Team USA managed to remain relatively whole after Paul George’s hideous and likely season-ending right leg injury, as none of the remaining participants decided to bail on the program immediately afterward. But while USA Basketball will carry on as favorites for the FIBA World Cup in Spain without the two-time NBA all-star, the prospects for the Indiana Pacers are much grimmer.
George’s rise to superstardom has mirrored the Pacers’ climb to become an Eastern Conference heavyweight. His fall may have provided Indiana the best opportunity to start over with a team that may have already plateaued.
Before his unfortunate setback, George was still confident in the Pacers’ chances in the wide open East and his ability to elevate his game even in the absence of Lance Stephenson, a borderline all-star talent who bolted for Charlotte this summer in free agency. Moreover, the Miami Heat — the only hurdle between the Pacers and the NBA Finals the past two seasons — will take on a dramatically different look with four-time most valuable player LeBron James leaving behind Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But without George, everything changes — and so should the Pacers’ thinking.
Larry Bird has never been one for bottoming out and engaging in rebuilding projects. In his statement over the weekend, Bird hinted at his plans when he said, “There is no question about the impact on our team but our goal is to be as strong-willed and determined as Paul will be in coming back.”
But Bird might want to take a different approach this time around. When Ron Artest was suspended for the final 75 games after the infamous brawl in 2004, Bird stuck with the same core, watched the team advance to the conference semifinals and waited for Artest’s return and a title run that never materialized.
Bird eventually had to bail on Artest, dealing him in 2006 for Peja Stojakovic for what turned out to be the franchise’s final playoff run for five years. Several off-court incidents led to a locker room purge and Bird finally parted with Jermaine O’Neal, landing Roy Hibbert in a deal with Toronto that served as the foundation of the current team.
By drafting George and Stephenson in 2010, trading for George Hill and signing David West in 2011, the Pacers established one of the more reliable and durable starting fives in the NBA. That consistency and continuity, along with the solid defensive schemes of Coach Frank Vogel made the Pacers relevant for the right reasons. They made a steady progression until the limitations of that unit, especially on the offensive end, became evident.
Whether the problems last season were the result of bad chemistry, mental frailty or both, the Pacers appeared to be lacking something that wasn’t solved with the offseason additions of C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey. Now, with no George or Stephenson to create anything off of the dribble, Indiana will likely continue to struggle to generate offense.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, Indiana is able to replace George by using a disabled player exception, which gives the Pacers $5.3 million to spend on a free agent or a player claimed off waivers for one season. But few impactful free agents remain, and certainly none that come marginally close to what George could provide. Indiana might not even be willing to use that money since it would push them into luxury tax territory, despite the exception.
This had already been a year of change for the Pacers. They traded Danny Granger for Evan Turner at the trade deadline in a deal that led to disastrous results. And the losses of George and Stephenson mean the Pacers are already headed in different direction from previous seasons. Indiana would be fortunate to make one of the final two playoff spots without George but could find some quality future assets by moving West, Hibbert and possibly George Hill, who is signed through 2017.
There is a danger in simply trying to hold. Regardless, the Pacers and George will be different when he returns to the NBA some time in the 2015-16 season. If Bird decides to keep the team together as it is currently constructed, with a few minor tweaks, a 34-year-old West and 28-year-old Hibbert would be in the final year of their respective deals and the Pacers would have the smallest of windows to chase down a title — and that is under the assumption that George is not only back at an elite level, but better than when he left.
If the Pacers decide to start over, the pressure would be diminished for George and he would possibly have a younger, more exciting team to grow with.