By now Paul George's gruesome leg injury suffered in a Team USA scrimmage last Friday night has been discussed ad nauseam. All of the angles have been covered: the basket stanchion was an inch too close, owners don't want their stars competing internationally, will any of the other camp invites withdraw after watching this happen? That last question was answered when Kevin Durant withdrew this week for "physical and emotional reasons". As true as that may be, you won't convince me that George's injury had zero effect on his decision. Durant has since been replaced by Rudy Gay on the roster. As far as the stanchion issue goes, yes, it was an inch too close to the baseline according to NBA regulations. These are the kinds of things that unfortunately don't get changed until something like this happens. It's a lesson to be learned from, and there's really nothing more to it. As far as owners wanting more control over what their players can do in the off-season, I wholeheartedly disagree that a team owner should be able to control a player's off-season commitments. Eliminating professional players from international competition would simply be a reactionary move. It wouldn't stop guys from playing in the Drew League or at Rucker Park, where the action is even less regulated. However, when ultra-rich people who control a situation want things, they tend to get it. I wouldn't be surprised to see some type of change instituted with regards to international competition within the next two or three years.
While all of these things have been discussed in the past few days, the angle I'm most selfishly interested in is how Paul George's injury affects the outlook for the 2014-15 Detroit Pistons. After LeBron James signed with Cleveland, and the Bulls added Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol to their roster, there was all kinds of talk about how deadly the Central Division had become. Cleveland will likely have two of the NBA's top six or seven players on their roster come fall. Chicago will add Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and a Eurostar to the Eastern Conference's 4th best record; and Indiana had Paul George and the top record in the conference in 2014-15. With the injury to George, the Pacers went from an assumed lock to host a first round playoff series to the playoff bubble. Are the suggestions that Indy could miss the playoffs an overreaction, or are they in trouble without Stephenson and George? Let's take a look at what their depth chart could look like and how they'll match up with the Pistons, down two stars on the wing...
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There's one assumption being made here: The Pacers use the injured player exception to sign Michael Beasley. There had been talk that they were pursuing Shawn Marion, but it sounds like The Matrix is leaning towards Cleveland. For now, I'll be assuming that the Pacers add the next best SF on the open market in Beasley.
PG: George Hill/C.J. Watson/Donald Sloan
SG: Rodney Stuckey/C.J. Miles/Rasual Butler
SF: Michael Beasley/Chris Copeland/Solomon Hill
PF: David West/Luis Scola/Damjan Rudez*/Shayne Whittington or Lavoy Allen**
C: Roy Hibbert/Ian Mahinmi
*Rudez apparently also plays SF and would likely slot in between Copeland and Hill
**The Whittington signing was kind of weird, I'd bet on Allen
To summarize the changes in the Pacers' starting lineup, they've replaced Lance Stephenson with Rodney Stuckey and Paul George with Michael Beasley (or Chris Copeland/Damjan Rudez). Those are some pretty big drop-offs. Stephenson's efficiency in catch-and-shoot situations will be missed, along with his defensive versatility. While Stuckey is an adequate player, he's never been an integral part of a team that's been even remotely successful (No, I don't count his rookie year). The gap between George and Beasley is even larger, as the mercurial Beasley is talented but extremely unreliable. After a strong start to the season last year in Miami, he somehow found himself buried on the bench due to what teammates and coaches described as a lack of focus and dedication. If Beasley can lock in and dedicate himself over 82 games, he has the talent to give the Pacers the wing scoring they need. I wouldn't count on that, and that's the problem with Indiana's situation. They have zero sources of reliable wing scoring.
Losing both Stephenson and George will put a larger onus on West, Scola and Hibbert to score the ball, a proposition that should make Pacers fans uneasy. West is still a reliable option, but at 34 years old, there's only going to be so many possessions you can run through him every night. Scola is an okay option off the bench, but is also 34 years old and has seen his TS% decline every year since the 2008-09 season. Then there's Hibbert. After an extremely rough run in the playoffs, who knows what Hibbert is going to give the Pacers next year? He didn't rebound, he didn't score and he hardly played effective defense for large stretches of the playoffs last year. Even at his best, Hibbert has never been able to make himself a key cog in an NBA offense. Hibbert's highest TS% of his career came in his second season in The Association, a year in which he still failed to shoot above 50% from the field. Through six years in the league, 7'2 Roy Hibbert, who takes nearly 70% of his shots within 10 feet of the basket, has never managed to shoot above 50% from the field. To sum things up, the Pacers are really going to need David West to have a career year in order to not have one of the worst offensive teams in the league. Buckle up, Pacers fans.
This year's Pacers team won't match up well with many teams offensively, the Pistons included. Detroit has more skill throughout the roster coming out of this off-season (assuming Monroe is back in some capacity), even at the positions where the Pacers thrive.
Point Guard - Hill/Watson v. Jennings/Augustin; Advantage: Pacers
There's a small chance that this favors the Pistons if Stan Van Gundy can get through to the simple-minded Jennings. Cut out the ill-advised hero ball and you're left with a really talented passer who can hit open shots from time to time. However, even coming off of a career-low in PER, Hill at this point is the more proven player. He's not an established passer for the PG position (career-high 23.4 AST% in 2012-13), but is good at what he does and plays within himself. There's a large amount of variance in Augustin's game, but if he can replicate last year's success, the Pistons win the bench match-up. Watson is an okay player, nothing more, nothing less.
Shooting Guard - Stuckey/Miles v. Meeks/Caldwell-Pope; Advantage: Pistons
I'm not sure how well Stuckey fits in the Pacers' offense, seeing as he can't really shoot the three ball. Miles could very well start, with Stuckey filling the same sixth-man role he filled in Detroit. Either way, the Pistons have the superior scoring and defensive options at the 2-guard spot. It looks like Meeks will be the starter out of the gate, but if KCP can showcase development on the offensive end of the floor, the Pistons will have a nice two-headed monster at SG. The decline from Stephenson to Stuckey will be steep.
Small Forward - Beasley(?)/Copeland/Rudez v. Singler/Butler/Martin; Advantage: Pistons
The gap between George and...uhhh...whatever you want to call the Pacers SFs is massive. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single SF group in the league worse than what Indy will be trotting out this season. They're going to be so bad that SF Josh Smith would easily be their starter. I think that's hyperbole, but I'm not really sure. The wildcard here is Rudez. I admittedly know very little about him, but I doubt he's the answer here. This is the Pistons' weakest grouping too, but they have the leg up due to the potential for Chris Copeland to start and Kyle Singler actually being a useful piece.
Power Forward - West/Scola/Rudez v. Monroe/Smith/Jerebko; Advantage: Pistons
This is the closest position grouping on the roster, in my opinion. Still, the Pistons figure to have a reliable scoring option, backed up by a freak athlete who is a plus defender in the post. If SVG can get Smith to quit being a chucker, this group won't be close at all. The added depth from Jerebko is a nice bonus, although Indy may get the same from Rudez. If Smith is still a mess, this tilts in the Pacers' favor. For now, I give the Pistons a slight nod due to younger legs.
Center - Hibbert/Mahinmi v. Drummond/Monroe/Gray; Advantage: Pistons
Full disclaimer here: I think Hibbert is one of the most overrated players in the league. No way in hell did he deserve what should have been Drummond's spot on the All-Star team last year. At 7'2, he barely rebounded the ball (12.5 TRB%) and is a black hole on offense. Roy Hibbert's TS% was in Josh Smith territory, only a couple points higher than Smith's abysmal production at SF last year. Long story short, he's a shot blocker, and nothing more. Rant over. Even if Hibbert were well-rounded, Drummond is the better overall player. He's the best rebounder in the league, is impossible to keep off of the offensive glass and doesn't disappear for stretches. Drummond's a mile behind Hibbert on defense, but I think 10/10 GMs would take Drummond for this season over Hibbert. From a depth standpoint, the Pistons figure to rotate Monroe in for the minutes that Drummond doesn't play. Mahinmi is solid, but doesn't offer any variety from what Hibbert gives the Pacers.
There can be some debate about who has the advantage where, but from top to bottom, I don't think there's any debate that the Pistons have a more talented, well-rounded roster. The only thing that could keep the Pacers ahead of the Pistons this year would be a surprise addition at SG or SF. If not, the Pacers will have to ride a defense that lost a great perimeter defender and massive length at the SG/SF positions. They will still be a strong defensive team, but it's hard to see them leading the league with Stuckey and Copeland playing big minutes. With the loss of Lance Stephenson to Charlotte and Paul George's injury, a playoff spot may have opened up, and the Pistons need to take advantage.