Can Indiana keep up the pace without George?

Can Indiana keep up the pace without George?
August 2, 2014, 12:45 pm
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Once the shock of Paul George's unsightly leg fracture with Team USA wears off, reality will set in for the Indiana Pacers. With their All-Star forward likely to miss next season, the Pacers are no longer a title contender. There will not be a third straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals without George. They will struggle to reach the playoffs for a fifth straight season.

The serious injury occurred during an intra-squad scrimmage Friday night in Las Vegas. Initial reports suggest a successful surgery, but a brutal forecast for the 2014-15 season.

Indiana appeared to take a step back in the East even before George's injury. Lance Stephenson formed an electric wing combination with George, but the erratic guard signed as a free agent with Charlotte.  David West and Roy Hibbert often play at an All-Star caliber level, but West turns 34 in August and the ex-Hoya had a string of ineffective performances during the postseason. Even at his best, the lumbering Hibbert is more of a supporting actor than a leading man.

Without Stephenson, the backcourt now consists of George Hill. C.J. Watson plus free agent acquisitions Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles. It's a stretch to put that quartet into a sincere discussion about the league's top backcourts. Chris Copeland and free agent signee Damjan Rudez of Croatia are now the primary small forward options.

Outside of possibly the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers with Kevin Love, the East title race is wide open. Give a healthy George, Hibbert, West, coach Frank Vogel and President Larry Bird time to figure out a plan post-Stephenson and based on recent history they probably will. 

Takeaway George and all the time in the world won't solve the Pacers' sudden lack of starry talent. The East might not include many top tier teams entering the season, but there is a deep middle group of 5-7 teams which includes the Washington Wizards, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets. 

The lengthy and athletic 6-foot-8 forward is arguably one of the top 10 players in the NBA. George was expected to start at forward for Team USA opposite Kevin Durant and serve as the defensive stopper. Even without George, not to mention absent big men Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, Team USA remains the favorite because of a deep roster with talents like Durant, Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose and James Harden. Wizards guards John Wall and Bradley Beal are among the 20 players participating in the men's national team training camp.

The Pacers options are almost non-existent. Indiana may be afforded some additional financial flexibility by league rules following George's injury, but there is little available help in free agency that would help make up for such a sizeable loss.

George led Indiana during the regular season in scoring (21.7).  No other player on the roster averaged more than 15 points. Defensively, the graceful and agile forward took on the toughest assignments and ranked fifth in the NBA in steals. Indiana's ability on that end of the court put them into title contention.

Hibbert receives and deserves credit for his interior anchor role in Indiana's defensive schemes. George should as well for his work on the perimeter, whether he's guarding the physically imposing LeBron James or the 6-foot-4 Beal during the playoffs. Indiana defeated Washington 4-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals. George scored 39 points in a Game 4 victory.

The Miami Heat won't be able to replace James, but by adding Luol Deng to Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, they remain in the playoff mix. The Pacers don't have such options at this point, making the lottery a realistic possibility for the first time in several seasons.

Hopefully George does indeed return to the game at a high level. Just don't count on Indiana returning to the playoffs without him.