Sans Paul George and Lance Stephenson, Indiana's postseason fate lies with George Hill
College Contributor Network
Confetti still fluttered throughout the AT&T Center as Kawhi Leonard shook Bill Russell's hand, beaming for dozens of photographers.
If you told Leonard he would take home Finals MVP honors before the San Antonio Spurs' championship series with the Miami Heat tipped off, "Man, I would have told you you was lying," Leonard told ESPN's Stuart Scott on the championship podium.
At just 22 years old, Leonard is the third-youngest Finals MVP. The other two? Both Magic Johnson, who won it at ages 20 and 22.
Only three years ago, the Spurs acquired Leonard in a draft night trade in 2011. After the Indiana Pacers selected the San Diego State product 15th overall, San Antonio flipped George Hill, who had started at point guard over Tony Parker in the 2010 playoffs, in exchange for Leonard and two European prospects.
Flash-forward to the 2014 Finals, Hill and the rest of the Pacers watched from the comfort of their own homes as Leonard and the Spurs dismantled the Heat.
Indy morphed into a legitimate title contender heading into last season. Yet all of a sudden, the Pacers' window for a championship seems to have been slammed shut, super-glued to the sill and plastered over with a crisp new wall.
With Evan Turner on board, the Indiana Pacers seemed primed to beat the Miami Heat and claim the Eastern Conference. That statement may seem as hilarious as a "Saturday Night Live" Sean Connery Jeopardy appearance. Yet, somehow only six months ago, it was common thinking from many around the league.
That was before Turner collapsed down the stretch, Indy let Lance Stephenson walk to Charlotte in free agency and Paul George's leg snapped on national television in a meaningless exhibition game this summer.
The Pacers did ascend to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season, though, as Frank Vogel's starting lineup of Hill, Stephenson, George, David West and Roy Hibbert logged substantial minutes. Each member of the starting unit played at least 2,400 minutes during the regular season, all five ranking in the top 66 in the NBA. For perspective, Luis Scola logged the sixth-most minutes for Vogel, coming in at only 1,399, good for 208th in the league.
George and Stephenson saw the most minutes by far, a result of Vogel's tactic of using Stephenson as the primary ball-handler for his second unit. In each of the Pacers' 82 games last year, at least one of George and Stephenson was on the floor at virtually all times. According to NBA.com, the five-man lineup that saw the most minutes of the season without at least one of George and Stephenson logged less than 21 minutes the entire year.
Stephenson and George dominated the ball, too. They were two of only three Pacers players to average at least three minutes of individual time of possession per game. Surprisingly, Hill clocked in at number one -- boasting a whopping time of possession of 5.3 minutes per game, good for 31st in the entire league.
The Pacers ranked 29th in points per possession after February 1 last season, even with dynamic offensive talents like George and Stephenson often running the show. David West, went down with a pretty serious ankle injury in the preseason. Rodney Stuckey, brought in to essentially replace Stephenson as the second-unit's offensive spark plug, is also battling a sprained right foot. Suddenly, an NBA organization with recent championship aspirations has its entire season's fate in the hands of George Hill.
Hill has said he's prepared to increase his scoring. Indiana will need it. West is the only returning Pacers player who averaged at least 11 points per game last season, not including George, who will likely miss the entire season recovering from that horrifying leg injury.
Hill developed the perception of a catch-and-shoot three-point chucker in Indiana's half-court offense a year ago, taking 2.4 stationary threes per game (connecting on 39.8 percent of those attempts) and only averaged 2.7 drives per game.
He'll need to be more aggressive off the bounce if Vogel hopes Hill can breathe any sign of life into what will assuredly be a sluggish, drab offense. We should see Vogel experiment more with pulling Hibbert for long stretches and going with a high-tempo, small-ball lineup. The Pacers are going to struggle to figure out how to efficiently score in the beginning of the season.
With all of the above in mind, it's growing increasingly likely the Pacers will be on the outside looking in at the playoffs come April. Perhaps Hill can emerge as the player Larry Bird and company once thought was equal to Kawhi Leonard and lead the Pacers to their fifth-straight postseason appearance.
Time will tell, and the season is less than a week away.
Jake Fischer is a junior at Northeastern University. He covers the NBA for SLAM Magazine and SB Nation, writes for the Boston Globe and lives and dies with the Philadelphia 76ers. Follow him on Twitter: @JakeLFischer