At the end of May, despite a disappointing playoff run, the future looked bright for the Indiana Pacers. Wherever LeBron James ended up in free agency, a starting five of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert proved to be a player in the Eastern Conference. With that core in place and Frank Vogel as head coach, Indiana seemed to be set up for sustained contention in the Eastern Conference.
How a few months can change things.
Over the summer, the Pacers changed perhaps more than any other team besides the Cavaliers. First, Stephenson left for the Charlotte Hornets and a three-year deal worth less guaranteed money than Indiana offered him. Then, in a Team USA intersquad scrimmage, George was likely lost for the when gruesomely broke his leg. Now the Pacers will likely rely on a starting five of Hill, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, West and Hibbert.
George and Stephenson formed a hellacious duo on the wing for the Pacers last season. In losing Stephenson and George, Indiana loses its two best wing defenders, its top-two creators and half of its core. George was one of the NBA's top-five players last season, one of the few guys in the league who could change game on both sides of the ball. Stephenson, for all his antics, was essential to Indiana's success.
Stuckey and Miles, the players likely to start in place of Stephenson and George, are solid NBA rotation players. Both can create, are respectable 3-pointer shooters and Miles is an underrated defender on the wing. But neither is on the same level as their predecessors.
Overall, Indiana's expectations have to be lower this season. With the changes, the Pacers' team dynamic has been qualitatively changed. Offensively, this team is going to look very different without Stephenson and George. This year, expect West to be the focal point of the Pacers' attack once he returns from an ankle injury. Last year, West averaged 14 points per game and shot 49.1 percent on shots inside the arc with a usage rate of 21.9.
West's points per game and usage rate should both increase this season and end up near his 2012-13 levels of 17.1 points per game and a usage rate of 24.4. He is, without question, the lead option for his Pacers' team. Hill, Miles, Stuckey and Hibbert are all secondary options. Stuckey and Miles can create on their own, but neither is as reliable or as efficient as West.
Figuring out where the rest of Indiana's offense comes from should be interesting. Although George was an elite player, the Pacers' offense was downright terrible over the course of the second half of the season into the playoffs. The roster as assembled doesn't have a real dribble threat and teams could theoretically double West down low and force everyone else to score. Vogel could go small and play Chris Copeland or Damjan Rudez at the four to create some semblance of spacing, but that won't fix all of Indiana's offensive issues.
The one thing Indiana has going for it is its defense, although consistently going small would hurt the Pacers on that end of the floor. Even without Stephenson and George, Indiana should have a borderline elite defense. Hibbert is still the king of verticality and he should be refreshed after a summer off. He's not a traditional shot blocker, but he's going to alter almost any shot that comes his way while force teams to reconsider attacking inside. Vogel can and will build around Hibbert's presence on defense. A huge year from Hibbert is essential to Indiana's success.
Still, expect a drop-off in Indiana's defense. A year ago, when the Pacers held teams to a league best eFG% of 46 percent and only allowed 92.3 points per game, Indiana's defense was historically great. This year, it will be solid largely because of Vogel's coaching talent and Hibbert.
That might get Indiana into the back end of a weak Eastern Conference. The East is improved this year, but it's still weak at the bottom. If West can stay healthy, Hibbert plays up to his potential all year and the Pacers can find some consistent offense, Indiana will still be a tough, gritty team you don't want to see on the second half of a back-to-back.
But being a touch matchup and a title contender are very different things. Losing two players as good as Stephenson and George will qualitatively change the course of your season for the worse.
How a few months can change things.