Paul George Injury Changes Everything About Indiana Pacers' Future

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 4, 2014

May 26, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (24) reacts during a break against the Miami Heat in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 102-90. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The threat of injury exists at every twist and turn of a professional athlete's career, but for the Indiana Pacers and All-Star swingman Paul George, this seemed unfathomable even as a worst-case scenario.

The 24-year-old challenged James Harden's breakaway layup attempt late in Friday's Team USA intrasquad scrimmage and collided with the basketball stanchion inside Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center.

George's right leg horrifically collapsed underneath him, and the initial shock of the injury gave way to a devastating prognosis: an open tibia-fibula fracture that likely will sideline him for the 2014-15 campaign, per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports:

Looking through a long-term lens, it sounds as if George may have avoided catastrophic damage.

"If it had to break, it broke the right way," his father, Paul George Sr., told Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star. "It broke evenly, so they're saying he should be back 100 percent."

As for the reeling Pacers, their forecast is far more hazy. Their definition of 100 percent may never be the same again.

Prior to being dealt this crushing blow, Indiana's offseason had already yielded more questions than answers.

The Pacers are coming off as disappointing a 56-win campaign as the NBA had seen in recent memory. Finger-pointing, in-fighting and anemic offensive production saw the promise of a 46-13 start to the 2013-14 season wilt over a 13-13 close to the campaign.

They needed all seven games to dispatch the eighth-seeded, 38-win Atlanta Hawks in the opening round, then later suffered their third consecutive playoff series defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat. Indiana's four losses in the Eastern Conference Finals were decided by an average of 13.3 points.

INDIANAPOLIS, IND - MAY 20: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat handles the ball against Paul George #24 of the Indiana Pacers in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 20, 2014 in Indianapol
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Indiana's roster needed a lift and instead was forced to weather a pair of calamitous casualties.

First, Lance Stephenson vacated the Circle City and took his versatile skill set to the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Now, George—simultaneously the Pacers' top scorer, setup man and defender—has been forcibly removed from Indiana's immediate equation.

The loss in production is staggering, particularly for a team that had so little to spare.

The Statistical Losses of Stephenson and George
PlayerPPGTeam RankRPGTeam RankAPGTeam Rank
Paul George21.71st6.8T-2nd3.5T-2nd
Lance Stephenson13.83rd7.21st4.61st

The Pacers might have survived Stephenson's departure, especially if shedding his antics helps stabilize a locker room that appeared frighteningly fragile down the stretch.

But losing George is different. He's one of the top two-way players in the game and easily the most powerful weapon in head coach Frank Vogel's arsenal.

"You can say all the time we've got to keep pushing, but at the same time, it's still hard," Pacers backup point guard Donald Sloan said, per Buckner. "That's our guy. ... You can't replace Paul George."

There is nothing hyperbolic in Sloan's comments. This news is every bit as disastrous as it sounds.

"This is a huge, franchise-shaking loss, as the potential exists for these Pacers to be an abject disaster," wrote Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney. "Last season Indiana had just two players on its roster at all capable of creating off the dribble. Both are now gone."

Without George, and Stephenson to a lesser extent, the Pacers are in danger of losing their identity.

For a team that secured its elite credentials at the defensive end—Indiana allowed a league-low 96.7 points per 100 possessions last season—the loss of two perimeter stoppers may prove impossible to overcome.

MIAMI, FL - MAY 22: Paul George #24 and Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers look on in the second half against the Miami Heat during Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on May 22, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER:
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

George and Stephenson divvied up the toughest perimeter defensive assignments last season. Those will now likely be split between George Hill, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles and Solomon Hill, with Chris Copeland and Damjan Rudez possibly factoring in as well.

Even if Stuckey and Miles were stonewalls themselves (they're not), Vogel and his staff would still be in damage-control mode heading into next season. Continuity is key for a defensive power. The Pacers are now forced to replace 40 percent of the league's highest-used five-man lineup from last season: Hill, George, Stephenson, David West and Roy Hibbert.

And that percentage, while technically correct, feels low considering the impact those two players had.

Hill cannot fill Indiana's playmaking void. His career 3.0 assists average makes that fact uncomfortably apparent. Hibbert might be the NBA's biggest question mark. The 7'2" center spiraled from impactful (11.8 points on 46.4 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds before the All-Star break) to inadequate (8.9 points on 39.0 percent shooting, 4.7 rebounds after) over the course of last season.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

West has been steady (15.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists over the past two seasons), but the Pacers need significantly more than steady at this point. Given his age (33) and the mileage on his odometer (career 749 regular-season games), West's motor may not have a higher gear left in it.

This isn't a question of whether the Pacers will fall, it's a matter of how far they'll tumble.

"The Pacers had the Eastern Conference's best record last season at 56-26 and could have been the favorite to reach the NBA Finals after LeBron James' departure from Miami if they could have brought their core back," wrote Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press. "Now, they could struggle just to stay in the playoff picture in the toughened-up East."

If championship hopes still existed for this group, that bubble has burst. There aren't enough avenues to internal improvement to compensate for the holes on this roster at full strength.

For Pacers president Larry Bird, this unfortunate incident could lead him toward a franchise-altering reality check. As he stated in a team release, though, he isn't ready to travel down that road yet:

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. Our franchise has had setbacks in its history but has demonstrated the abilities to recover. Paul will provide the example of that off the court and it is up to the rest of us to provide that example on the court.

The sentiment is honorable, but Indiana's future cannot be decided by good feelings and well wishes. Bird needs to assess this as a basketball situation, and when he does, Indiana's future could look dramatically different from its present.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Hibbert and West each have player options for the 2015-16 season, per ShamSports.com. If regression this year would make either a flight risk, Bird must gauge their trade value now. It might not be high, considering Hibbert's maddening inconsistency and West's race against the clock, but NBA teams typically pay a premium for size.

Bird should test the market on Hill, too. He has obviously struggled as a lead guard. Paint him under a different light, though, and teams might be attracted to a long, athletic player on the perimeter with a trusty three-point shot and a commitment to the defensive end.

The Pacers' structure has suffered irreparable damages. The onus falls on Bird to build—or start building, at least—something of substance for whenever George is able to return. Standing pat might allow Indy to chase a low-end playoff spot, but if the ultimate goal is competing for a championship, changes need to be made.

This might be a step Bird and his staff never planned on taking, but it's a critical one for the future of this franchise. Somehow, someway, this darkness cannot keep the Pacers from sparking the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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