When Paul George went down on the baseline, you knew it wasn’t going to be good. My initial reaction was a broken ankle or a torn ACL, but I didn’t get a clear look at the landing. When ESPN showed the replay, it was worse than what I thought.
I wasn’t surprised when Candace Buckner reported George had a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula. That’s exactly what it looked like happened. Right then, I wondered whether we’d see George in the upcoming NBA season or if he’d miss the entire year. After doctors were able to assess the injury and perform surgery, it was certain that, indeed, George would miss the entire season, barring a miraculous and Usain Bolt-like fast recovery.
George’s injury comes on the heels of the Pacers’ best season since 2003-04. The Pacers were the top seed in the East and advanced to the Conference Finals before falling to the Miami Heat. Heading into the upcoming season, everyone knew the Pacers were going to be a little down with the loss of their second best player, Lance Stephenson, in free agency. Now, who knows what Indiana is going to do?
Last season, George and Stephenson combined for 35.5 points, 8.1 assists, and 14.0 rebounds per game. That’s what the Pacers will be missing this season. I can’t think of a team in the league that lost that much production without bringing in any suitable replacements.
Even the Heat got Danny Granger to replace LeBron James.
General manager Larry Bird was relying on George to take that next step to superstardom and fill the void created by Stephenson’s departure. Instead, Bird will have to wait a full season to see if his star can even get back to the level he once was.
Without George and Stephenson, the Pacers are now one of the worst teams in the NBA. Their three best players are George Hill, David West, and Roy Hibbert, in some order. I’m not sure which. The Pacers did sign Rodney Stuckey as a free agent this offseason. Head coach Frank Vogel will have to count on Stuckey to bring everything to the offense. If he’s not scoring, I don’t know who will.
The injury is especially devastating for the Pacers, who just three years ago had one the second-worst attendance in the NBA, and two years ago (the year they made the conference finals), the Pacers had the sixth-worst attendance. Who is going to come to games now? I can’t see anyone braving the cold Indianapolis winter to watch Hill, Stuckey, West, and Hibbert play the Detroit Pistons or Milwaukee Bucks. I’m sure some die-hards will show up, but the average fan isn’t showing up, which is going to cost the Pacers’ organization a ton of money.
Bird and the Pacers have some big decisions to make before next season, and it all revolves around this question: Are the Pacers good enough to win a championship, even if George was fully healthy?
Before George’s injury, I felt confident the Pacers would be in the mix in the East. They did lose Stephenson, but the East was completely wide-open. There is no favorite right now, because there’s so much uncertainty surrounding the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers. At worst, Indiana was the fifth or sixth seed in the East, and had a decent chance at winning a first-round series. Ultimately, I think they would have lost in the conference semi-finals. Still, the core of the team of Hill, George, West, and Hibbert would be intact moving forward.
To answer the question, the Pacers aren’t good enough to win a championship even with George at full strength, but they were basically only one piece away. Without George, the Pacers are at least a year, maybe two or three, from even being back to where they were prior to George’s injury and after Stephenson’s departure. I don’t see George responding from an injury like this after sitting out a year and being a top-10 player in the league. I foresee it taking a season or two to get back to where he was, if that ever happens.
After George’s injury, Bird has to consider blowing up this roster and trying to reload for when George returns to his star form a couple years down the road. What I’m suggesting is the Pacers trade anyone who’s expendable and not in the title plans. Bird has a good idea of which players are in the title plans and which players are not. Now, it’s time to put that plan into action.
The Pacers can build the championship team they nearly had the last two seasons with a few smart trades and good draft picks. Plus, there are suitors on the market for Hill, West, and Hibbert. It’s just finding the trade that lines up in the Pacers’ long-term plans.
With little cap space leading into the future, Indiana was going to have to make some moves somewhere along the line after Stephenson left anyway. Why not start now?
Bird’s a smart guy, and he sees what being the eighth or ninth seed can do to a franchise. It’s too far away from the top picks to ensure a good, young, talented player and it’s too far away from being a contender. Trust me, the Pacers don’t want to get stuck in mediocrity, like they were after the Malice in the Palace incident.
(I love throwing that video in a column when I can.)
Indiana is better off trading Hibbert and taking back a contract like Amar’e Stoudamire from the Knicks or another expiring contract to free up some cap space for the offseason. It also lines the Pacers up for a high draft pick, assuming Amar’e doesn’t find his 2006 form again.
I like Hibbert, too. I didn’t like the idea of trading him, but things change daily in the NBA. An injury to a major player is franchise-altering. The Pacers now have to take a look in the mirror and decide what’s best moving forward. Maybe, it’s time for a change of scenery for guys like Hibbert, West, and Hill. Any contender could use any of those three guys. Teams will answer if the Pacers start to make some inquiries about trades.
Speaking of possible Hibbert trades, there’s a guy in Phoenix who I think would be the perfect fit next to George in the future: Eric Bledsoe.
If Indiana calls Phoenix right now and offers Hibbert in a sign-and-trade for Bledsoe, wouldn’t the Suns take that deal? The Suns would at least have to consider it, right?
The Suns lost their best center Channing Frye in free agency. Playing in the West, Phoenix needs more depth in the post positions. Hibbert would change their defense drastically and help the Suns stand toe-to-toe with the Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Grizzlies, and others who have dominant interior post players. Hibbert is a hinderance to an offense, especially an up-tempo offense like the Suns run, but there’s always a way to work around that. Indiana just did a terrible job of it in the past.
Bledsoe could eventually be one of the best point guards in the league. He plays both ends of the floor and is a nightmare in transition. Paired with George, I foresee a lot of tipped passes, leading to breakaway dunks for one another. It’d be the perfect fit.
Don’t get me wrong, Hill is a suitable point guard for a good team. The Spurs really didn’t want to trade him to the Pacers, so that tells you something about him. Hill, however, isn’t one of the best 15 point guards in the league. Bledsoe could be one of the best five in the next few years. It’s really a no-brainer for me.
It’s hard to imagine a significant injury to a star player ever having a positive impact on a franchise. And yet, I think George’s injury could be just that. If anything, it’s opened up everyone’s eyes, including people in the Pacers’ organization, of how thin on talent the Pacers truly are without George in the lineup. George’s ability masked so many of their problems and weaknesses. Without him, and Stephenson, too, the Pacers are terrible. That alone may force Bird into making some big moves this season to reload for George’s return. Landing Bledsoe would definitely be a splash.
It’s what I would do if I were the general manager of the Indiana Pacers, at least.