Just when you think the Indiana Pacers summer couldn’t have gotten any worse after letting Lance Stephenson — one of their main offensive playmakers — walk and sign with the Charlotte Hornets, it just did, by an even wider margin. In a freak accident during the USA basketball intra-squad scrimmage in Las Vegas on Friday night, George suffered a tibia-fibula open fracture, which required immediate surgery. As multiple reports have said, George is likely out for the entire 2014-2015 season to recover.
That leaves one question for the Pacers right now: what should they do now?
When adding-in George being out for the year, alongside Stephenson’s departure, Indiana loses over 9,853 regular season offensive touches (the number is well over 10,000 when including the playoffs). That equals out to 42.37% of Indiana’s touches having to be replaced. How exactly will Frank Vogel and Co. replace that? Well, they can’t, due to how important George and Stephenson were to their offensive identity.
Another key to Indiana’s success last season was George and Stephenson’s effectiveness on drives, and how many times they did them. George had 339 drives in the regular season while converting 45.3% of them, while Stephenson had 330 with a 58.4% conversion rate. Indiana’s entire team, sans George and Stephenson, only did 725 drives. That means the dynamic offensive duo of these two young and developing stars were 47.99% (669/1394 total in the regular season) of their drives.
So, that leads us back around to what Indiana should do now with the worst-case scenario of off-seasons actually happening. Should they try to fit the remaining pieces together and hope for career years from David West, George Hill and Roy Hibbert, or just blow the team up as their championship window has dwindled down to near zero?
They could go the replacement route to find a one-year filler for the 24-year-old superstar, and there are still some names that make some sense on the open market — Shawn Marion, MarShon Brooks, Gary Forbes and Jeff Green, via a trade with Boston, have all been names thrown out there in the past 48 hours. Could these three players, alongside the signings of two scoring guards in C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey not only fill the void of George, but Stephenson as well? Well, based off of SportVU data and shot location shot charts, there’s no possible way that any of these guys will be able to fill the gigantic shoes of both George and Stephenson — in other terms, replace over 35% of the team’s entire offense by themselves.
A major part of both George and Stephenson’s game are attacking the basket at will and being able to hit the corner-3s consistently. If we’re looking for a key player for the Pacers next season capable of doing that, from the players named above, the best option is likely Green — who fits Indiana’s “title or bust” aspirations, still. Green is a league average shooter — both on the perimeter and inside — but a player who could go off on any given night, when he has the hot hand. If the Pacers want to pull off a deal for Green, it will likely cost them multiple players (Luis Scola’s expiring contract and Ian Mahinmi come to mind) and their 2015 first-round pick. That’s a pretty big package for Green — who will be 28-years-old when the season begins — but one they will have to make if they want to stay near elite.
The second option for Indiana here, I believe, is one that might not be seen in the best light with their fans, or even most readers of the site: blowing the team up entirely.
Yes, Indiana was the No. 1 seed in the East last year, but the team has significantly changed in the past month with the permanent loss of Stephenson, and the temporary one of George. Numbers-wise, the chances of George Hill having a career year on both side of the floor, or any of the additions Indiana makes to their backcourt rotation having ones, too, are slim to none. All have reached the peak of their careers, and from here on they’re likely heading on a performance decline, due to age. That’s why I say this season is the perfect time to blow the roster up and start anew when George returns fully healthy for the 2015-2016 season.
When Derrick Rose first tore his ACL in April of 2012, Chicago had a younger core than what Indiana has now. The Bulls’ current building blocks who were apart of that team (Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson), including Rose, were an average age of 24.25. Even Chicago’s older and still productive Carlos Boozer was only 31-years-old at that time. Chicago had a few years to keep the roster intact, due to the young assets they had at their disposal while Rose was on the sidelines. Compare Indiana to Chicago, though, and the circumstances change. The Pacers’ building blocks (George Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert), including George, are an average age of 28.0. While Chicago could play the waiting game with their title window, Indiana doesn’t have the same time allotted to them. That is why losing Stephenson, who’s only 23-years-old, is a crucial blow to Indiana’s short-term and long-term title window.
If Indiana trades David West (34-years-old at the end of August) and Roy Hibbert (turns 28 in December) — two players who are starting or close to heading on a decline — before the season starts, or before the trade deadline, they will have shed nearly $27 million off of their books for free agency in 2015. (Yes, trading both of these players wouldn’t be smart in the short-term, but it could pay off big-time in the long-term with the salary cap flexibility and young assets they could receive through trades and the draft.) That clears the way for a youth movement of sorts to take place over the next two to three years in Indiana.
The Pacers would likely just sneak in to the playoffs this season, or be near the back-end of the lottery. Either way, you get a top-15 pick and maybe even a lottery pick from their trades of Hibbert and West — which is a huge asset to a team like Indiana — and they can finally begin to build the team from the outside-in, instead of the inside-out. And then, after a few seasons of patience with the young talent around George blossoming and continuing to get higher picks, the newer version of the Pacers is ready for a title run. Now, all of the sudden, the Pacers give George (who would only be 27 or 28 around this time) a nucleus of young talent around him for at least 5-10 year title window.
Even though it’s likely not a popular opinion, Indiana’s front office needs to highly consider retooling around George, completely. Not only does it make sense for the long-term title window of the Pacers, but also for immediate returns in trades and salary cap space to attract free agents in the lucrative classes of 2015 and 2016.
Just imagine a core of the following, with higher picks and salary cap, in a few years time: Michael Conley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, George, Brandan Wright and Myles Turner. All of this could possibly happen, if they decide to take the route of rebuilding/blowing up the current roster.
Yes, George’s injury is unfortunate, but adding-in this with the loss of Stephenson, the time is now for a massive change for Indiana to stay relevant longer than this current core can keep them.