Had it all gone according to plan, the landscape would look something like this:
Lance Stephenson would be a star.
Roy Hibbert would still be an All-Star.
Paul George would be a supernova.
George Hill would be in his point-guard prime.
David West would be the intrepid leader.
And the Indiana Pacers would be on the cusp of a championship or, quite possibly, defending NBA champions.
Of course, they are neither.
Nothing went according to plan.
Consequently, the landscape looks something like this:
How quickly plans change.
Two years removed from two consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers find themselves in the unlikeliest of situations: Not reloading, not quite rebuilding, but refitting.
Although the last might be a charitable term, the Pacers are not the mess they were six years ago. Fans don’t hate them. They play with passion. And barring injuries, they have enough firepower to make the playoffs.
But making the playoffs was never the plan. Winning in the playoffs, as in all the way through the playoffs, was always the plan. And as recently as two years ago, there was every reason to believe in the plan.
Everything, it seemed, was in place for a dynasty. All critical free agents were re-signed. A few others were added. The bench was fortified. The coach was a rising star. All that was left was to win the East and reap the championship rewards.
But in the blip of a free-agent departure and the snap of a leg bone, the plan unraveled.
You know the story.
Only weeks after losing to Miami in the 2014 conference finals, Stephenson — who had enjoyed a breakout season — bolted for Charlotte. Although the defection was stunning, it wasn’t crippling.
That would come a few weeks later, when George suffered the gruesome broken leg that sidelined him for all but a handful games last season.
With no viable replacements, there was no way for the Pacers to fill the Stephenson/George void. Not with Hibbert devolving from an All-Star to something just above a D-League center; not with West having too many years of wear and tear to contribute like an All-Star; and certainly not with a journeymen cast wholly incapable of performing like an accomplished cast.
Again, you know the story.
Results, especially early, were ugly. The Pacers lost frequently, lost by wide margins and lost traction in the playoff race out of the gate.
By season’s end, however, rays of sunshine emerged.
Despite all the early lumps and lopsided losses, the Pacers didn’t crumble. They in fact made a spirited late run at the playoffs and just narrowly missed out.
Which brings us to the present.
With George’s return and the recent acquisitions of veterans Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger — along with the re-signing of Rodney Stuckey — the Pacers are positioned for a postseason run.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is, the new plan in no way resembles the old plan. The playoffs are an ambition, not a guarantee. A championship run is a fantasy, not a reality.
A dynasty is not at hand.
Instead of a familiar lineup of George, Stephenson, Hibbert, Hill and West, the Pacers will patch together something with George, Hill and, well, whoever else plays their way in.
Hibbert is gone. West is gone. Luis Scola is gone. Ellis, Jordan Hill and Budinger are in. Rookies Myles Turner and Joe Young are in.
What will the Pacers look like this season? A better version of last year, but with a largely new roster.
That was never the plan, but as is often the case in the unpredictably fluid NBA, plans were made — or are perhaps destined — to be broken.