Paul George’s collapse on the hardwood in Vegas echoed throughout the basketball world, fans and journalists alike pondering the impact it would have on his life and career. In the weeks that followed, however, a question much bigger than George has crystallized — do the Pacers need to explore blowing up the roster?
If that seems overly reactionary, well, it is! LeBron James taking his talents back to the shores of Lake Erie has shifted the balance of power in the East, providing an opportunity for more teams to get in the Finals mix. The Pacers were the top seed in the Eastern Conference just last season, standing toe-to-toe with the Miami Heat in a second consecutive Conference Final, seemingly putting them in position for another go at it this season. But looking at the Pacers strictly as a Finals contender for two years running is a bit of a misnomer given the state of the team.
Without the services of George, the Pacers are already without their most dynamic two-way player, a premier wing stopper and burgeoning force offensively. George leveraged his spot-up shooting — 16th best in the league, according to Synergy — to great effect as he continued to learn the nuances of pick-and-rolls, turning in his best offensive season to date.
That absence would hit hard enough on its own, but the loss of Lance Stephenson in free agency leaves Indiana without its two top playmakers on offense, over one third of their points and assists gone into thin air. Stephenson made headlines for plenty of the wrong reasons last year, including a well-publicized blow in LeBron’s ear, but he had a hand in Indiana’s success on both ends of the floor. He was ruthlessly effective off the ball, finishing on cuts and improving his three-point shooting to a respectable 35 percent, in addition to creating for teammates between bouts of high-step dribbling. Defensively, he played capably against second options on the wing, an especially important task in bouts with the upper crust of the league.
Given that the Pacers offense was second-to-last in the league from Jan. 1 on with George and Stephenson, conventional wisdom suggests that things are only going to go downhill from here. At the center of the monstrosity (literally and figuratively) is Roy Hibbert, whose transformation post All-Star break resembled Cinderella’s carriage reverting back to a pumpkin. Standing 7-foot-2 would seem to be an advantage in a sport whose goal hangs 10 feet in the air, but Hibbert’s points and rebound averages dropped to 8.9 and 4.7 respectively after the league’s mid-season gala. Banking on him to help buoy the offense just months after watching him lumber despondently is a tough sell even on the most optimistic of observers.
Who’s left to turn to? David West is everything you could want out of a third option, but at 33 his best days are behind him and he was never cut out to be a creator. George Hill has seen his reputation slip from quality starter to punchline in jokes about the Kawhi Leonard trade. Unless Frank Vogel is banking on unknowns (Solomon Hill) or veteran retreads (Rodney Stuckey) to lead a surprise invigoration, anything short of Larry Bird coming out of retirement to suit up is unlikely to prevent a disaster.
Doom impending, long-term goals have to move to the forefront. George is expected to return next season or perhaps sooner, but Stephenson is not walking through that door. Even if George returns to full strength, Stephenson’s loss leaves him without a running mate that has reasonable room for growth going forward. The market limitations of Indiana and salary structure rules favoring “destination” cities only compound the problem, making it difficult for the Pacers to procure a suitable partner through free agency. The “Built Not Bought” mantra adapted by the Spurs makes for good headline fodder, but it is also a recognition of marketplace reality that afflicts teams like the Pacers.
Indiana will always be more dependent on the draft than the usual free agency suspects, and even with Larry Legend at the helm, unearthing gems in the draft is a crap-shoot. If Bird leverages his top assets for future returns, he can hedge his bets rather than move forward with a roster that is over the cap and pushing the salary tax threshold in its current form. Hibbert’s rim protection is a premium asset, and West is a quality role player who fits in with most any team. But more play-making is needed to offset Hibbert’s plodding, and relying on West to continue produce into his mid 30′s is a tough ask. Spreading the odds onto picks and younger players whose timelines match closer with George’s may be the best bet for Indiana, particularly considering the growing power of the East’s elite.
Indiana’s saving grace may be that they’re bad enough on their own terms to grab a top pick in the 2015 Draft. West and Hibbert are unlikely to turn down their player options for next season, and with a reinvigorated George and a young phenom out of the college ranks, the Pacers could have a say in the 2016 playoff picture. It’s probably best to sit tight and watch how things unfold over the first couple months of this season regardless.
Maybe it’s just the image of George’s injury lingering, or perhaps their dumpster fire of a second half scarred too many memories, but it’s hard to see the Pacers in a positive light right now. Windows shut fast in basketball, and if the Pacers sit on their hands while their young star recovers from injury, theirs might shut sooner than they think.