It has now been almost two weeks since Paul George fell awkwardly on a (non-regulation, apparently) basket stanchion after fouling James Harden during a Team USA scrimmage, breaking his leg in spectacularly horrific fashion. Forget the Indiana Pacers’ championship hopes; they will be lucky to make the playoffs fielding a starting five which will probably consist of George Hill, Rodney Stuckey (!), C.J. Miles, a soon-to-be 34-years-old David West and Roy Hibbert, who at times seems as close to being out of the league as he is to being Defensive Player of the Year.
But what of George, once pegged as the perfect foil to LeBron James? And what of their formerly top-heavy Eastern Conference, in light of the Pacers’ fall? Are rival fans selfish to see this for what it is, a boon for their own teams?
It could’ve happened to anybody, at any time, anywhere. Even Larry Bird said so. This could’ve been your co-worker making an awkward turn on uneven cement, bracing for impact as he suddenly felt a sharp twist in his ankle. It could’ve been your buddy’s ill-fated attempt at proving to the rest of your friends that yes, he can dunk, just watch him now, before crumbling to the gym floor, clutching his leg. This could’ve been, once was in fact, the reigning NBA MVP grabbing his knee during a first-round playoff game, prompting his teammate to call it “like, the saddest win.”
Let’s get this out of the way up front: The fact that it was Paul George, a rising star and first-half MVP candidate last season who carried the scoring load for a team which struggled at times to even realize that the point of the game is to put a sphere into a ring, makes it objectively no worse than if it had been any other player in the league. It doesn’t even matter that it occurred in an exhibition game, a warm-up for an international tournament about which most fans do not care because it isn’t the Olympics. Sure, the fans, particularly in Indiana, can complain about not being able to see a bright, young talent further tap into his wealth of potential, but that is just selfish fan thought. It is foolish to reduce a man’s career-threatening injury to mere projections, predictions on how his team will fare without him, how he will fare when he returns or how other teams will react in either case.
And yet, as basketball fans, this is something we cannot help but consider when a fantastic rival player goes down with an injury. It’s almost obscenely petty and ridiculous that one of the first thoughts which came to my mind when I saw George’s leg at an angle reminiscent of junior year trigonometry was that it would create an easier path to the playoffs for my New York Knicks. “Who on the Pacers will guard Carmelo Anthony now?” I wondered, almost chuckling at the thought.
Schadenfreude can be a powerful, wonderful feeling under the right circumstances. The problem is that circumstances can change so quickly, and schadenfreude can seem so karmic. Think of Pacers fans now, bristling at the prospect of a lost season without their hero. Two years ago, their young team seemed plagued to answer to their neighbors to the north, the Chicago Bulls, when that defense-minded team lost its offensive catalyst. Fortune is a whimsical mistress.
Certainly, parity in the Eastern Conference now seems much more imminent than it has in at least three seasons. With George’s injury, the aligning stars in Cleveland and Derrick Rose’s real, actual return, along with many other factors, the East appears as wide-open as ever. Case in point, how long it took LeBron and company to coalesce successfully in Miami. These things don’t just happen overnight, as much as some of us desire for that to be the case. After the Cavaliers and the Bulls, uncertainty awaits the East, and it will make for some of the best basketball of this generation.
But at what price? When a transcendent player like George, or Rose, excuses himself from the table for a prolonged period of time, we are left to wonder what could’ve been. Yes, Paul George will return, and with the advances of modern medicine, he will likely (hopefully) be almost normal, almost as if the injury never happened at all. But we won’t get George in 2014-’15. We won’t get to see what this edition of the Indiana Pacers, coming off a relatively improbable conference finals run and without Lance Stephenson, could have been.
The best players always seem to bring out the best in other players. Russell coaxed Wilt and pushed him to the absolute limits of his incredible athleticism. Bird and Magic wrote the narrative of the ’80s, returning professional basketball to prominence. It took years of abuse from Detroit’s Bad Boys and Larry’s Celtics to provoke Michael Jordan into becoming Michael Jordan.
All of this isn’t to suggest that Eastern Conference players won’t be as good as they can be without facing George, but it does beg the question of what if? For this season, anyway, we can only ponder hypotheticals, hoping George emerges from his injury-induced hibernation with a greater sense of his basketball purpose and with a killer instinct. Killer, certainly, but only of healthy, able prey.