When George went down during a Team USA scrimmage with a gruesome "open tibia-fibula fracture," the Pacers' 2014-15 season went down with him.
Its outcome, the path it travels down, is not irrelevant. To the contrary, it's incredibly important. But all hope of remaining competitive, chasing championships and disproving the theory that Lance Stephenson's departure portended collective decadence and decay is gone.
The Pacers are not a playoff team sans George and Stephenson. Those two alone represented more than 18 of the Pacers' 56 wins last season. Their ceiling now—even when taking into account the additions of Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles—is 37-38 victories. And that's being ambitious.
Regardless of how the Pacers react, no matter who they sign or trade for, the present doesn't matter. George's absence has thrust them into future-planning mode, forcing them to look ahead, devising a direction that suits the severity of their situation and acting accordingly.
Only they can't act. Not swiftly, not aggressively.
Planning ahead takes foresight, and the Pacers have none. They no longer have a definitive glimpse into their future or a possible preview, however hunch-fraught, of what's to come.
Do they desecrate the current roster, the one that wasn't good enough to win a title with George and Stephenson and embrace the tank, trading one asset after another? Or do they buy hard, remain active, perhaps dipping into the luxury tax via trade or free agency to make the most of their faulty fate?
They can't answer, nor attempt to answer, any of those queries.
Tanking? No Tanks.
Tanking has its merits. The Pacers own their 2015 first-round draft selection, so plundering through the roster piece by piece, flipping talent for picks and cap flexibility, makes sense on some level.
Sources told the Sporting News' Sean Deveney back in July the Pacers were "quietly" shopping Roy Hibbert anyway. Tanking would merely be an extension of that malleable mindset, like Jonathan Washburn of 8 Points 9 Seconds contends:
Therefore, I would trade away David West in hopes of getting a younger stretch four and tell Roy we want to surround him with shooters so he can thrive offensively as well as defensively. I may even dangle George Hill out there to see what his value is and hope to come back in 2015-16 with a healthy PG, a rejuvenated Hibbert, and possibly a youngster with good talent.
There are other ways to tank. Indy could gut the roster of anyone and everyone and really warm up to the Philadelphia 76ers' way of life. If there's a trade market for Hibbert, George Hill and David West, they could move all three and start from scratch, re-assembling the team around George next season and beyond.
Deliberately throwing in the towel, though, is problematically presumptuous. Following an injury like this, the Pacers cannot assume George will be their future essence.
Talk radio has been overrun with doctors and experts engendering optimism, citing George's age (24) as reason to believe he'll return to form. Yet in all reality, as Bleacher Report's Will Carroll tactfully recognizes, there is no accurately forecasting his future this soon:
While Ware and other gruesome injuries to athletes like Tyrone Prothro, Anderson Silva and Tim Krumrie will come to mind, there's really no good comparable for George. Jeff Stotts, one of the top NBA injury researchers, was unable to find a direct comp for George's fracture in his extensive database.
That George was so quickly handled on the court and moved to surgery is a testament to the athletic trainers and doctors on site. That he has a chance to come back and play again is a testament to what modern orthopedics and sports medicine can do. How well he comes back will be all about Paul George.
Unable to guarantee George's recovery, the Pacers cannot invest any more of their future in him. They have $90-plus million tied up in him over the next five years already. Further binding a now-obscured blueprint to his hazy return by unloading other building blocks is the equivalent of Indy doubling down.
That's not the play here.
Nor is fighting this.
Vindication is not one trade or free-agency signing away.
Though eligible for the disabled player exception—which permits the Pacers to pursue one player on a one-year deal via trade or free agency priced at no more than $5.3 million, per ESPN.com's Amin Elhassan (subscription required)—team president Larry Bird isn't in possession of a magic panacea.
Interest in Shawn Marion won't change much.
Trying to parlay one of their few trade assets into a bigger, better solution won't change much.
Nothing the Pacers do to improve will actually help them improve. The best they can realistically do is remain in the playoff conversation, charging toward a bottom-two postseason spot.
Contending for mediocrity isn't worth potentially going into the luxury tax (the Pacers already have $74-plus million committed to their roster, per ShamSports), even with long-term interests at heart.
Not when the Pacers don't know what they're adding to or investing in.
Waiting for Clarity
That is the sum and substance of Indy's inability to respond with some kind of splash here: the unknown.
This isn't a surefire championship team. These Pacers, even with a healthy George, were in danger of falling backward.
They were, as Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal attests, a complete mystery:
Indiana is no longer in a position in which it can absorb a major injury or avoid succumbing to a cold spell. Just making the playoffs is going to be more challenging than previously thought, even if the Pacers should still be favored for that final berth.
It doesn't mean they will drop out of the postseason picture, but they are indeed in danger of doing exactly that, despite coming off a season in which they had the top record in the East.
Falling out of the playoff picture would represent the most radical consequence, but that it could be justifiably entertained speaks to Indy's fragility and to the uncertain future of George.
Deemed a superstar, George's success has yet to be mutually exclusive of Stephenson's presence. The former's efficiency numbers plummeted without the latter last year, according to NBA.com. George's field-goal percentage went from 44.8 to 38.6, his three-point percentage from 38.6 to 31.7 and his offensive rating dropped from 104.9 to 97.5.
Can the Pacers really tank only to rebuild around George when they don't know how he'll function, healthy or otherwise? Can they retool around this current dynamic, using even more new faces to buoy a core that may need to be disbanded anyway?
No, and no.
"In the meantime, respect the gauntlet PG is now forced to maneuver," Indy Cornrows' Matt Andreason writes. "His season's already lost; his game and confidence may never be the same. Must he lose the structure that surrounds him, too?"
No again. Not right now.
"Any discussion regarding the future of our team would be inappropriate at this time," Bird said in a statement." "Our focus is solely on Paul and doing whatever we can to help."
Next season was supposed to offer answers. It would finally define Hibbert. Show what George is made of as the team's lone star.
Reveal these Pacers—these exact Pacers—for who and what they really are.
Some answers will invariably be provided; most won't. The Pacers won't play through next season with a hold on what's to come because without George, they aren't whole. Instead, they're trapped within a looming limbo, where remaining idle is the only course of action that doesn't involve potentially destructive guesswork.
There is, at this point, only a holding pattern during which the Pacers do almost nothing except wait and hope for the clarity and insight that come with being whole again.