What's next for the Indiana Pacers, in the wake of Paul George's injury?

What's next for the Indiana Pacers, in the wake of Paul George's injury?
What's next for the Indiana Pacers, in the wake of Paul George's injury?

At this point, there’s no real reason to gripe about the placement of basket stanchions, as we all continue to react to the shock of Paul George’s career-altering right leg injury. It’s too late to complain about the NBA’s endless obsession with promoting its brand overseas while selling tons of shoes, all on the backs of its All-Stars as they work pro bono while “representing their country.” What matters now is keeping Paul George in our thoughts as he takes 12-to-18 months to recover, and looking ahead to see how the team that actually pays him will respond.

George’s injury is gruesome and severe, but there should be a recovery to look forward to. He may not return to near-MVP status, but to compare this injury with the ones suffered by Jay Williams and Shaun Livingston would be missing the point. Both Williams and Livingston tore myriad ligaments in their knees, while George escaped that fate. That’s a career-saver.

The Indiana Pacers were perhaps the league’s darkest on-court story last season, and though it’s not best to compare a late-season and postseason slump to a horrific injury, this only adds to the frustration. Already one of the league’s poorer offensive teams, the Pacers also dipped badly defensively down the stretch of 2013-14, and that carried over into the playoffs. What was once a hoped-for championship crew disappointed greatly, barely limping into the third round where the team lost to the Miami Heat for the third consecutive season, with two of those losses coming in the Conference finals.

With LeBron James leaving Miami to go back to Cleveland, and with Derrick Rose returning to the Chicago Bulls, the East once again turned into a wide open race in July, with the Pacers squarely in the mix. Lance Stephenson harmed any potential efforts on that front when he signed with a suddenly-formidable rival in Charlotte, and George’s injury and diagnosis just about puts the kibosh on Indiana’s championship hopes. This is a man who may not see an NBA court again until February of 2016.

On paper, the Pacers minus George and Lance would still figure to be a good, heady defensively-minded basketball team, especially when one figures that Indiana will likely receive the disabled player exception with George out of the mix. This allows the team to sign a player to a mid-level exception contract, around $5.3 million, but that would push the team into the luxury tax territory that Indiana dreads. Shawn Marion, a veteran free agent with myriad gifts, would seemingly fit in nicely here. The Pacers could also trade for a player making around that amount, there are dozens, to a team looking to clear salary and avoid the tax. There aren’t many of those teams left. If anything, the Pacers are one of those teams.

With that plan in place, the Pacers would field one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA, and hope to re-spark the defensive edge that made them far and away the top defensive team in the league for the season’s first 50 games. The Pacers still finished with the league’s best defensive rank last season, but once the snow melted the team’s work on that end was around average for nearly half a season – that’s how far ahead of the game this team was to start 2013-14.

This is what makes a Pacer future so tricky to predict.

All the data points and production measures that are being currently utilized to chart out how a George-less season in Indiana include numbers from the team’s torrid 2013-14 start, which even after the team’s late season collapse is factored in, these numbers still make up for the majority of the Pacers’ season.

I don’t want to get into ancient sportswriter-ese here, but trying to gauge the team’s mindset heading into 2014-15 even with George was a ridiculous notion. We had no idea how this roster was going to respond in the face of another 82 games, and we certainly have no clue as to where the focus will be for Roy Hibbert, George Hill and even David West as they prepare to play without Paul George.

Of course, the Pacers could also rally around their fallen superstar, and grit out win after win in the same fashion that two seasons’ worth of Chicago Bulls teams did in the wake of Derrick Rose’s injury. This is still the same squad that, by George’s own admission, mentally wore itself out with its initial early-season play in 2013-14, so it wouldn’t be outrageous to assume that the same could happen next season, and without George’s numbers to fall back on.

And, at some point, production is production. This is a team sport, but the Pacers are going to badly miss what George contributes on both ends.

Another route that many other teams would consider would be rebuilding. The model in Chicago didn’t try this when Rose went down, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson stuck around, Luol Deng played for a year and a half with Derrick, but the Bulls’ situation was different. On one end, the bench and rotation that Derrick Rose suited up with in April of 2012 has been turned over two different times, and on the other end … Indiana ain’t Chicago.

George Hill was exposed as a poor lead guard last season in the playoffs. Roy Hibbert was unyieldingly inconsistent last year, and was already rumored to be on the trading block. David West has his team and this league’s respect, but he’s also about to turn 34 and owed $24.6 million over the next two seasons. A team looking to go over the top would certainly have interest, and Pacer prez Larry Bird would certainly have excuses enough to blow things up and start over.

The problem here is that Larry Bird doesn’t do rebuilding projects. He never tried it in the wake of Indiana’s myriad suspension from the brawl in Auburn Hills back in 2004 – only turning Ron Artest into Peja Stojakovic and then the resulting cap space into the similarly-aged Al Harrington. A rebuilding move of sorts turned Jermaine O’Neal into Roy Hibbert, but Bird was still signing veterans at that time, and only a history of drafting success (plucking All-Stars Hibbert and Danny Granger with middling first-round picks, grabbing George in the late lottery, and even dealing Kawhi Leonard for Hill can be argued away) helped put the two-time Conference finalists together.

For Bird to completely blow things up goes against type. The franchise’s stalwarts, Pacer legend Donnie Walsh and fantastic owner Herbert Simon, are getting on in age, and Bird has to worry about losing his fan base for a year or two. Pacer fans only turned out to the team’s fantastic arena and tuned into the team’s fantastic local broadcast crews in numbers commensurate with the team’s play in 2013-14, after years of ignoring this squad, and no kid wants to buy a jersey that reads “Future Draft Considerations” or “Traded Player Exception” on the back.

Unless Bird goes up against his executive history, the Pacers will attempt to circle the wagons. That’s understandable, and noble in many respects.

What matters now is how George’s teammates respond. That was a dodgy proposition even with their teammate dominating on both ends. Now the task of making an impact in the team’s conference, much less the league as a whole, gets even tougher.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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