This is why Hibbert is studying with Abdul-Jabbar this summer, in a last chance diner’s attempt at serving up some semblance of an offensive game befitting of Hibbert’s 7-4 frame and (seriously) soft hands. Kareem shared as much on Tuesday:
— Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (@kaj33) July 23, 2014
Hibbert’s regular season production declined for a second straight season, and for the second year in a row, the issues were centered on confidence issues (though Hibbert did work through a bad wrist to start 2012-13). The difference between those two dwindling seasons is that Roy’s game perked up to a ferocious degree in the playoffs during Indiana’s near-Finals run in 2013, but in 2014 a frustrated Hibbert paired the occasional standout performance with embarrassing displays on both ends.
Roy Hibbert has a throwback game, and for two summers prior to this one he’s worked with the NBA’s principle throwback avatar, one Tim Duncan, to refine his all-around game. Duncan’s spindly 6-11 frame may have lost a step, but unlike Hibbert he can still pivot his way around defenders and keep up with smaller opponents bent on throwing him off his offensive game.
The Pacers center has had no such luck at this, and this failing was more than apparent against Miami during last season’s playoffs, when Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh and even Chris Andersen routinely beat Hibbert to his spot. It’s true that entry passing was an embarrassing problem for the Pacers in the postseason, but even when Hibbert got the ball offensively the quicker defender would be able to anticipate and beat him to wherever his shoulder wanted to go, resulting in ugly, awkward (though sometimes effective) three-quarter hook shots sometimes tossed across Hibbert’s own body.
With the more orthodox jump hook option taken away, possibly for good at this point in his career, it’s time for Hibbert to develop more moves at age 27. It’s not a given that Hibbert will attempt to approximate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s famed sky hook, but if anyone were to give it a consistent try, it should be Roy Hibbert. All players would do well to learn the move – could you imagine someone like Anthony Davis busting a sky hook out next season? – but Hibbert would seem to need it the most. Other smaller and quicker centers have options to fall back on. As the rest of the league gets smaller and quicker, Hibbert has no such plan in reserve.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s work with Michael Olowokandi at the outset of the former top overall pick’s career was met with notorious indifference. It’s worth noting that, following his stint as a big men coach with the Lakers (KAJ was not on the staff or on the bench, but attended most games and practices), Andrew Bynum’s career has fallen off significantly in the years following his impressive stint while under Abdul-Jabbar’s tutelage. Now, we have no way of knowing if injuries and/or ennui were the primary factors behind Bynum’s career going sour, and it’s quite possible Bynum would have been fantastic as it was even without Kareem around, but we should remember that with Abdul-Jabbar in house, Bynum’s low post game flourished.
It’s also important to remember that we’re just about seven months removed from Roy Hibbert acting as far and away the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, with his sterling first half work for a Pacer team that was running with the best record in the NBA at the time. Hibbert would go on to lose that award, as the Pacers’ season got away from them, but this man is also just 27 and about to enter his prime. He has two years and over $30 million left on his contract, and Indiana is either shaking off trade offers, or not receiving any.
If the former is the case, it’s a smart move. Indiana was always going to be terrible offensively in 2014-15, even if Lance Stephenson had stuck around. The key for this roster is to regaining that stout form on defense, and this means being able to keep Roy Hibbert on the floor for long stretches of time. If Hibbert can even get back to basic low post competency in 2014-15, while possibly adding a few Kareem-guided wrinkles along the way, this will act as a massive boon to Indiana on both sides of the ball.
The Heat lost LeBron. The Cavs look great on paper, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll mesh right away, and nobody knows what Minnesota general manager Flip Saunders is thinking in regards to Kevin Love. Chicago also looks great on paper, but health and rust are huge concerns. Washington and Atlanta still seem a step below. Brooklyn’s bones are made of dust.
The East is still there for the taking, even if the Pacers look terribly uncomfortable offensively next season. If Hibbert can right his situation, whether Kareem is the impetus or not, Indiana would rightfully return to contending status in 2014-15.
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