(Reuters) - The Indiana Pacers are not counting on injured All-Star forward Paul George returning to action next season but said on Tuesday their expectations for team success will remain as high as ever.
George, who led Indiana to last season’s Eastern Conference finals, is recovering from surgery to repair a badly broken leg he suffered earlier this month and there is no indication yet on how long he will take to make a full recovery.
“You can’t just replace Paul George,” Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird said during a news conference. “Are our expectations lowered any? I don’t think so.
“We’re going to compete hard, we’re going to do our best to make the playoffs and just compete on a consistent basis. We’re going to put a competitive team out there. We think we’re going to play hard and develop our young guys.
“Everyone’s going to get an opportunity to show us what they can do. I think we’ll be an exciting team. We have a lot of things to look forward to. My goal is to win as many games as we possibly can and get in the playoffs.”
Twice All-Star George, 24, suffered an open fracture of the tibia and fibula bones in his lower right leg while playing in a USA Basketball practice game in Las Vegas on Aug. 1.
He collided against the bottom of the basketball stanchion while contesting a layup attempt by James Harden, and had surgery in a Las Vegas hospital the following day before returning home on Aug. 5 to recover.
For the moment, the Pacers are assuming he will be back in action for the team for the 2015-16 season with anything earlier a bonus.
“No one’s told us he’ll be out for the entire year, but ... we’re sort of expecting him to be out for the whole year,” said Bird, a Hall of Famer who was a 12-time All-Star for the Boston Celtics.
“If he can play he’s going to play. We’ll just see how it goes. It’s going to be up to our doctors, our medical staff and Paul, but we would never put him in a situation where he’d be uncomfortable.”
Meanwhile, the Pacers will be building a team around their core players - George Hill, Roy Hibbert and David West - and others, such as Solomon Hill, C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey.
They have become perennial contenders in the playoffs since 2011 and ended the 2013-14 regular season with a 56-26 record before being eliminated from the postseason by the Miami Heat in the conference finals for a second straight year.
“We have a winning culture here,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. “I think we’re going to surprise some teams. Those fans who think the season is over before it starts are very wrong.
“I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised with the grit and toughness we play with this year. I think we’re going to be able to compete with the best.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue