Last year, a team of grind it out, super lengthy ballers gritted their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. They had stumbled into the post-season and then nearly stumbled out of the post-season. They were the number one seed in the Eastern bracket and they were very nearly knocked off by an Al Horford-less Atlanta Hawks team.
But the Pacers weren't built to beat the Hawks. They didn't gave two shits about Atlanta (and it showed). They were constructed to beat the Miami Heat, a rival so far from them on the spun coil of character that there was legitimate hatred boiling between two towns over a child's game.
For Miami, the Pacers were an annoyance. Indiana was the most persistent challenger to their pre-annointed throne of best team in basketball. As much as Indiana might talk smack and blow in opponents' ears, they were little more than children throwing stones at a King. The Heat were more concerned with their likely opponents in the next round---the San Antonio Spurs.
For Indiana, Miami was a glitzy team of wanna-be's. A collection of talents that had taken the "easy way out." There's a reason Indiana came to the arena wearing T-shirts emblazoned on the front with "Blue Collar." They were representing a whole state of men and women that were grinders, doers, hard workers that had no easy option out. They thought of themselves as the antithesis of everything Miami and its "Big Three" represented.
So when the Pacers and Heat met in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the second such occurrence in as many seasons, there was a sense of something coming to fruition. And Indiana's crescendo looked something like this:
And so, Indiana lost. Again.
There is often rumblings in these situations (or at least that's what sports writers and aspiring sports writers say). When teams lose late in the playoffs, the usual response is a polite "Good season" while management and fans wonder what could have and needs to be done differently. Here, there was no rumbling. The talk was loud and clear. Indiana was not good enough to beat Miami and Miami was not good enough to beat the best team from the Western Conference. That left Indiana as, at best, the third best team in the league. And third best was a stretch considering most of the playoff teams in the Western Conference could have beaten the Pacers in a 7-game series. And when you're the 8th or 9th best team in the league, you're not much at all.
The team needed to move in another direction. Starting shooting guard (and the team's third leading scorer) Lance Stephenson was allowed to leave in free agency, accepting a contract with the ascendant Charlotte Hornets. The team likely aimed to reconfigure around budding NBA All-Star Paul George and whatever motley collection of talent they could assemble around him. They would then chase redemption and seek the breakthrough that had been denied them for the past two years (by a team that no longer existed---since James departed for the Pacers' division rival Cleveland Cavaliers). General Manager Larry Bird probably had visions of the multitude of teams that had knocked on the door of the NBA Finals, were denied time and time again by the same rival, and then finally---triumphantly---broke through and won the title. He probably saw his own Celtics team battling the 76ers, or the Pistons battling Bird's Celtics, or Michael Jordan's Bulls struggling against that same Detroit team.
But basketball has no conscience. It has no room for storylines, other than those we project onto it.
So George suffered a gruesome injury to his leg during a scrimmage for USA Basketball, effectively ending his season and potentially altering his career. He was the Pacers leading scorer and, without argument, their best perimeter defender.
The trade talk around Hibbert has since ceased, at least for now. So have talks of dark-horse title runs or chances at seizing the Central Division title.
Instead, Indiana will likely be one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference (and therefore the NBA). They are a team laid low by injury and a lack of scoring talent. Very few players on the roster can score. Power forward David West, who entered the league during the 2003-2004 season, is now the Pacers best player. He averaged a respectable 14 ppg last season, on a .488 field goal percentage. He will need to score more for this team to win games.
The scoring burden will also fall to George Hill, a hopefully-sane Roy Hibbert, and the platoon that fills the gaping chasm left by both Stephenson and George (likely some combination of Rodney Stuckey, Evan Turner, and whoever else they find).
Stuckey and Turner, together, will more than make up for the loss of Stephenson's regular season contributions. Post-season totals will probably not be an issue for Indiana, barring a 7th or 8th seed appearance (the East is still preposterously bad).
But the Pacers are weak. They are against the ropes. They are a team without an identity and are now suddenly deprived the crutch of a star-player (and a guy who thinks he's a star player). George was the team's best defensive and offensive player. He is now gone. Stephenson was a spark plug and a bottle of insta-swagger. He brought an attitude that could be sorely missed (particularly sans George).
It is obvious that this team will struggle offensively but they will also struggle in certain defensive categories as well, specifically if they lose Hibbert or if he comes back without any semblance of basketball playing ability.
I think Hibbert will make a return to form, of sorts. The pressure surrounding this team has been released, albeit for horrific and unforeseeable reasons. Hibbert will have a sort-of vacuum in which to operate, something that might aid him in regaining his playing form. If he can do that, the Pacers should construct their team around him for the time being.
But mostly they should be working with Paul George during his rehab and closely studying the draft and potential free agents. The Pacers need to be rebuilt. Unfortunately, that's only in part due to their struggles in the Conference Finals.
They will still be a strong defensive team but they will likely be one of the worst offensive units in the league (expect them to battle with the Philadelphia 76ers for the title of most inept offense).
Bright side: They should still be better than Milwaukee.
Stay tuned to Moondog Landing for Part Three of "A Look at the Central."
To read part one, about the Milwaukee Bucks, click here.