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Pacers’ prospects suddenly change with George out

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If the medical experts are correct, Paul George will return to the court for the Indiana Pacers.

How soon and how effective, though, are the burning questions.

Because of the apparent “clean break” of his right tibia-fibula, coupled with advances in high-tech treatment, medical experts across media spectrums have opined that a full recovery can be expected. Many of the same experts have insisted a return to All-Star form is possible.

So the wait is on.

As one might expect, the Pacers haven’t announced any sort of timetable for George’s return. Conventional wisdom suggests there is virtually no chance he’ll play next season. But if the experts are correct, 2015-16 appears a realistic expectation.

That’s great news, of course, for 2015-16.

But what about 2014-15?

Sadly, the news is as bleak as it would seem.

Losing Lance Stephenson was one thing. Losing the NBA’s Most Improved Player of 2013 is another.

Combined, the losses are beyond staggering. They’re crippling.

Within a three-week window, the Eastern Conference finalist Pacers lost their two best players: Stephenson to free agency, George to injury. The former could be overcome. The latter, no chance.

George is, for all his post-All-Star break inconsistency, the Pacers’ marquee player. More than that, he is the player the franchise is building around: The cornerstone, the foundation — the absolute center of what it is trying to accomplish, which is win a championship.

That won’t happen this season.

Winning the East, let alone the NBA title, was going to be difficult enough without Stephenson. Making the playoffs, let alone reaching the conference finals, is going to be the challenge now without George.

To remain viable in the East, three things are going to have to happen: Roy Hibbert must reappear; David West must continue to play 10 years younger than he is; and George Hill, or someone, will have to emerge as a true point guard.

Oh, and the bench — a perpetual weakness — is going to have to be significantly better than it was last year.

Oh, and no one else — during the course of 82 games — can get hurt, especially not a starter.

Talk about no margin for error.

In terms of championship contention, the Pacers had little margin to begin with even before George suffered the compound fractures in his right leg during Friday’s U.S. men’s national team exhibition game in Las Vegas.

Stephenson’s departure was a blow. But with LeBron James joining Cleveland and the Cavaliers’ anticipated addition of Kevin Love, and Derrick Rose’s return to health for Chicago, the East isn’t exactly there for the taking, as its seemed to be at times last season for the Pacers.

Toronto, Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, even LeBron-less Miami, could all have a say in how the East shakes out.

Without George, the Pacers have lost most of their voice. Perhaps not all of it, but most of it.

Suddenly, the No. 8 seed never looked so good.

Rick Morwick is sports editor for the Daily Journal. Send comments to rmorwick@dailyjournal.net.

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