The Charlotte Hornets learned from their playoff loss to the Miami Heat that they need a roughneck.
They think and hope 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert can be that guy.
The Hornets signed free agent Hibbert Thursday to a one-season, $5 million contract. He’s coming off two poor seasons, which is why he was available to the Hornets at an affordable price.
And, yes, he believes he checks that box reading “physicality.”
“I’ve gotten into some scrapes. I’ve been fined for being too physical,” said Hibbert, who has played for the Indiana Pacers and most recently the Los Angeles Lakers. “I think physicality is something in me.”
Hibbert needs a career reboot. The Pacers traded him to the Lakers in what amounted to a salary dump last summer. He had his least productive of eight NBA seasons in Los Angeles, averaging 5.9 points and 4.9 rebounds.
Some of that might have been situational. The Lakers were a bad team, and the season was little more than a celebration of retiring Kobe Bryant’s career. Hibbert didn’t particularly fit in the Lakers’ youth movement, and while he started 81 games, he averaged only 23 minutes.
“I think he would tell you he’s lost his way a little here or there,” said Hornets coach Steve Clifford. “But Patrick (Ewing, the Hornets associate head coach) can help him a great deal, and he can get back to (being) that guy.
“He was the premier rim protector in this league. He wasn’t just good. He did it against great competition. This could be a great pickup.”
Two things we know about Clifford and free agency: He does deep-drill research, and he’s good at reclamation projects.
Clifford doesn’t get very involved with the draft, figuring the scouts are more in tune with college basketball than he has the time to be. But he’s much more of a stakeholder in the veterans the Hornets acquire. For instance, Jeremy Lin said a big factor in his choosing the Hornets last season was how much more Clifford knew about him and his game than other coaches.
There’s a parallel to be drawn between Lin in the summer of 2015 and Hibbert this summer. Both fell out of favor with the Lakers and needed a fresh start. Both signed inexpensive, short-term contracts with the Hornets.
Hibbert would love to have the season Lin did, playing so well he signed with the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday for $12 million a season.
“I feel like he’s a very straightforward coach,” Hibbert said of Clifford. “This is an opportunity to play for a team that is ready to win right now. Hopefully, I can thrive in that environment.”
The Hornets still have an incumbent starting center in Cody Zeller. Their strengths are different: Zeller is the quicker of the two, Hibbert the more physical. Clifford sees that as a strength – different skill sets for different matchups.
But before training camp even begins, they need to build Hibbert back up to the player who was a two-time All-Star. Or at least something approaching that.
He says he’s all in.
“Whatever role they need me to do on offense is fine. I’d love to be involved. But the backbone of my game has to be defense,” Hibbert said.
“I can’t make excuses. The onus is on me now to perform out on that court. I’ll do everything I can to prepare myself this season.”