What's the Next Step for the Indiana Pacers?

The Indiana Pacers have stumbled out of the gate with a 13-22 record as of Jan. 5. Should they go on and miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2009-10 NBA season, what is the next step for them?

Granted, the season is far from over. The Pacers still have a puncher’s chance of snagging at least the eighth playoff spot in the East. When Indiana’s 88-87 won against the Utah Jazz on January 5th, they climbed to eight games below .500 and were just three games behind the seventh-seeded Brooklyn Nets (16-17).

However, it’s hard to imagine the Pacers being in the postseason if the injury bug continues to bite them hard. Just when they were on the brink of being a fully healthy squad (sans franchise Paul George, who is still rehabbing from a gruesome lower right-leg fracture he suffered during a Team USA scrimmage game in Aug. 2014), their starting point guard who has barely this season, George Hill, suffered another setback and his backup, C.J. Watson recently missed a few games.

The Pacers have also been without backup center Ian Mahinmi, who has a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. Based on NBC Sports’ Sean Highkin’s Dec. 7 update, Mahinmi should be back in a month or so.

With this, eight different Pacers have missed 137 games due to injuries through Jan. 5.

And yet, here they are, just three games out of the seventh playoff spot in the East. Let us delve deeper into what step they should take depending on how the rest of their season plays out: making the playoffs and going home early for the summer.

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3 Scenario 1: Pacers Squeak Into the 2014-15 NBA Playoffs

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Supposing the Indiana Pacers manage to fend off more injuries as the 2014-15 NBA regular season deepens and the other lower-seeded Eastern Conference teams lose more games than they win, Indiana can make the playoffs.

Now, if Paul George returns at that critical juncture when the Pacers are making a late-season playoff push, they will make noise in the postseason. They should.

Of course, there will be major question marks when PG-13 returns. The most obvious one is rust. He’s been out of commission for five months. As good a player he is, he’s had a propensity for hoisting questionable shots. This could be a recipe for disaster.

However, there’s reason to believe George will overcome his long layoff.

First, he has a tireless work ethic. Just ask Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who gave PG-13 his well-wishes in the aftermath of the latter’s injury, per ESPN’s Mike Wells:

“I’ve never got to meet Paul personally, but I’ve always been a big fan. Your heart goes out to him. What a terrible thing. We all know he’ll come back stronger than ever. His work ethic and dedication, you can see it on the court, I think he’ll approach it the same way. He’ll be healthy and get back soon.”

Second, he just gets better every year. He provided fans a glimpse of what he’s capable of during his rookie year back during the 2010-11 NBA season and has gone a long way since.

He’s also gotten better every year in the postseason since he first donned Pacers Blue and Gold. From 6.0 PPG four seasons ago, he upped that to 9.7 PPG, 19.2 PPG, and finally 22.6 PPG in 2013-14. That’s the mark of a really, really good player.

Simply put, George is Indiana’s most complete two-way player even before the days of Reggie Miller.

With or without George, the Pacers won’t be an easy out come playoff time. Many different players have responded during the course of the 2014-15 NBA season as evidenced by 10 different players averaging at least 8.8 PPG:

- George Hill: 14.2 PPG- C.J. Miles: 12.2 PPG- David West: 11.9 PPG- Rodney Stuckey 11.8 PPG- Roy Hibbert: 11.6 PPG- C.J. Watson: 10.9 PPG- Solomon Hill: 10.3 PPG- Donald Sloan: 10.1 PPG- Luis Scola: 9.3 PPG- Chris Copeland: 8.8 PPG

If the current playoff seedings stand, the Pacers will square off against one these teams: The Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, or Chicago Bulls. The Pacers have had all sorts of problems with the Hawks during the past two seasons, so chances are, they won’t last past the first round.

They have a more realistic shot at scoring an upset with either Toronto or Chicago, especially if their defense and rebounding hold serve.

Note to Larry Bird: If the Pacers somehow make the playoffs, don’t blow everything up just yet. Give this bunch a chance to mesh with PG-13. Special things could happen in 2015-16.

2 Scenario 2: Pacers Are Eliminated From Postseason Contention

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Should the Pacers go on to kiss their playoffs hope goodbye, the most obvious factor would be injuries.

The 137 games Indiana has lost due to various injuries has gotten in the way of establishing better team chemistry. A prime example, as pointed out earlier, was George Hill finally reporting for duty in December before he and C.J. Watson sat out the game against the Lakers, a one-point loss attributed to poor, last-second execution.

Head coach Frank Vogel has shuffled his starting lineup routinely. For instance, he’s started Chris Copeland and C.J. Miles in spots during the early course of the 2014-15 NBA campaign only to have them come off the bench lately.

Veteran shooting guard Rodney Stuckey started at the 1-spot when previous starter Donald Sloan, who has done a credible job, started shooting bricks. When C.J. Watson came back from his injury in December, he became the starter while Stuckey slid back to his more natural shooting guard spot. And then when Hill finally suited up after missing the first 30 games of the season, he was tasked to start at point guard.

Rookie Croatian forward Damjan Rudez made some contributions off the bench in the early going of 2014-15, but has had eight straight DNP-DCs through January 5th.

Just about the only guys who haven’t had to go through all this re-shuffling are starters David West and Roy Hibbert, as well as Indy’s offensive rebounder off the bench, Lavoy Allen (2.8 ORPG).

You get the picture. It’s been one heck of a merry-go-round.

Nonetheless, the Pacers have slid several notches from the ranks of the NBA’s elite because they don’t have their franchise player in George. They don’t have their go-to-guy, that one player who makes all the difference with the game on the line.

If Indy was in the same predicament during the Reggie Miller era, there was no way they would be battling the likes of the New York Knicks for Eastern Conference supremacy. No 25 fourth-quarter points. No eight points in nine seconds. That’s how vital players such as Miller and George are to their team’s chances.

Many NBA experts saw this coming when the sports world was rocked by PG-13’s injury five months ago. And yet, the Pacers still have a pulse. They’re lucky to be playing in the East, where eighth-seeded playoff teams with 38-44 records (as was the case with the Atlanta Hawks last season) are not unusual.

So, should Larry Legend rebuild after one lost season? Not by any means. That’s just not his style. Ever since he came on board as Pacers president in 2003, the fewest wins Indy has ever had was 32 in 2009-10, which coincidentally was the last time the team failed to reach the postseason.

Pacers fans had to endure four straight non-playoff seasons from 2007-10, but the team was nowhere near the caliber of today’s Philadelphia 76ers. They never hit rock bottom.

Bird can also take a lesson from the 2011 Indianapolis Colts, who rebounded from a dismal 2-14 showing that season to an 11-5 record in 2012, Luck’s rookie year. The takeaway? A one-year disappointment can be a fluke if the right pieces are in place.

Although the Pacers have good pieces on board, they still must tweak their lineup. No matter how well-crafted their lineup is, it will all go for naught without your most important player around.

1 The Final Say

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No matter how the 2014-15 NBA season plays out, the Pacers must cross their fingers both Roy Hibbert and David West, who have player options for 2015-16, re-sign with them.

West told The Indianapolis Star in Oct. 2014 he pondered retirement several years ago. He even went on to say he “probably would have walked away” had the Pacers won the NBA title in 2013. It would be a shame if West hangs up his sneakers without ever winning an NBA crown. If there’s one savvy and dedicated veteran who deserves a championship ring, it’s him. That being said, Pacers fans can only hope he stays put.

On the other hand, Pacers with expiring deals are Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson, Rodney Stuckey, Lavoy Allen and Donald Sloan. All of them have made a significant contribution in one way or another and must be given another shot with a healthy Paul George in tow.

Scola continues to deliver the goods both as a starter and a bench player this year. It’s just a shame he has been struggling on the free-throw line (65.1 percent, a career low). Copeland had a good start to the year, but hasn’t been as productive lately.

Stuckey has remained consistent, although he does have a tendency to force the issue. Allen has been a revelation with his work on the boards. He and Donald Sloan have been the biggest surprises for Indy with their grit and professionalism.

The one thing that has eluded the Pacers all these years is a playmaking point guard. Bird decided to stand pat with his point guard lineup in 2014-15, but that has to change next season. If Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic opts out of his $7.55 million deal next year, Bird may want to look at taking a shot at him.

Imagine a superb playmaker, PG-13, and a deep bench all figuring into the equation. The Indiana Pacers may finally end their 41-year NBA title drought.

For now, these Pacers will take it one game at a time in their climb back toward respectability.

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