It’s been a long time since we’ve had a relatively healthy NBA season, and now months before it’s even set to begin, we know we won’t have one this year.
Friday night’s nationally televised Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas was going as planned. The intensity was picking up in what had mostly been a mundane affair to that point. The Blue team had cut the lead to 10 and were trying to make it a competitive game down the stretch. All the elation in the air by Derrick Rose darting up and down the court like he never missed a game was dissipated when Paul George crumpled to the floor after defending James Harden’s layup attempt a few seconds into the fourth quarter of the scrimmage. The game would abruptly end there.
It was good fun to crack jokes at PG’s expense this season, laugh about his baby momma situation and the Pacers seemingly never-ending collapse. It was only fun because I was rooting for LeBron and deep down I feared the threat George posed to James’ throne atop the NBA.
A player capable of matching James not only on offense but on defense as well, George is a budding superstar, and his injury is a disaster for not only his team but the league as a whole. It feels like yesterday Bron was dapping PG up, mid-playoff game in 2013, because sometimes real just recognizes real. Now James is wishing his peer a speedy recovery via Instagram because there really isn’t anything else he can do.
The official diagnosis is a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula bones in his right leg, but the gruesome snapping of the bones in Paul George’s lower right leg feel like so much more than that simple diagnosis. George had a successful surgery to insert a rod into the leg and stabilize the bone late last night, and early expectations for his recovery are six months before he’s on his feet again, then additional time beyond that to get back on the court.*
The injury being “only” fractures is actually a bit of good news of sorts since ligament and muscle damage can be longer lasting, bones heal permanently. During George’s surgery, it was found that he suffered no additional damage beyond the fractures of the bones and the wound he suffered when the bone broke through the skin.
Most expect the two-time All Star to miss the entire 2014-15 NBA season, and the Indiana Pacers will probably exercise caution with their best player and face of their franchise, choosing not to rush his return.
Impact On The Pacers
On a micro level, George will be fine, the injury will heal and he will still receive his salary for next season even if he doesn’t suit up, thanks in part to the precedent set by Michael Jordan’s famed “For The Love Of The Game” clause. The Pacers will even be reimbursed $6.3 million of the $15.8 million they will pay him this season if he misses every game, another incentive for the Pacers to practice patience with George’s recover.
The implications are clear: it is often a team’s best players who are asked to participate in international competition, an injury to one of those players can be catastrophic to team, especially to one so heavily reliant on said player, just like the Pacers are on George. Without him, their offense craters, and without Lance Stephenson this year it will be even worse as they will lean heavily on George Hill and CJ Miles to create offense from the perimeter.
Indy now lacks a true perimeter stopper on defense, and while it is Roy Hibbert who anchors their defense at the rim, it’s George who shifts onto whichever perimeter player the Pacers need to quell, be it LeBron James or someone as quick and diminutive as Chris Paul. Just like that, the Pacers have went from a contender in the East, to a possible lottery team, all because of something that happened in an exhibition game. The reverberations will be felt league wide, and if the Pacers get off to a bad enough start they may take a mulligan for the season, blow up their foundation and look for a high draft pick to go with George’s return next season.
On International Play Moving Forward
It remains to be seen what NBA teams can or will do to prevent their stars from participating in international play, but the image of the USA Men’s Basketball team may never recover from the sight of George’s leg at that grotesque angle. George’s injury follows Blake Griffin tearing his meniscus during U.S.A. team practice in July 2012.
George had made waves in the last week because of his performance in camp, namely his one-on-one battles with Kevin Durant, so much so that Durant went out of his way to praise PG and many experts had George slotted in as the starting small forward for team USA. Many believed that his defense would be crucial to their chances of winning the FIBA World Cup in Spain as his long arms and fast feet combined with Durant and Anthony Davis on the front line would allow the team to integrate assistant coach Jim Boeheim’s famed 2-3 zone into their defensive scheme.
Now Team USA may be forced to dial the defensive pressure back, instill a more conventional scheme with DeMarcus Cousins at center and Davis and Durant at their more traditional forward spots.
In the long term, one has to wonder how many stars will willingly take the risk of suffering a fate similar to George’s, or how hard the players union and NBA will fight to bar professionals from international play period. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported last night that the injury is a tipping point for NBA players playing in international play, and that’s to be expected.
However, the deal between FIBA and the NBA bars teams from preventing players from FIBA play, but with reports of players sobbing in the locker room after George’s injury they might not even need to. As team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game, “there’s a brotherhood in the NBA,” and these players watching one of their brothers fall in such a way may be all they need to decide that international play is simply a risk that outweighs the rewards it provides.
The allure of representing the country in international play is just that – alluring. Basketball players make their money, and their legacies in the NBA. That’s the mecca of basketball, the plateau which every player strives to reach. FIBA play is no where near as heralded as FIFA, where the World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport. These are summer exhibitions that more and more stars simply declining to take part in. Now, after what happened to George, there won’t even be a negative stigma attached to simply turning down the opportunity. Players won’t be criticized as being selfish for not playing for their country. There will be those fans who understand and accept it if a player chooses not to play for his own best interest.
Time will repair George’s leg, but the NBA and USA men’s basketball team may have been altered forever in an instant.
* – For comparison, Kevin Ware broke the same two bones in a similar manner and was back on the court in a limited role in six months. Ware’s season ended prematurely after he was kicked in the same leg he injured a month later.