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Silver linings from Paul George’s injury

I don’t have a stomach for these types of things. I only saw it once, and once was enough. And my guess is that once was enough for most people. Which is why I can only imagine what Paul George was feeling lying there on the floor of the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, seeing his leg twisted in a way no leg should ever be, with the horror written plainly across the faces of all those in attendance.

Reports indicated that those around PG say he is in good spirits. PG himself appeared upbeat and optimistic about the future, tweeting this shortly before going into surgery.

The operation to repair the open tibula-fibia fracture to PG”s right leg was deemed a success, with no additional damage discovered, meaning there won’t be any additional time added to the recovery period. It’s too early to say for sure what that recovery period will be, but some doctors are saying it’s likely PG will miss the entire upcoming season.

Kevin Ware, the college baller who suffered a similar freak injury last year, was back on the court in eight months. If that is the case, PG could technically be back on the court by the end of the season in April. With PG’s worth ethic and youth on his side, it’s not outside the realms of possibility, but that’s an overly optimistic prediction no one would be willing to make. According to PG’s dad, they’re taking it as though he’ll be out for the entire season, as doctors said it will be three months before he can even put weight on the leg.

We could go on forever about the risks of NBA players taking part in international competition during the offseason, whether PG should have been challenging a fast break layup in an inter-squad scrimmage exhibition, or how far back a stanchion should be from a court’s baseline. None of that is relevant now for PG and the Pacers, who are now heading into the 2014-2015 season with more questions than ever. We knew the team would be affected by the loss of Lance Stephenson (to Charlotte in free agency), arguably the team’s second best player and its best playmaker. But losing PG, the undeniable face of the franchise and one of the best two-way players in the league, is a whole different story.

The Pacers could hang their heads and feel sorry for themselves, but with the eternally optimistic Vogel and the always-stoic Bird at the helm it’s hard to envision that happening. The Pacers are of course no longer title contenders this season, though in the weaker East making the playoffs is not entirely out of the question. However, do the Pacers want to make the playoffs? They didn’t get a draft pick last month, so maybe the lottery is a better option. Perhaps Vogel could develop the young guys, create some new chemistry with the new additions, get a decent draft pick, and have PG back next season at full strength. That would be an ideal situation if we’re taking a slightly longer term approach to the team’s outlook.

When someone as tragic as this happens, all we can do is try to take some positives out of it. These are some I pulled out of my silver linings playbook (or as I like to call it, my ass):

1. Roy Hibbert and the Hills (George and Solomon) could benefit from bigger roles. Roy Hibbert’s struggles at the end of last season and the playoffs are well documented. The big man has a fragile psyche, and it remains to be seen if he’ll ever be able to become the insanely good All-Star center he was for a couple of months last year. This offseason he has been working with the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, in the hope of fixing his broken offensive game. And now with PG out indefinitely, he’s going to need to step it up and put the ball in the hole on a more consistent basis. Roy once said he was going to just take care of the defensive end and anything he got on offense would be a bonus. But when he didn’t get the ball, he pouted, and his defense suffered as a result. This season his usage rate is going to be up, and maybe it will give him the much-needed confidence he needs to make him an elite player again at both ends of the court.

George Hill wasn’t that horrible for the Pacers last season, but like Hibbert, he also disappeared too often. We know he can ball — he’s just too passive being the 4th or 5th option, rendering him, on most possessions, into a spot up shooter. With Lance and PG gone, it’s time for Hill to step up his aggression. No more nights where he barely takes a shot. All reports indicate he’s working his tail off this offseason to prove naysayers wrong, and there’s no reason not to expect at least a 3-point per game increase in Hill’s scoring average this season.

The forgotten Hill, second-year forward Solomon, could also be in line for a bigger role. Even before PG got injured there were reports that he’s ready to carve out a spot in the rotation in the upcoming season, and now he’ll have no choice but to. It’ll be a steep learning curve, but Solomon’s sped-up development could turn out to be the biggest positive to take out of PG’s injury, much like how Danny Granger’s injury a couple of years ago helped propel PG into an All-Star.

2. David West will be kept sharp. There’s nothing more exciting as a Pacers fan to see West turn on “beast mode” and just take over a game. That’s been happening less and less as the young guys start to blossom and West’s game declines with age. And the more West defers, the more beast mode slips away. That said, West’s game ages well, and he could have easily averaged 17 points a game last season (as he did the season before) if Vogel went to him more often. Now Vogel will have no choice but to, and as a result we’ll have more chances to see West channel beast mode, which will keep his tools sharp until PG returns. I thought West’s numbers would simply continue to deteriorate, but this season I expect a resurgence. While there will be more wear and tear on his ageing body,  I think the boost in confidence he will receive from a bigger role and more involvement in the team offense will aid West’s career in the long run.

3. Bigger roles for new guys. It’s usual when a player signs with a new team to be timid and not wanting to step on any toes. For CJ Miles, Rodney Stuckey and Damjan Rudez, however, it will be a different situation with the team’s best player out. It’s not clear what the new rotation will be like or if the Pacers will make more changes to the roster (they’ve already said they’ll apply for some salary cap exceptions from the injury so they could potentially sign someone else), but I’m sure all three guys will be encouraged to take a more aggressive approach from the get go.

4. We’ll finally get to see more of Chris Copeland. Last season, fan-fave Copeland was stuck playing power forward behind David West and Luis Scola because Paul George had gobbled up all the minutes at small forward (with what little left going to Rasual Butler and when he was available, Danny Granger). This season, barring any unforseen circumstances, Cope, who has lost 15-20 pounds in the offseason in a bid to get “faster”, Cope will play small forward. It’s hard to see Solomon Hill displace Cope at SF to start the season, so it’s possible that Cope  could start or be the first man off the bench at the position.

5. PG could come back better than before. Of course, what PG suffered looks like a career-threatening, or at least career-altering injury, but doctors have said it was a “clean break” and that the bone will grow back, with no impact on the athleticism or explosiveness he had before — at least on paper. The UFC’s Anderson Silva, as well as Kevin Ware, guys who have suffered similar injuries to PG, both say they are 100% recovered and back to what they were before, if not better. That’s the beauty of modern medical advancements — injuries that look impossible to come back from at the time turn out to be non-career-threatening setbacks. The fact that the injured leg is PG’s right — when, as a right-handed player, he usually jumps off his left — is also a positive.

In fact, there are some out there saying that PG’s broken leg is a “better” injury than an ACL tear like the one suffered by Derrick Rose, who by all accounts is looking like his former All-Star self, if not better, after all but sitting out for nearly two years. Rose said last year, before he injured his meniscus, that he had a better vertical and explosiveness than before, and this year he says he’s become a smarter, more patient player with a better jumpshot and a wider repertoire. So there is definitely hope for optimism that, with a lot of rehabbing and hard work, PG might not miss a beat. The extra time off could allow him to make other parts of his body and game stronger, and maybe even allow him to clear his mind a little after all the stuff he had to handle off the court last season (including the birth of a new baby girl he is seeking sole custody of).

All we can do is hope.