The departure of Lance Stephenson in free agency already left a big hole in the Indiana Pacers' starting lineup, but the loss of Paul George to a gruesome leg injury during a Team USA scrimmage will prove even more devastating.
While Stephenson certainly provided some offensive punch with his unorthodox style as a ball-handler and distributor, George was the offensive fail-safe. Any time a possession broke down, it was George's responsibility to create a scoring opportunity for himself or a teammate. In close games, the ball was in his hands.
Yet even with George and Stephenson, Indiana hovered near the bottom in offensive rating—22nd in the league for the season overall, according to NBA.com, and 29th after the All-Star break. Heading into the 2014-2015 season with an even more limited offensive team, it was clear the Pacers offense would struggle once again.
So George's absence on the offensive end will likely only bump Indiana down from a below-average offense to a bottom-of-the-barrel unit. It's as a defender—one who matched up well with LeBron James and could operate on an island without help—that George will be missed.
Pacers President Larry Bird hasn't sounded too optimistic about the upcoming season, especially during a recent press conference when he was very hesitant to make any sort of definitive proclamations about the upcoming season:
We're going to do our best to compete hard and make the playoffs. My goal is to win as many games as we possibly can and get into the playoffs. I know some of our fans would rather us go a different direction, but we're here to win and we're going to try to win.
SB Nation's Tom Ziller, however, clarifies exactly why there isn't much hope concerning the Pacers title chances this year. It's the offensive weapons slowly building up in the East that will pose Indiana problems on defense.
...even repeating with the No. 1 defense in the league will only get them to around .500, and without George or Stephenson (both good defenders) stopping the newly high-powered teams in the East becomes a bigger challenge.
No NBA team is full of great defenders from top to bottom. Most players come with certain skill sets and lack others, and it's up to an NBA general manager to piece together these parts without leaving too many gaping holes.
Because defense is a significantly less skill-based asset than offense, teams will focus on the offensive end and trust a coach to instill the type of work ethic and discipline that factor into playing great defense.
What's more is that individual defensive deficiencies can be masked by a team's ability to move in tandem, coupled with two stellar defensive players—ideally an elite rim protector and a lengthy wing player capable of guarding multiple positions.
This wing player is especially crucial because his versatility can mask the flaws of other players through cross-matching: Poor defenders can guard lesser threats, while versatile and more skilled defenders will pick up the opponent's most dangerous player, regardless of position.
For Indiana, George was that player whose assignments varied on a nightly basis. One night he would be guarding James, the most physical and talented player in the entire league whose pure power is a nightmare to handle.
The next night he might find himself on James Harden, a quicker, smaller guard with unlimited range. Because of George's athleticism and defensive acumen, he could adjust his guarding style to handle whatever type of offensive threat he was facing on a particular night.
Luckily for George, the emergence of Stephenson as a defensive force meant he didn't have to guard the opponent's best wing on every possession of every game. They often switched off to give the other breaks, as both had large responsibilities on offense as well.
But Stephenson's decision to sign with Charlotte Hornets and Indiana's decision to replace him with a mediocre defender in C.J. Miles placed the defensive-perimeter burden squarely on George. And even if Miles doesn't start, other starter possibilities in Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Watson don't provide much in terms of defensive prowess.
But now there's no Stephenson and no George, which means Indiana can no longer be comfortable isolating any of its perimeter defenders—so there will be no one-on-one defense without help creeping over from the weak side. Notice how Roy Hibbert, an elite rim protector in his own right, doesn't even have to slide over because George has everything covered on his own on this play against Harden.
Hibbert has succeeded in the past in part because he could stalk from the weak side without overcommitting. If an offensive player generated nothing in one-on-one against George, he couldn't just whip the ball over to the other side of the floor and catch the defense leaning too far toward the ball side: The entire defense, backed by Hibbert, was waiting over there already.
George's absence means Hibbert will have to take a more proactive role as a help defender, which means his lateral mobility will be tested. Notice the difference between the play above and the one below, in which Hibbert gambles a bit more by straying farther from his man.
Above, Hibbert is just hanging out and waiting: He rightly trusts George to shut down Harden and will only sprint over to the strong side of the rim in an emergency. Here, however, Luis Scola is guarding Anthony Davis at the free-throw line.
Scola is not exactly going to lock anyone up, so Hibbert compensates by sliding over all the way to the middle of the paint, essentially ignoring his man. Because he's in the right position and Davis doesn't consider passing the basketball, Hibbert easily swats the shot away.
The problem presents itself when the ball gets swung to the weak side. Remember that with George, Hibbert was already patrolling the weak side in anticipation of a ball swing. Without him, he can't be as daring and has to be in full-throttle rim-protection mode at all times. In a similar play to the one we just watched, Hibbert is cheating the three-second call as best he can.
When he sees Stephen Curry beat George Hill off the dribble, he only has to slide over a few feet to the block because he's anticipating the help. But once he greets Curry with a double, Curry is able to sneak a pass by Hibbert to Andre Iguodala on the perimeter.
Iguodala subsequently blows by his man and draws Hibbert's help. This leads to another pass, this time to David Lee under the rim. Hibbert has been rotating so much at this point that he loses track of his whereabouts. Amidst the chaos of that initial Curry kick-out pass, Hibbert overhelps on the Iguodala drive—David West already has it covered.
Yet Hibbert abandons Lee, who is ready to receive the ball from Iguodala and lay it in. Hibbert, who is now well out of position, can't use his patented vertical-armed jump to protect the rim. He flails a bit and commits the foul.
All of this starts because of Hibbert's extra concern for the Curry-Hill matchup, and it's plays like these which could spell trouble for Indiana. Though Hibbert is great at defending the rim, it was George's presence that limited his need to do so. Fewer collisions at the rim naturally meant fewer fouls, and it's why Hibbert seemed so good at defending without fouling.
Next season, he'll be facing a greater onslaught around the basket thanks to George's absence. The opponent's best wing player will not be shut down automatically, and Hibbert will have to pay special attention to him.
It's possible that with increased responsibility, Hibbert will step up his defensive game even more. But if he doesn't, Indiana will have to make some serious defensive adjustments to fill George's crucial role.