(SportsNetwork.com) - It was hard to prognosticate if the 2014-15 Indiana Pacers would have been legitimate championship contenders.
It became very easy to disqualify them on Aug. 1.
It was that night when Paul George, who can make the claim he's a top 10 player in the NBA, broke his right leg in a gruesome accident while scrimmaging for USA Basketball.
With his season done, the Pacers simply don't have the firepower ... at least for this campaign.
"I plan on making a full recovery," he said. "... It will make me stronger."
That's encouraging, but this season appears to be a wash. The way the Pacers ended last season, it seemed like that might have been a possibility even if George's leg didn't snap.
Indiana struggled badly at the end of the 2013-14. They held off the Miami Heat for the No. 1 seed, although Miami sat some key guys down the stretch. Once into the postseason, the Pacers needed seven games to get by the under .500 Atlanta Hawks. Indiana managed to dispatch the Washington Wizards, then fell once again to the mighty men from Miami.
"We won 56 games last year. It didn't end well. I didn't like how it ended in Game 6," said team president Larry Bird. "But over the course of the years, just because we got off to that great start, I never felt we were that good, and when we were playing bad I didn't think we were that bad. We've got a good basketball team."
The team is solid, but will have some problems scoring with George in a cast. The Pacers ranked 24th in scoring last season and George's potential replacements (some form of C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, Solomon Hill, or Chris Copeland), won't provide much.
Indiana hangs its collective hat on defense. The Pacers finished second in opponents' scoring and first in opponents' field-goal percentage. Players like Roy Hibbert, George Hill and David West are still top-notch defenders, but the absence of George will hurt on that front. Also, the departure of Lance Stephenson will leave a mark.
Stephenson bolted the Pacers for the Charlotte Hornets in the offseason. He enjoyed a breakthrough season last year with 13.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 4.6 apg. Stephenson logged heavy minutes and Indiana wanted him back. Unfortunately, the finances didn't add up, but the Pacers won't miss Stephenson's antics, which wore thin. Remember the blowing on LeBron James' face? That's the sort of thing Bird, head coach Frank Vogel and the veterans on this team will not tolerate.
With George down and Stephenson in Charlotte, that's two new starting spots, so Vogel has his work cut out for him. What's probably just as pressing for Vogel is getting Hibbert back into rhythm.
The All-Star center played great until the end of the season. His swoon coincided with the Pacers' downward spiral and during the playoffs, Hibbert was nonexistent at times. Vogel even sat Hibbert for long stretches during key fourth quarters.
Hibbert will be the focal point of the offense, along with West.
"Now we'll play through David and Roy probably more, but I think George Hill's going to have a big year as well," Vogel said. "He was asked to sort of defer a lot last year to Paul and to Lance and I think he was capable of doing a lot more than he showed. And I think he's going to step up."
The veteran trio will be counted on heavily. Can the Pacers make the playoffs without George, or Stephenson? The chore would seem too overwhelming, however, this is the Eastern Conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls are really good. Some others are good.
The Pacers could return to the postseason. They are built around defense and that should still hold true. Defense wins and veterans won't let this situation fall too drastically.
2013-14 Results: 56-26 1st in Central; lost in Eastern Conference Finals to Miami.
ADDITIONS: G Rodney Stuckey, G C.J. Miles
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- George Hill SG- Rodney Stuckey SF- C.J. Miles PF- David West C- Roy Hibbert
KEY RESERVES: F Luis Scola, F Chris Copeland, C Ian Mahinmi, F Solomon Hill, G C.J. Watson, F Lavoy Allen, F Damjan Rudez
FRONTCOURT: How do you replace an All-Star, All-NBA, All-Defensive player?
"I've got a lot of good options. We've got a lot of good options," said Vogel. "We've brought in some free agents in Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles who are starter level guys. We're all really high on what Solomon Hill can do for us this year. Damjan Rudez, Chris Copeland are options. So we've got a lot of options and I'm excited to see how it plays out."
None of the options are great, especially since Vogel has to replace both wings. George and Stephenson were the two best play-makers last season and they are gone.
Smart money says that Stuckey and Miles will get the starting jobs.
Miles signed as a free agent from the Cavaliers. He enjoyed two good seasons in Cleveland, averaging 9.9 ppg last season. Miles shot 39 percent from long range. If he's to start, especially at the small forward slot with Stuckey at the shooting guard, Miles will have to rebound better. He's never been a factor on the glass.
West is as dependable as a sunrise. His scoring and rebounding numbers took a dip last season, but they should bounce back considering the loss of George and Stephenson. West is the exact person you'd want to have in a difficult bind. He's a leader and will hold people accountable if they aren't doing their job.
Hibbert's offensive numbers took a bit of a tumble during the regular season, but what was most troubling was the rebounding statistics. Hibbert only averaged 6.6 rebounds. He still blocked shots and is still an elite rim protector.
Hibbert needs to atone for the playoff performance. Vogel stuck with him and the decision paid off once or twice, but overall, Hibbert averaged 9.3 ppg and 5.5 rpg. Those numbers were shocking considering how much he elevated his game the postseason prior.
There have been trade rumors swirling around Hibbert. With George down, Hibbert is the most natural star. He's made two All-Star teams, an All- Defensive team and he's only 27. Hibbert practiced with NBA all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the summer to sharpen his skillset.
Hibbert will be under the microscope as much as any player to start this season.
BACKCOURT: Hill is a very solid combo guard. He is not spectacular and some times, the Pacers needed spectacular. With the losses in personnel, Hill will have a bigger role. After his career season in 2012-13, Hill's scoring and assists tailed off big time last season.
Stuckey is actually coming off a productive campaign with the Detroit Pistons. He averaged a shade under 14 points while coming off the bench for a disastrous Pistons team. Stuckey is not a good 3-point shooter, but he's a scrappy veteran. If Indiana had him there to back up Hill and maybe George, or start in George's place, but with Stephenson still in the fold, the Stuckey signing would be really strong. Needing Stuckey to play 32 minutes a night is not ideal.
BENCH: This group is thin and its members won't be clearly defined until starting decisions are made.
Even if Miles and Stuckey start, Copeland and Hill will be needed. Copeland can shoot from deep to the tune of 42 percent. Copeland showed glimpses in New York two seasons ago, but barely played for the Pacers last season. It should be a breakout type of season for Copeland.
Hill played only 226 minutes last season as a rookie. He's a natural small forward, which might give him an edge in starting. Hill worked on his shot this summer with shooting coach Hal Wissel.
Scola wasn't the bench savior most expected last season, but he's still the Pacers best option on the second unit. He's fundamentally sound and has some range.
Mahinmi is like Hibbert, but worse on the offensive side. His playing time increased in the playoffs when Hibbert was maddeningly ineffective. He's a good shot blocker.
Watson is a capable backup point guard. He's got some range.
COACHING: Vogel was considered one of the league's best minds ... until the season fell apart on him. Then, there was speculation that Vogel might be unemployed.
He survived and should have. Vogel is 167-100 in three-plus seasons and he's also over .500 in the playoffs. He preaches defense, is loyal and loves veteran players.
As this season progresses, and the days get tougher and tougher, Vogel will have to lean on West, Hill and Hibbert. They'll be up for the task, and this season will be trying on Vogel. The Pacers are going from the top of the conference to somewhere south of that this season.
OUTLOOK: No team, not one in the NBA, could overcome a loss like George. He's legitimately a superstar in this league and a perfect fit for the Pacers. George is a lethal scorer and play-maker, but also a big-time wing defender.
Couple his loss with Stephenson's exit and that's just too much to absorb in an offseason. Both wings, both perimeter defenders, both multi-talented scorers and they are gone.
And how does this team respond after last season's bizarre collapse? Can Hibbert return to the form that sent him to the All-Star game?
Those are two huge questions, and two huge holes in the lineup. The bench will be stretched thin and a lot will be asked of West, who is 34 and has had major knee surgery in the last three years.
But, this is the 2014-15 Eastern Conference.
There are two great teams and four good teams. That leaves two playoff spots basically between the Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks.
It's not crazy to think Indy could get one of those spots. It's not likely, but the Pacers definitely aren't out of things totally. A big performance from Hibbert is key.
Hunch is, the missing players will be too much and the Pacers will miss the postseason for the first time since 2010.