Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The sickening, gruesome snap of bones in Paul George's right leg did not just cut down a man in his prime, it potentially ended the run of this group of Indiana Pacers.
George will be back. The injury was horrific and so much so that, full disclosure, I never watched it. I was on vacation when it happened and I have no interest in watching a man's leg explode and bend in a way that would make me sick.
But George will return. It won't be this season, but in time, bones heal. The psychological scarring will take time. Derrick Rose needed time to muster enough faith in his body to compete at the highest level.
For this one season, making due without him will be next to impossible. Already cash-strapped, the Pacers didn't make a lot of moves to better the team before the catastrophe.
George's injury with Team USA came so late in the summer that there was no way Larry Bird and the Indiana brass could come up with a Plan B.
"The timing was not good," Bird admitted on Tuesday. "It makes it more difficult. Everybody's got their teams set right now."
And, how do you replace a legitimate, two-way All-Star who is just 25 years old?
"We know we're not going to replace Paul," said Bird. "You just can't replace Paul George."
Shawn Marion is the rumored target and he'd fit decently, but the Cleveland Cavaliers are calling Marion and when LeBron James is in play for a free agent, chances are, said free agent will lean that way.
Also, Bird acknowledged Tuesday at a press conference that the team won't go over the luxury tax. They will get a medical exemption due to George's injury, so there is some wiggle room, but a blockbuster trade in which Indiana would take back a lot of salary is out of the question.
Internally, the options aren't dazzling. With Lance Stephenson adorning a Charlotte Hornets' jersey, there's one possibility out the window. Evan Turner never gained favor with head coach Frank Vogel and he's in Boston.
C.J. Miles was signed in the offseason and he could play the small forward in a pinch. That would move Rodney Stuckey into the starting lineup. Chris Copeland is another option on the menu, as is Solomon Hill.
"We've got a lot of options," said Vogel. "I'm excited to see how it plays out."
He might be the only one.
In the span of a year, the Pacers' starting five went from George, Stephenson, Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill to maybe Hibbert, West, Hill, Miles and Stuckey.
Is the current quintet even a playoff team? Possibly, in the watered-down Eastern Conference, but that is certainly not a championship contender any longer. That is clear.
One could even argue with a healthy George this unit's best days were behind them. They finished the season in free-fall and were lucky to just make the Conference Finals.
There are rumors the Pacers are shopping Hibbert. Bird claimed shock on Tuesday, but didn't deny shopping him. Hibbert regressed badly in the second half and postseason, but Vogel mentioned running the offense through him and West next season.
Neither is terribly proficient offensively. West is still capable, but is older and 20 point per game averages weren't ever his strength. Vogel said Hill could see more time at the shooting guard spot, but who is going to create offense with this group?
George and Stephenson were the only play-makers on this roster last season. They are both gone. Hill and Miles are both shooters. Stuckey is an average creator. Where will the offense come from with this group?
Defense is what brought the Pacers to the dance. That should still be fine, although George was First-Team, All-Defensive last season and Second-Team the season before. Stephenson wasn't shabby either.
If we take our time machine even further back, at the start of last season, not only did the Pacers have those pieces in place, but they were considered building blocks.
George, Hibbert and Stephenson were emerging perennial All-Stars, although Stephenson was a bit of a surprise. Hill was still a young combo guard with excellent defensive credentials and the Pacers gave the Heat everything they could handle in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.
Now, George is hurt, Hibbert stinks, Hill can't lead a team to a title and West will be done after his contract ends. When this version of the Pacers ends its season, they'll be lucky to be the eighth seed.
Should that be a goal? Mediocrity in the NBA is a death sentence. There is no way to improve as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Philadelphia 76rs used to be that and they tried to stink so badly, the league is changing rules because of it.
The Pacers aren't doomed long-term, so long as George returns healthy for the 2015-16 season. He's an elite, top-10 player in the sport. However, there is not a lot to love for the future of the organization past that.
West is 33 and has a $12 million player option for the '15-16 campaign. Who knows what will happen with Hibbert. It's too early to give up on him as a player based on two crappy months, but he's the Pacers' only movable asset. He's scheduled to make a little over $30 million the next two seasons, although the last is a player option. Hill has three more years left on his deal.
To compound matters further, the Pacers have not drafted well recently.
Plus, the Cavs improved and if Rose is ready, the Chicago Bulls could be a force. Those are two teams in the Pacers' own division, let alone conference, who were clearly better and that was before Indy's best player went down.
And, James, Kevin Love, Rose and Joakim Noah are still in either the prime of their careers, or the infancy of the prime of their careers, so both should be around the top for a while.
This Indiana group is done in the spotlight. They'd have been up there to some extent if the freak Las Vegas injury didn't occur. It's unfortunate they played in the same conference as LeBron's Miami Big Three, but that's life in the big, bad, cruel world.
This was something of a throwback group. They played physical defense and when they moved the ball, they created open jump shots. When they didn't move the ball, they turned it over and stunk.
No one in Indiana will admit it's over. The Pacers people can't because, sadly, a playoff spot is still realistic.
"Obviously, some teams on paper look to be on top," said Vogel. "We have a winning culture here. I think we're going to surprise some teams. I think those fans that think the season is over are wrong."
I say they're right, the season is over. I say it's actually worse. I don't think it's a one-year, freak-injury bug. It's much worse.
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