The aftermath of Friday night’s horrific injury to Indiana Pacers’ small forward Paul George is the realization that the NBA Eastern Conference has once again been violently shaken up by the departure of a single player. Of course, in this most recent case, the change came unexpectedly, and with a sense of regret at George’s fate by all rival teams.
George suffered a badly fractured right leg after he ran into a stanchion (closer than is standard for an NBA contest) during a scrimmage, in preparation for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain at the end of this month.
Having just turned 24 in May, George was set to begin his fifth season with the Pacers, and showed steady improvement each season. Last year, he averaged almost 22 points per game, and was invaluable during the team’s playoff run, which ended in a loss to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat for the second consecutive year.
Now that James has returned to Cleveland, the budding rivalry between the two stars has been put on hold until likely sometime in 2016. According to NBA.com, estimates of between 12-18 months of recovery and rehabilitation lay ahead for George, though some foolish projections have simply stated that this season “is in danger.”
Last year, Indiana had been on pace to dethrone the Heat in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, putting together a 45-13 mark through March 2nd. However, the last seven weeks of the campaign proved to be an exercise in mediocrity, with the team finishing 11-13 down the stretch. Once the postseason arrived, they bounced back, though they were taken to the limit by the Atlanta Hawks and then dispatched the Washington Wizards in six games, before coming up short against the Heat.
Even prior to the George injury, Indiana seemed to be a team that would have a hard time matching their production from last season. For one thing, the team’s lone draft selection, second round pick Louis Labeyrie from France, was quickly sold to the New York Knicks.
In addition, Indiana’s efforts during free agency were panned by USA Today. The team lost Lance Stephenson to Charlotte, replacing him with the duo of Rodney Stuckey and former Cavalier C.J. Miles. The two signings were an attempt to inject some additional offense into the lineup, but the George injury has quickly gutted such efforts.
The added absence of George means the Eastern Conference has essentially become a two-team race between the Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. The obvious edge would go to Cleveland, since they already have James and Kyrie Irving, and are almost certain to add Minnesota Timberwolves’ power forward Kevin Love by the end of the month.
With the Pacers now undoubtedly out of the serious Eastern Conference postseason picture, the question becomes, which team will take its place? The most likely candidate appears to be the Wizards, since they have a young and talented team that got its first taste of postseason action in six years.
Washington acquitted themselves quite well during that playoff run, including the ousting of the Bulls. However, the question of the team’s depth, as well as the usual growing pains that continually come with harnessing such talent, likely will limit how far they advance this year.
Another young team that’s starting to move up is the renamed Charlotte Hornets, who won 43 games before being sent home in four straight in the first round of the playoffs by the Heat. The fact that they doubled their win total from the year before is certainly a positive, but teams that make such a rapid ascent tend to either level out or regress. Thus, they’re likely to be a few years away from making a real run.
Prior to Friday night, Cavalier fans were likely more focused on the Bulls as the team’s main rival anyway, but the vision in everyone’s crystal ball became that much sharper after seeing an injury that everyone would like to forget.