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Last updated: Sun. Aug. 03, 2014 - 08:21 pm EDT

COLUMN

Pacers right to panic about George and options ahead

Indiana's immediate future in a state of uncertainty

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For more sports commentary, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

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It's OK for the Indiana Pacers to feel some panic. They just have to resist acting in a panic.

Easier said than done, no question.

Paul George's horrific leg injury suffered in a U.S. national team intrasquad game Friday has left many speculating about a timetable for his return. There is even some question whether he'll be able to return, at least to the level he had risen to as the Pacers' top player. No one can know for sure this soon after the incident.

George will almost certainly miss this coming season and maybe longer, and that's an immeasurable setback for the Pacers, who had already lost Lance Stephenson to free agency. The question is unavoidable: Who's going to score for the Pacers now?

Pacers president Larry Bird isn't yet ready to publicly speculate about the team's next move.

“Any discussion regarding the future of our team would be inappropriate at this time,” Bird said in a statement Saturday. “Our focus is solely on Paul and doing whatever we can to help.”

Outside of making sure George has the finest medical care and offering moral support, there's only so much the Pacers can do for George. Bird may be right that any public discussion of the future of the team is premature given the circumstances. But Bird and his staff wouldn't be doing their jobs if they weren't already on some sort of discussion track on what to do next.

At some point, and that point will be sooner than Bird and Co. would like it to be, they're going to have to estimate the length of George's absence. If it's likely to be one season and perhaps part or all of another, then they can treat it as a short-term (although likely playoff-less) situation and continue to consider George as the linchpin of the franchise.

But the possibility exists that George might never be the player the Pacers and others expected him to become – an elite force worthy of being mentioned alongside LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

It'd be great to have a crystal ball so the Pacers could decide whether George's injury forces a retooling of the team, basically a start-from-nearly-scratch approach.

Do they bite the bullet, struggle for .500 and hope to snag some building-block players in the next two drafts?

Or do the Pacers try to find a replacement sooner?

The Pacers could offer their first-round pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and perhaps more, in exchange for a proven player who could come in and slide into George's role as a playmaker and scorer. But does such a player even exist? Contenders aren't going to make that deal and mediocre teams don't necessarily have a player of that value available.

Fans have been quick to cry about the loss of Stephenson, and criticize the Pacers for their failure to keep him on board. I'm not convinced Stephenson can handle the role of No.1 offensive option. The Pacers offered him a reasonable contract, which he spurned to take a similar deal with Charlotte. Stephenson didn't seem like a player who wanted to find a way to remain a Pacer. That's not leadership attitude.

Suppose the Pacers can put together a package to land a reasonable facsimile of George's skills, particularly on the offensive end. Then he comes back much earlier than expected, in much better shape than expected. After all, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline, who suffered a similar break in high school, said he believes George could come back even “stronger.”

If George is capable of being almost his old self by the end of the 2015-16 season, couldn't the Pacers add critical parts in the draft to be ready for the jump start George's return would produce?

Again, it'd be so handy to have that crystal ball.

This much we know: The Pacers' 2014-15 season is lost. They'll need everything to go right just to make the playoffs.

Bird doesn't think it's appropriate to speculate about what's in the future for the Pacers in light of George's injury. My guess is, given the uncertainty from all angles, he would rather put off even thinking about it.

But Bird and the Pacers formulate a plan. They must act without panicking, yet with tons of potential future scenarios in mind and no way to know for sure when or if George will return.

The Pacers are in limbo. It's not even a nice place to visit, but the Pacers look stuck there indefinitely.

rhayes@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.


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