Pacers’ future has lots of questions, starting with where the offense will come from?

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All through Team USA training camp in Las Vegas, Paul George talked about the Pacers getting back to the way they played the first half of last season, about being hungry again. The collapse the second part of last season and into the playoffs (they still made the Eastern Conference Finals but never felt like a real threat to Miami) was something that could be put in the past. With LeBron James moving to Cleveland the East was wide open and George thought the Pacers were right in the middle of it.

Then Friday night happened. George is out for the season and the Pacers are left staring at a tough season and some hard choices.

When George does get back on the court, this could be a very different looking Pacers team.

Next season the Pacers should still be solid because they will defend. Last season Indiana had the best defense in the NBA last season allowing jut 96.7 points per 100 possessions over the course of the regular season and their system is not going to change.

That starts with Roy Hibbert protecting the rim — Indiana did a great job of contesting defenders on the perimeter and guiding them into Hibbert and his 7’9” standing reach. He intimidated and owned the paint. He also struggled last season but with George and Lance Stephenson gone (Stephenson signed in Charlotte as a free agent) Hibbert is going to get more touches and be asked to carry more load on the offensive end and when that happens Hibbert is more engaged and active on both ends. The two-time All-Star could put up the best offensive numbers of his career.

But he could be the real long-term problem for the Pacers.

Hibbert can opt-out after next season and become a free agent. If he’s unhappy with the situation in Indiana, or if he just wants longer-term security, he might.

Which leaves the Pacers with the “should we trade him now and get something in return?” question. They quietly have been shopping him this summer with little real interest — he’s coming off a down season and if a team really wants him they know they might be able to get him as a free agent in a year. Nobody is going to give up much. Still, the Pacers have to consider the option, although this is not a franchise that believes in tear-it-down rebuilds.

With that dangling over their heads, the Pacers need to find some offense this season.

Last season Indiana’s 101.5 points per 100 possessions was 22nd in the NBA and that was with George and Stephenson doing most of the shot creation. Now the offense initiation is going to fall to George Hill — look for him to have an improved season, he was asked to be a caretaker/spot-up shooter with George and Stephenson around but now he can go back to being the aggressive player Gregg Popovich didn’t want to part with. But Hill and Hibbert, with David West and a few shooters does not a great offense make.

It will fall to coach Frank Vogel to wring points out of this stone. And his system struggled to do that when he had Stephenson and George.

Indiana could in theory add a piece. Because of the George injury the Pacers can get a “disabled player exception” and add a player worth up to the mid-level exception of $5.3 million. Except the Pacers are just a little over $2 million under the luxury tax line now and they didn’t want to go over that line in the best of times, let alone for this team that likely is not going deep in the playoffs.

Guys like Shawn Marion are still out there and could help, but can they land him.

Expect the Pacers to remain a top 10 certainly (likely top five) defense, but one that is going to fall closer to .500 (or below) because they cannot score enough. Also expect to hear them in a lot of trade rumors as they have a lot of hard questions about the long-term future to answer.

Report: Seattle hosting Kings-Warriors preseason game

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Kevin Durant spent his rookie season in Seattle, before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He has said Seattle fans deserved to see him grow up in the NBA after supporting his promising start.

They’ll get their chance.

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

The Kings and Golden State Warriors have scheduled a preseason game next season in Seattle, according to multiple league sources.

The Oct. 6 meeting between Northern California teams will be the first NBA game in the Key Arena since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season and became the Thunder.

This game will be loaded with storylines. Not only Durant, but the Kings considered moving to Seattle a few years ago. And of course, the return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

At some point, Seattle will get its own team again. For now, this preseason game creates intrigue there.

Report: Kawhi Leonard cleared medically, seeking second opinion

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again this season, a stark reversal from just a month ago. Back then, even while announcing Leonard was out indefinitely with a quad injury, the San Antonio coach said Leonard wouldn’t miss the rest of the season.

What’s going on?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.

Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said.

The uncertainty surrounding this season — and Leonard’s future which could include free agency in the summer of 2019 — has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said.

At first glance, this sounds like Derrick Rose five years ago. Even after he was cleared to play following a torn ACL, the then-Bulls star remained mysterious about when he’d suit up. His confidence in his physical abilities seemed to be a major issue, and he was never the same player since (suffering more leg injuries).

But the Spurs famously favor resting players to preserve long-term health. They seem unlikely to rush back Leonard. They might even sit players who want to play more often. And Leonard isn’t Rose.

Still, it’s clear something is amiss in San Antonio. Maybe not amiss enough to end Leonard’s tenure there, but the longer this lingers, the more time for tension to percolate.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.