(AP Photo/AJ Mast)

If anybody needed a hug last season in the NBA it was Indiana’s Roy Hibbert. In the midst of the Pacers well-documented collapse a season ago (40-12 before the all-star break, 16-14 after it), Hibbert took to calling his teammates “selfish” before backtracking hours later. But that apology only gave way to him and the team imploding at the season’s finish line.

Hibbert was roasted alive to the point where Internet trolls created a mock Xbox controller mocking his playoff blunders. Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas even got in on the action. His regressions were easy to promote and paste as headlines.

He shot less than 40 percent on shots less than 10-feet from the basket during Indiana’s series against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals—shots he connected on 41.7 percent of the time during the regular season. He stopped anchoring the defense, lost the defensive player of the year award—an award he was projected to win in January—and notched an NBA Real Plus/Minus score of lower than -20 in three of his final four playoff games.

More importantly, as Matt D’Anna indicated with his TeamSPACE charts, he began moving away from the rim, opening broader lanes to the basket for opponents. For someone who had the highest contest percentage (60 percent, according to Seth Partnow’s rim protection data at Hardwood Paroxysm’s The Nylon Calculus) in the entire league a season ago, it would seem counterintuitive to try and protect the basket by migrating farther away from it, particularly when you’re playing alongside more mobile defenders like David West and Paul George.

Here’s Indiana’s floor spacing prior to the all-star break:


Here’s Indiana’s floor spacing after the All-Star break:


With the departure of Lance Stephenson this offseason and George’s injury likely costing him the year, the Pacers are left without two of their three leading scorers a season ago. Raw scoring is a primitive look at what they’re losing, though, and it can’t be said enough how much improvement on the defensive end will be critical for the team to keep their head above water this season. George is a lockdown perimeter defender and Stephenson’s 101 defensive rating a season ago is significantly better than what Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles bring to the table.

The weight of this year’s transition will be shouldered most by Hibbert, though. And even though he’s paired with one of the better dynamic power forwards in the league in David West, Hibbert is very clearly the linchpin of the defense.

Here’s the contrast of Indiana’s starting rotation’s production a season ago in wins vs. losses:

Though the numbers are for-the-most-part equal, it’s clear that Hibbert had the most variance in his overall game of anyone in the starting rotation. In wins a season ago, Hibbert posted an average defensive rating of 93; in losses, he posted an average defensive rating of 112. His usage percentage also dipped in losses, when the team was unwilling to run their schemes through or around him.

Perhaps the most revealing of Hibbert’s importance are Indiana’s numbers with him on and off the court.

During the regular season, Frank Vogel’s squad shot a higher percentage, crashed the offensive glass more, posted a higher team assist percentage, and had nearly a seven-point higher offensive rating with Hibbert on the court. In the playoffs, they shot nearly two percent worse from the field, had a lower team rebounding percentage, assisted on fewer baskets and had a higher turnover percentage with him on the court.

Wednesday night, the Pacers opened their season at home against the Philadelphia 76ers. Though they struggled mightily in the first half, Hibbert became the fulcrum the team needed him to be in the second, finishing with a team-high 22 points, eight rebounds, seven blocks and an NBA Real Plus/Minus score of 18. He captained the unit the way he’ll need to if he wants the Pacers to be there come playoff time.

Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Rivals, Denver Post, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He currently writes for Wall Street Journal Sports, the ESPN TrueHoop Network and The Cauldron. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).