The Indiana Pacers are coming off the strangest late-season collapse in modern memory. Then Paul George shatters his leg on national television.
What the hell?
Nobody wanted to vindicate the debacle — the embarrassment of last season — more than George, and his outlook so far with Team USA activities was glowing. After all the negativity at the end of the Pacers’ season, he appeared back at ease. He was out there trying to prove himself individually next to Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, and Derrick Rose.
Maybe his team was still a trainwreck fire falling into an pit full of rabid tigers, but he was Paul George, goddammit — a budding megastar out here playing 1-on-1 with the MVP and earning respect.
I can’t even imagine the pain felt by George and the scattered notions flooding his mind. I especially empathize with the chaotic thoughts of despair that were surely racing around his skull last night in the immediate aftermath.
This is in no way an attempt to equate two injuries, but just as a minor comparison, I remember the awful demons running around my head after I blew up my knee, playing pick up at 23 years old.
My worries were simpler: “Is this really bad? It’s not that bad, maybe? Wait, it’s really bad, right? How will I get home? Do I have to call an ambulance? I don’t think my work health insurance has kicked in yet? I can’t afford this. How do I get to work tomorrow? Can I call in sick? Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and everything will be OK. Right?”
For me, the pain was intense, but it was the unhinged mental agony that remains more vivid. For George, multiply the pain by 10,000. But I’m sure his worst thoughts overwhelmed him as he lay on that court and was carried away to the hospital.
This injury is about Paul George, human being, and secondarily about Paul George, NBA superstar on the brink who will spend the next year of his life in various states of agony and recovery.
But the ramifications extend to the Indiana Pacers, a seemingly snake-bitten franchise that has some very difficult decisions ahead.
Does the team stand pat for next season — roll out the same soldiers minus its best warrior — or retreat to safe ground and gear up for a future battle?
Reports speculated that Roy Hibbert was “quietly being shopped” even before George went down. Does the team make another round of calls under the belief that next season is lost and that Hibbert can opt out of his deal next summer?
Do they see if they can get something of value for David West? What contending team wouldn’t want West? He brings scoring to any front court, and he is a pillar of professionalism and leadership. He returns at least a draft pick and a young player with some promise.
Who wants to take George Hill? His ability to run a team has been exposed somewhat over the past year, but if a team who doesn’t mind the salary (the Nets?) wants to give up anything of value, why not?
It would look bad if Larry Bird immediately sold off key players and abandoned next season. But perception isn’t reality. This Pacers’ era may have just come to a heartbreaking close. The team may not be able to contend again without an injection of talent — something that, due to its salary cap situation, cannot happen by any means other than Trade It All And Get Lucky In The Draft Again.
Forget that though.
Maybe the best argument for a fire sale is to look at the alternative: What happens if Indiana doesn’t shake up the team now?
Will the last high-level season of David West’s career go to waste, languishing on a team whose ceiling is the second round of the playoffs?
Will Roy Hibbert opt out of his deal next summer, leaving all the recent bad memories in the rear view and the Pacers with nothing in return?
Will Frank Vogel be able to resuscitate an offense that was horrible even with Paul George? Can he do that while maintaining a rock-solid defense that, just six months ago, made him look like a genius who would be pacing Indiana’s sidelines for at least a decade?
The downsides are glaring, and there seems to be more logic in selling the roster for parts and rebuilding for 2016-17.
By then, Paul George will be entering the third year of his max deal and have a full season of game-speed recovery under his belt. And any assets Larry Bird can get back for Hibbert, West and/or Hill this summer will have been integrated into the franchise.
A New Hope
As heinous as the Paul George injury was, there are potential positives that can come out of it for others.
Without Paul George and Lance Stephenson on the perimeter, George Hill may be able to go back to being a basketball player. That’s what he was in his first season in Indiana, largely as a reserve, and it was his role in his first year as a full starter as well.
Last season, however, he became — at best — a caretaker of the ball on its way up court or — at worst — a spectator with the the best seat in the house. There were games where he embodied the aggressor he was San Antonio, no doubt, but too often he was standing around, politely waiting for his turn to play.
If the perimeter rotation involves Hill, C.J. Watson, C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, and Solomon Hill, the elder Hill will be the first option. The offense will need to be about him and West running the pick-and-roll into the ground, and the hometown guard must be the one who attacks the paint to move the defense around.
If he can re-discover himself, the team’s ceiling may be even higher when the other member of the George Squad returns. A hungry Paul George and Peak George Hill could be more formidable and natural than the often disjointed perimeter trio of Boring George Hiil, Paul, and Lance.
Roy Hibbert could similarly benefit.
When the team was winning, Hibbert lived with his limited touches. By the time everything went sideways, he was complaining in public, and his ability to do anything with the ball when he did get it had vanished.
While getting the ball more won’t guarantee success, Hibbert will become more of an offensive focus next season without PG and Stephenson. There will be no dynamic where the pecking order is Five Guys Then The Bench. It will be West, Roy, Hill and then everyone else. Hibbert will be, even if by default, a dominant persona on the team, and the respect and attention that comes along could take him to another stratosphere.
He could become not just Ideal Rim Protector With Fickle Confidence but Fully Realized Two-Way Beast With Swagger On A Hundred Thousand Trillion. A Hibbert who averages 18/8/4 next year could join forces with Paul George in 2015-16 to take over the world.
You want to believe that good will conquer evil, and that from this awful incident will come a triumphant future. But that might all be pie-in-the-sky talk. This may be real-life Game of Thrones: A horrifying saga in which every ray of hope gets smashed like so many beetles in a garden.
One of the worst offenses in the league might unravel further without its only creator while the perimeter defense turns into a sieve. There is no Stephenson or George to belly up against all the elite wings in the NBA, and Hibbert is not literally a wall. It’s hard to see how the Mongols don’t overrun the paint.
This would leave Indiana with a good-not-great defense and a middling-to-OK offense. Maybe you re-insert George into that equation in 2015-16 and see some excellent improvement. Maybe you don’t.
So if Bird thinks West won’t be the same by the time Paul George is back and that Hibbert might be looking to play elsewhere, the smartest move might be to liquidate the roster for any and all future assets — draft picks, young players with promise on cheap deals, cap space.
Maybe I’m a pessimist prone to see bleakness, but I can almost hear Dick Cheney or Rahm Emmanuel whispering in Larry Bird’s ear: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
On the flipside, the Pacers don’t tank. They never have anyway.
The Reggie era team became competitive in the early 1990s and improvement was the only direction. Even after the brawl in 2004 the team never diverted from that course, never backslide on purpose, instead trading away troubled talent for veterans who could ensure 35-45 wins per season.
Most teams would have burned it down then to rebuild later. Indiana didn’t. They’ve never bottomed out. So owner Herb Simon may be hesitant to authorize anything that resembles a fire sale. Throughout, he has been the anti-Sam Hinkie, and it is hard to see the Pacers willing to give away a season or two.
The future isn’t the past though. And both paths — stay pat and fire sale — will likely have their proponents among the executives in Indianapolis. Which one will they take?
How does a front office react to a horrendous injury to its franchise cornerstone?