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Pacers’ decision to retain Roy Hibbert opens door to free agency chess match

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Roy Hibbert

After posting career bests in scoring, rebounding, shooting and blocks last season, Roy Hibbert received a $58 million free-agent offer from Portland that the Pacers are expected to match. (AP)

On Monday came news that the Pacers will match the Blazers’ four-year, $58 million offer sheet for Roy Hibbert, a move that makes sense considering the scarcity of good two-way centers and creates all sorts of possibilities over the first 72 hours of official free agency this week in Portland and Indiana, per Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star.

The Hibbert decision marks Indiana’s second free agency splurge of the month, with the Pacers already having agreed to a five-year, $40 million contract with George Hill. And depending on how Indiana chooses to time these transactions after league business resumes on July 11, the Pacers may yet be a major player for another mid-tier free agent — perhaps a shooting guard such as O.J. Mayo or Lou Williams, or a power forward (Carl Landry?) who could help fill Indiana’s thin big man rotation.

The timing is everything. The Pacers have 72 hours after midnight on July 11 to match Hibbert’s offer sheet. They could, in theory, wait that long, or longer, to make Hill’s deal official. During that waiting period, Hibbert and Hill would count for only about $10.3 million combined on Indiana’s cap sheet via charges, called cap holds, linked to their old salaries. Add those charges to the Pacers’ committed salary, and Indiana could have about $10 million in cap space to use over those hours — assuming the Pacers renounce their rights to Leandro Barbosa. If they’re nervous about Hill drawing interest elsewhere, they could make that contract official fast and still have about $6.5 million in cap space to use before matching on Hibbert. That number could jump a little bit if Dahntay Jones officially signs his player option right away. There’s also the possibility, reported first by David Aldridge of NBA.com, that Indiana negotiates an identical contract to the one Portland offered rather than forcing Hibbert to sign the offer sheet from Portland and then matching that offer sheet.

This may not amount to anything for the Pacers, of course. There are lots of moving parts, several other teams who can influence all these moving parts and no guarantee of finding anyone for that cap space. They may also just choose to lock up their own guys immediately and move along. It’s just a reminder that the Pacers are lean enough to maintain some flexibility while still retaining two core players. Heck, the Hill and Hibbert deals combined give Indiana only about $41 million in committed salary for 2013-14, raising the possibility of near-max level cap room again next summer — though cap holds for David West, Tyler Hansbrough and Darren Collison will eat up all that cap space at first.

Still, Indiana can overpay Hibbert just a bit without compromising its future, especially since none of the above West/Hansbrough/Collison trio are guaranteed core spots in that future.

Hibbert, of course, is the centerpiece of the team’s future at this point. He probably isn’t quite worth a near-max deal in cold calculating terms, but he’s a center who helps on both sides of the ball and doesn’t actively hurt his team in any way. Those are rare commodities, and they get compensated as such. The Pacers in the regular-season were a borderline elite team with Hibbert on the floor and a break-even one with him on the bench, and in the playoffs, the gap widened to the point of absurdity.

The main issue holding Hibbert back from true “franchise player” status is the fact that he isn’t on the court enough. He has never averaged more than 30 minutes per game in the regular-season and exceeded 34 minutes just once in 11 playoff  games last season — mostly due to a combination of typical big man fatigue and occasional foul trouble. Hibbert has cut his fouls-per-minute rate in each of the last three seasons, a micro example of the larger overall improvement Hibbert shows every year.

Hibbert has become a very effective player from the foul line in on both sides of the floor. He has dialed back the mid-range jumpers to develop a solid post game that requires opponent double teams almost every night. Indiana designed entire sets around his ability to hit cutters with creative passes. And he can still hit that mid-range jumper if you give him the space and time to hit it. On defense Hibbert is a legit shot-blocker and rim protector, and he’s gotten smart about how he slides his feet on the edges of the paint to cut off passing lanes, deter drives and make things difficult for opposing offenses.

Excelling above the foul line is next frontier, and given Hibbert’s slow-ish feet and sheer size, he’s likely never going to be Dwight Howard or Tyson Chandler in terms of disrupting pick-and-rolls at the three-point arc or catching a pocket pass at the foul line and exploding for a dunk in two ultra-quick steps. And that’s fine. Andrew Bynum probably isn’t going to do those things either, and he’ll deserve the max contract he gets a year from now. Most centers can’t do those things.

Hibbert will improve here and there with experience. He’s already shown some potential as a guy who can set a pick, roll to the elbow, make a catch and hurt defenses from there as a passer or via a dribble hand-off/screen. He’ll learn tricks on defense that allow him to cover more ground when he has to. He’ll get better at rumbling in for an occasional pick-and-roll bucket.

In other words, Hibbert isn’t a franchise-changing superstar, but he’s a fine two-way center, and those are worth big money. I might be wrong, but I’d wager today that the Pacers are more likely to regret paying Hill $40 million over five years than paying Hibbert $58 million over four.

As for the Blazers, they are an in for an interesting first 72 hours of free agency, waiting on the Pacers to officially act on Hibbert as they decide whether to match Minnesota’s monster four-year, $45 million offer sheet for Nicolas Batum. Hibbert soaks up about $13 million of Portland’s cap space as long as Indiana makes them wait it out, while Batum sits on their books as a cheap $5.3 million cap hold as Portland makes Minnesota playing the waiting game. The Blazers, in other words, can have hugely varying levels of cap space depending on how all these transactions go down, and losing both Batum and Hibbert outright would leave them with something along the lines of $32.4 in committed salary — more than $16 million below the minimum payroll floor each team must hit, and nearly $26 million below the cap. (Note: These numbers depend on the precise amount of Shawne Williams’ buyout, which will end up somewhere between $0 and the $3.1 million Williams’ could have earned via a player option).

Even losing Hibbert and bringing back Batum at the price the Wolves have set would leave Portland with only about $44 million in committed salary — still below the minimum payroll floor.

It will be interesting to watch Portland negotiate all this complexity. If they go for a total rebuild, as Kevin Arnovitz has ruminated upon here, perhaps they let the Wolves overpay for Batum and, in the process, remove a potential free agency competitor from next summer’s landscape. Portland could also add on some of that necessary team salary in this scenario by working a sign-and-trade with Minnesota for non-guaranteed or expiring contracts.

Batum looks to be a solid two-way player, but he has not been an elite defensive stopper to this point, and he has yet to find consistency with any part of his offensive game beyond three-point shooting. There’s a very good player in there, but it’s unclear how much of that player will emerge in the NBA, and how much any team should pay to solve the mystery.

Then again, Batum is only 23, and all the turmoil on the wing in Portland — especially the acquisition of Gerald Wallace in 2011 — has made it difficult at times for Batum to grasp a consistent role in Portland’s very best lineup combinations. Batum would only be the third veteran player, along with LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews, due long-term money; might it be wise to lock him up as part of the franchise’s future? The Blazers can bring back Batum at this high price and still be pretty flexible going forward in terms of cap space, but perhaps not as flexible as Neil Olshey might like.

The Pacers moving on Hibbert at least provides a bit of clarity here.

  • Published On 5:36pm, Jul 09, 2012
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