It’s been over 24 hours since Paul George suffered a horrific leg injury while scrimmaging for Team USA, an injury so severe that it has frequently been compared to the likes of the NFL’s Joe Theismann in 1985, then-Washington Wizards point guard Shaun Livingston in 2007, and the University of Louisville guard Kevin Ware in 2013.
While the initial reaction to the gruesome injury was nearly exclusively focused on George’s ability to recover from both a basketball and non-basketball standpoint – as it should have – it of course does affect the Pacers next year. And while no official statement has been released as of this writing in terms of how long Indiana’s swingman will be out, the window of time that I’ve most frequently seen thus far is between nine and 15 months. A nine-month recovery puts him at next May, where 15 puts him in early next November, pretty much right in time for the beginning of the 2015-16 season.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, losing the team’s superstar is somewhat uncharted territory for the recent history of the franchise. In Reggie Miller’s 18 years as a Pacer, he never missed more than 14 games (although he missed the last few regular season games and four of the team’s five postseason games in 1996 due to an eye injury), Jermaine O’Neal was in and out of the lineup his last few years with the club, Ron Artest was reliable as a Pacer until the infamous brawl in Detroit limited him to seven games in 2004-05, and Danny Granger’s debilitating injuries the past couple years were offset thanks to the emergence of, none other than, Paul George.
So, considering that, here are five things I’d like to see for the Pacers in 2014-2015.
1) First and foremost, don’t rush Paul George back.
Every sport on every level has an example of an athlete who attempted to come back from serious injury too soon, the NFL’s Robert Griffin III being a recent example. Some of it may come from ridiculous external pressure and a lot of it probably comes from the inherent competitive nature of these athletes. No player with that kind of drive enjoys sitting on the sideline not being able to contribute. The urge to come back is understandable, but let’s say the Pacers are fighting for one of the final playoff spots and were to trot a “ready” Paul George out there. Chemistry and timing on the court would take some work, as will shaking the rust off, as would – I would think – shaking any mental restraints in terms of hesitation and feeling like his old self. Are those few games of Paul George more of an aid or a hindrance, not taking into account the emotional boost the team might get? While the Pacers have officially been in “win now” mode for a couple years, PG’s injury needs to be viewed from the scope of the bigger picture – from the scope of the 2016 playoffs, the 2017 playoffs, and so forth. If Paul George doesn’t suit up until the 2015-16 season and if that’s what’s best, I’m ok with seeing what is probably an impressive wardrobe on the sidelines this year.
While Derrick Rose’s continually-delayed return, both times, from knee injuries may have become a bit of a punchline in some circles, I never discredited Rose’s drives or motives for remaining sidelined. Only Rose knew when it was time to come back, both times, from his ailments and look at him now – he’s getting rave reviews in his most recent return playing for Team USA, explosiveness and all. And it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: winning cures all. When George is ready – TRULY READY – he should play. But not until his body is on the same page as his brain, heart, and spirit.
With that being said…
2) As Larry Bird said pre-injury, “stay the course.”
Name the last knee-jerk reaction made by a front office exec really, truly paid off. In a season as unusual as 2014-15 will probably be, no one, from players to coaches, should feel like jobs are on the line.
Plain and simple, Paul George needs all the support he can get right now. His spirits, on Twitter anyway, are high and he’s gotten an outpouring of support from fans, players, and executives from the basketball world. And you know that as tight of a locker room the Pacers’ has been in recent years, his teammates are there for him. Roy Hibbert had a handful of tweets relating to George the night of the injury and reports mentioned that C.J. Watson has already made a hospital visit.
So, of the few message board posts I’ve seen where outsiders have recommended blowing up the team, I just don’t see how various players’ names being constantly attached to rumors, serving as yet another distraction, can help George in the recovery process, especially since the way various players’ contracts are constructed, players such as Hibbert and West could theoretically be free agents in 2015 depending on whether or not they opted out of their contracts. Would George feel any “blame” for the team being imploded? Would distracted players take away from George’s spirits? Obviously only George would know the answer, which will be put in effect as he goes about his rehab in Indianapolis. Even though the NBA is a business at the end of the day, George needs his basketball family now more than ever.
3) Give the rest of the roster a chance.
In the 2013-14 season, the Pacers were one of only a couple teams that you could argue had a “big 5,” a lineup of getting contributions one way or the other from every start/major-minute player. The Spurs, Blazers, and Clippers stick out as other examples. About a month into the 2014 offseason, the Pacers’ big 5 became a big 4 when Stephenson bolted for Charlotte. Now, the Pacers’ version of the big 3 will have to be Hibbert, West, and George Hill.
Head coach Frank Vogel leaned so heavily on the starting lineup, much to the chagrin of fans and to the point where front office leader Larry Bird has publicly said he wants to use the bench more. Vogel now has no other options. The starting small forward role will go to either offseason acquisition C.J. Miles (naturally more of a shooting guard), Croatian rookie Damjan Rudez, rarely-used returnee Chris Copeland or sophomore Solomon Hill who was also rarely used last season. Chris Copeland’s contract expires next summer, Solomon Hill’s initial rookie deal can expire next summer (depending on team options), whereas Miles and Rudez are signed to multiple years. Now is the time where Vogel has to be at his most creative, both in terms of building an offense without the luxury of Paul George’s 20+ points per game and Stephenson’s nearly 14 points per game, but also in terms of rotations. Whether it’s for the purpose of actually giving guys meaningful minutes all season long or for showcasing trade values, Vogel must be open-minded with substitutions and be willing to experiment with any and all options and combinations at this point.
4) Don’t tank.
This is a tricky one, mainly because I am never an advocate for losing games on purpose or phoning it in. But at the same time, a poorer record has led to future fortunes. A great recent example is when the San Antonio lost Hall of Famer David Robinson in 1996, only to land the top pick in the 1997 draft and select future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. Seventeen seasons and five championships later…you get the idea.
There is still some talent on the Pacers’ roster. George Hill in a different role where he can thrive as not necessarily the full-time point guard thanks to Rodney Stuckey’s arrival, Roy Hibbert when (I’m saying when, not if) he returns to form to anchor the paint, and emotional leader and the team’s biggest consistent threat left, David West. Although the Eastern Conference is the most wide open it has been in years now that LeBron James has returned to Cleveland, that half of the league is still pretty top heavy.
Chicago and Cleveland are now considered the front-runners, there’s no reason to think that Toronto won’t return a strong team with Kyle Lowry re-signed, Washington burst onto the scene last postseason and are still young and improving (and landing Paul Pierce was a great off-season move), a LeBron-less Miami Heat will still be competitive with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade remaining in South Beach, plus adding newcomers Luol Deng, a potentially-healthier Danny Granger, and a versatile Josh McRoberts. Charlotte surprised people last year and have added lottery pick Noah Vonleh, sharp-shooting rookie P.J. Hairston, and former spark plug Lance Stephenson, and Atlanta managed to hang around and remain competitive last year, to the point of scaring the daylights out of the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, without All-Star big man Al Horford.
That’s seven teams, leaving the final spot to (in my opinion) the Pacers, an aging Nets team, and a still-mismatched but better-coached Pistons team. I still expect that the Pacers’ roster and Vogel’s coaching ability win out and the Pacers will still be in the post-season, they’d just have an uphill climb with a recently-returned PG or an absent PG.
5) Fans need to do their part.
Pacers’ home games are rockin’ nowadays, to the point where they rival and maybe even exceed the late-90s Reggie Miller era. Personally, I experienced my first Pacers home playoff game in 2012 (which just so happened to be the game they got knocked out of the playoffs by Miami). The atmosphere in Bankers Life Fieldhouse was borderline breathtaking and was the best atmosphere I had ever experienced for a home game watching the blue and gold (minus the obnoxious Heat fan who, based on his admitted fandom history, is now probably a Cavs fan, but that’s a discussion for another time).
Honestly though, the fan base took longer than it should have to fully come back once the team got legitimately competitive again. The team’s opening round home games in 2011 against the Bulls featured WAY TOO MANY red shirts in the crowd, and as recent as March 2013, George Hill publicly called out fans during a home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. For a team that prides itself on a team atmosphere and a loyal, working-class group, the fans need to follow suit. And I’m not just talking about showing up early in the season, showing the initial support, and then waning if the season starts to get out of control without the team’s most marketable and flashy star to come see. I’m talking full/near-full attendance numbers for the majority of the season. Make Bankers Life Fieldhouse, with or without Paul George, a tough place for any opponent to play.
Not just Area 55. Not just the G2 Zone. It’s the other 18,038 seats in question during what could be a tough, emotional season.
No one within the Pacers organization will ever use the term “lost season” or anything like that, and fans shouldn’t either. There are still some positives that can be had with the right amount of work, creativity, patience, and sacrifice. Since Paul George was drafted in 2010, the Pacers don’t really know life without him and they now have almost two-and-a-half months to adjust.
The trending hashtag on Twitter following the news and video of the injury (which I watched once and that was more than enough) was #PrayForPaulGeorge. The Pacers now need to #PlayForPaulGeorge.