With their leading scorer possibly out for the season, a rising star lost to free agency and two more starters injured, the Indiana Pacers’ opening night lineup hardly resembles the one that reached the Eastern Conference finals the past two years.
It might, however, be good enough to get past the lowly Philadelphia 76ers.
The Pacers look to overcome those absences Wednesday night when they host the talent-thin 76ers, who will also be missing the reigning NBA rookie of the year for the immediate future.
For the second straight season, Miami ended Indiana’s playoff run one step shy of the NBA Finals. Shortly after, shooting guard and leading rebounder Lance Stephenson benefited from a breakout season by signing a three-year, $27 million deal with Charlotte.
Two weeks later, two-time All-Star Paul George suffered a gruesome leg fracture during a USA Basketball scrimmage. A member of the all-NBA Defensive first team who averaged a career-high 21.7 points in 2013-14, George hopes to play at some point this season.
However, with LeBron James and Kevin Love in Cleveland and Derrick Rose healthy in Chicago, the Pacers could have a hard time winning their third straight Central Division title — let alone making a return to the conference finals.
“We’ve got a challenge in front of us and we’ve got to figure it out,” forward David West said. “We’ve got to figure out lineups, and we’ve got to figure out an offensive approach. We’ve got to figure all of that out.”
The challenge begins early with West (ankle) expected to miss the first three games and guard George Hill (knee) out three weeks. Backup point guard C.J. Watson (foot) also could miss the first two weeks.
Returning starter Roy Hibbert joins third-string point guard Donald Sloan, veteran forwards Luis Scola and C.J. Miles, and possibly new addition Rodney Stuckey in Wednesday’s lineup.
“Everybody’s embracing the challenge,” coach Frank Vogel said. “It’s a unique situation, where guys are being asked to do things they’re not typically asked to be doing, but they’re getting a lot more minutes than usual. They’re excited about that opportunity.
“We’ll try to play through Roy in the post, take advantage of C.J. Miles’ scoring abilities, Donald’s playmaking abilities.”
Regardless of who is on the floor, the Pacers will be expected to defend, though they may not do it as well as they did the last two seasons with George and Stephenson out.
Indiana led the league in field-goal percentage defense in that span, allowing opponents to shoot 42.0 percent in both seasons and finishing second during that stretch by not yielding more than 92.3 points per contest.
Those concerns might be put on hold against the 76ers, who are coming off a 19-63 season in which they matched an NBA record with a 26-game losing streak.
With $32 million committed to the payroll — lowest in the league by about $20 million — Philadelphia isn’t expected to challenge for much more than a shot at the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“If they win 15 games they will have overachieved to the highest level,” Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy said.
Guard Michael Carter-Williams was the league’s top rookie after averaging 16.7 points, 6.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds, but his recovery from shoulder surgery won’t allow him to practice until next week at the earliest.
“I believe that it’s not going to take long to play him,” coach Brett Brown told the 76ers’ official website. “I’m not even too sure how to quantify what that means, (but) it’s certainly not going to take him a month from when he first comes back. I think we can give him some sporadic minutes quite soon.”
The 76ers allowed a league-worst 109.9 points per game in 2013-14, then lost leading rebounder Spencer Hawes to free agency and traded power forward Thaddeus Young, their leading scorer at 17.9 points a contest, to Minnesota.
That means more opportunities for 6-foot-10 Nerlens Noel, who makes his NBA debut after missing last season due to an ACL tear suffered during his only season at Kentucky. The sixth pick by New Orleans in 2013 who was acquired in a deal with the Pelicans, Noel was an all-SEC Defensive Team pick and averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks in 24 games for the Wildcats.
At some point, the 76ers hope Noel can team with 7-1 Joel Embiid, the third selection this year who is out indefinitely with a broken right foot.
Veteran Jason Richardson, who hasn’t played since undergoing knee surgery in January 2013, is also dealing with a foot injury that’s left his career in jeopardy.
That leaves Noel and third-year guard Tony Wroten, who averaged 13.0 points last season, as Philadelphia’s primary offensive options for the moment.
The 76ers lost all three meetings with Indiana last season but none by more than nine points.