Regardless of how good or bad the Indiana Pacers have been this season––mostly bad––there been one question that has loomed over everything: when is Paul George coming back?
Even during training camp, when the rest of the team was still upset and pessimistic about George’s injury and then-far-off return, he insisted that he would work to come back this season and the wait began. Little by little, fans have been monitoring little bits of picture and video, trying to guess how close PG might be to returning to the court. During the All-Star break, it almost seemed imminent, as excitement was peaking when PG announced his desire for a mid-March comeback along with a new line of hats.
At the time, the prospect of a George comeback seemed almost threatening, as the Pacers were playing great basketball at the time, and adding a player like George to the mix just in time for the playoffs would have made this experienced team an intriguing lower seed in the Eastern Conference.
Instead, George has not only remained sidelined, but has chilled out a bit with his comments about returning this season. He recently admitted that the constant questions about when he might returned are “getting annoying,” according to Indy Cornrows, and Indiana has started adding George’s name to the official injury report, something the team hasn’t done all season.
In the same time-frame, the team’s play has cooled as well. “Cooled” is probably an understatement, as the Pacers have lost 9 of their last 11 games and are playing themselves right out of the poor man’s playoff chase in the bottom part of the East.
Even worse, Indiana had a chance to handle things themselves this week, and deal each of the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, and Miami Heat a loss, but the Pacers have lost two-straight to the Nets and Celtics, limping into their weekend match-ups at home against the Hornets and Heat.
It’s not impossible, or really, even unlikely, that Indiana could still sneak into the playoffs, given that the competition for the 7- and 8-seeds in the East has still involved more losing than winning. But as the Pacers approach the end of the season, the remains, just in a slightly different form: should Paul George even play this season?
The short, simple answer is yes. This has been the plan for George since the beginning, so it would make sense to stick with that plan. PG has maintained a great attitude about the injury since the night it happened, and until recently, he had been adamant about wanting to return this season. If he still wants to do that, and the team’s medical staff deems him healthy enough to play, then interfering with that mentality might be a bad idea. George should play when he’s ready, and who better to tell you that than George himself?
With only seven games remaining, however, that simple plan should come with a stipulation: that any potential George return not interfere with the team’s draft position.
It’s optimistic but not entirely absurd to suggest that having PG back on the floor will have an immediate positive impact on the Pacers’ play. Indiana is not a terribly talented team; they rely every night on Rodney Stuckey as their primary scorer, and they play Solomon Hill primarily in Paul George’s place. Even a hobbled George would improve this team, and certainly any comeback would carry an emotional boost as well.
Indiana is already 2 games out of eighth, and they could very well be 4 games out by the end of the weekend. The Pacers could very well be technically in the playoff hunt until the end of the regular season. But, if they find themselves in a situation where winning games would significantly alter their draft status and potentially bump them to a lower slot, then they should avoid trying to win basketball games at the moment, and that includes keeping George off the court.
This is obviously a very specific hypothetical, and right now, the Pacers are pretty well ingrained into the 9-10 range, at least 3 games ahead of Detroit and Utah in the 7-8 draft spots. Who knows what can change in the final seven games, though.
Just to be clear: getting George back on the court healthy and well is the paramount priority here, and the team should not overly disrupt his recovery in any way that he doesn’t feel comfortable with. If, however, the Pacers find themselves in a situation where George’s comeback could give them a boost to win a game (and lower their draft position), then maybe they should consider letting him rest another couple games. It’s bad practice for small-market teams to give away precious draft position for the sake of futile playoff chases. It makes a difference: would you have rather had Dwyane Wade at 5 or Kirk Hinrich at 7 in 2003?
But assuming he returns right, the Pacers already have a star in George, so messing with his recovery might also count as bad practice for a small-market team. It’s a delicate balance, and with just seven games to play, the Pacers might not have to decide it at all, especially if they just keep losing.