It’s difficult to assess these things in the Twitter era when everything is accelerated and we all have access to such boundless depths of information so quickly, but even if you remove the all the technology-fueled hyper-dialogue from the equation and just examine the situation on merit, it still holds true – the hardest thing about covering this Paul George story is getting the timing right.
Sorry, that was a weird sentence. Let’s try plain English: No one knows how soon is too soon with Paul George. This all happened so fast that we can’t figure out how to process it. On Friday morning, George was one of the most promising young basketball players in the world – he’s now a 24-year-old with a gruesomely broken leg and an arduous recovery process ahead of him. That’s tough for anyone to cope with, whether you’re a close George confidant or just a casual fan, so none of us really know how to converse about it.
How much time do we spend commiserating with George? When is it OK to move on and discuss other topics? When do we get to talking about what his injury means for USA Basketball, for the Pacers and for the balance of power in the NBA’s Eastern Conference? These are all fascinating questions, but a great many of us are afraid to discuss them.
But I think we’re gradually getting there. We’re slowly realizing that all the “thoughts and prayers” in the world aren’t going to do much at this point – the onus is on George’s doctors and his physical therapists and George himself to overcome this adversity. There’s no point in any of us dwelling on our George pity anymore. It’s not helping. Honestly, we might as well talk a little bit about basketball again. It’ll do us some good.
So. The Pacers? Anyone? Any thoughts?
All right, I’ll start – Indiana is in real trouble. While this George news is awful for pretty much everyone in the basketball world, few are going to be more devastated long-term than the Pacers, who now look ahead to a 2014-15 season without their leading two-way player. Say what you will about the collective strength of the Pacers’ lineup (and you can say a lot!), but there’s no doubting that George was the all-around force that made the team click on both ends. He simultaneously saved an otherwise feeble offensive attack and guarded the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and he never once complained about the rigorous demands that the Pacers’ system imposed on him. George’s 2013-14 season proved that he was hardworking, versatile, dynamic and above all, talented. The Pacers will be much, much worse without him.
Even with George, the Pacers were never a good offensive team. They ranked 23rd in the NBA in offense last season, averaging 104.1 points per 100 possessions, and their shooting went cold for months on end. In a league that’s become increasingly dependent on outside shooting, the Pacers made just 550 3-pointers last year, 22nd-most in the league. Things were already looking shaky, and now the Pacers are without their leading scorer (George) and their second-leading man (Lance Stephenson) heading into next season. That’s 35.51 percent of the team’s scoring – gone.
The Pacers were incredibly reliant on George and Stephenson last year. More broadly, though, they were reliant on the unity of their starting five. That’s been the team’s modus operandi for the last two seasons – George, Stephenson, Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill have always been the engine that makes the whole team run. What happens when you take away two-fifths of that?
That five-man group lorded over everything for Indy last season. Those guys played together for 1,467 minutes and 11 seconds, far more than any other unit. (Second, oddly, was a group that featured Stephenson and four backups – Danny Granger, Ian Mahinmi, Luis Scola and C.J. Watson. That group played just over 185 minutes.) Of the Pacers’ top 20 lineups last season, none of them lacked both Stephenson and George.
This is how the Pacers operate. They find five guys they love, and they stick with them. And if you ask me, it’s probably not by design. I don’t think Larry Bird or Frank Vogel enjoys having a roster that lacks depth or versatility, but sadly they’ve tended to have one. That can probably be chalked up to the circumstances surrounding the Pacers. It’s not easy to bring in new talent to Indiana – no free agents (Indy’s not the most attractive destination), no lottery picks (the team’s never been bad enough) and no blockbuster trades (Bird has always opted for safe personnel moves rather than stockpiling potential home-run assets). Finding quality guys has always been tough for the Pacers, so when they found five of them, they squeezed out every drop of success they could.
Given the circumstances, it’s amazing the Pacers have done as well as they have during the Vogel era. Three consecutive deep runs in the Eastern Conference playoffs, despite never once making a marquee transaction, is practically a miracle. The Pacers should be enormously proud that they’re here.
But can they stay here?
I’m pessimistic, but at the same time I’m not. Here’s the thing: While what happened on Friday night was absolutely awful, there is hope that it’s a mere one-year blip in the career of a great player who’s still only 24 years old. The Paul George era took a horrifying swerve in the wrong direction this weekend, but it still may just be beginning.
Should the Pacers start dealing off every asset in sight, tanking for 2015 and angling for a long-term rebuild? I say no. The good news for Pacers fans is that George is signed through 2019. He’s got a lot of basketball left on his current contract. (That 2018-19 season is only a player option, but it’s a player option for $20.7 million, so he may well stick around.) In addition to George, the Pacers also have the potential to keep the Hibbert-West-Hill triumvirate for the next two seasons. Nothing about this roster says there’s a 2015 expiration date.
The upcoming season may well be a bust for the Pacers. Given their miserable lack of offense and the gradual improvement of the Eastern Conference, they could easily miss the playoffs this year. But that’s OK. This franchise has a lot more to live for than the here and now. Most importantly, it has one of the world’s premier talents (and did I mention he’s only 24?), a man who has vowed to come back better than ever.
As we’ve all struggled to discuss this Paul George story over the last few days, the timetable has been the hardest part. But for the Pacers, time may just be the one thing that’s still on their side.