What This Season Means To ... Danny Granger

We expect the 2009-10 season to reveal a lot of things for a lot of people in the Pacers organization. It’s “show and prove” time for many and we will continue to break down how we think that will play out this year in our “What This Season Means To …” series. Today, we discuss the face of the franchise: Danny Granger.

danny granger doves

Danny Granger, in his heart of hearts, is a shooter. Dead-eye aim is his best NBA skill.

Sure, he can do some very effective things with the ball in his hands and that is what makes him head and shoulders better offensively than guy like Michael Redd, Mike Miller or Kyle Korver. But for most of his career, he has been most effective when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands for very long. Catch-and-shoot is his bread and butter.

But he’s more than a shooter — he’s a scorer, largely because he is also very good at cashing in on the whole “catch and take one dribble in and shoot” thing or the “catch, pump-fake, shoot” thing.

When he attacks the hoop, he converts most proficiently when his move is “catch, take two hard dribbles directly toward the rim and finish.” And he can often score in this manner even after getting bumped by bigger players rotating over to challenge him at the rim given his excellent size, strength, balance and body control. Defenders naturally close out on him hard, knowing that his eagerness to pop an open jumper, deadly accuracy and quick release will lead to points if they don’t at least get a hand in his face. So in the situations where he catches and sees a rotating defense in front of him, he is able to exploit that advantage and race by a sliding defender to find a seam to the hoop and convert. Two hard dribbles and he is at the hoop finishing in traffic. Or he’s pulling up short to stick a stop-and-swish six-footer.

We have seen in countless times over the past five years.

(It’s tough to be certain that these are optimal examples given the lack of preceding context, but there are instances of what I’m talking about in the following video at these times: 0:15, 0:17, 0:35 and, probably, 1:15. Perfect visual evidence notwithstanding, most Pacer fans should get the gist here.)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQsO6qq1zAk&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

Danny is at his best off the dribble, ironically, when he doesn’t actually dribble much.

He is uber-efficient with the dribbles he does take, he isn’t a ball-stopper and he rarely holds the rock to play around with it between his legs. If he puts it on the deck he’s going somewhere, almost always with purpose and usually in a straight line. It’s a north/south attack.

In this sense, Danny is like a luxurious yacht.

His zero-to-sixty time is elite for a man his size and once he gets going, there isn’t a lot anyone can do to recover and step in front to slow him off his line. And while this is definitely positive in many respects, it also means his penetration game lacks some of the dynamic qualities that other ball-handlers in the league employ.

When another defender steps over, he has trouble changing his own line. By comparison, a guy like Paul Pierce has similar “yacht”-like qualities pushing it down a chosen line to the cup, but he also has those herky-jerky, step-back and head-fake-hesitation skills that freeze a defender. Pierce doesn’t really do any of this all that quickly, so it’s not as if — like, say, LeBron or Dwyane — he is relying on some natural ability to move his feet and hips with ungodly quickness or velocity. But what Paul does do is make the defender’s reaction time and foot speed even slower than his own by putting him into a trance-like state. Then he spins, readjusts or otherwise worms his way past the man in front of him to get to the rim. If the space Pierce was trying to exploit and use to to score from disappears, he somehow, someway can create new space.

Danny, for the most part, does not do this.

It is important to note that it’s not just Hall of Famers like Pierce that excel in this regard. Other peers of Danny like Caron Butler, Lamar Odom and Josh Howard have also repeatedly shown the ability to get into the lane and make things happen by being inventive. Time and time again throughout their careers, they have caught the ball on the perimeter and used their dribble to create scoring lanes and opportunities for themselves that didn’t exist prior to them receiving the ball.

What it really comes down to is the difference between a natural finisher and a natural creator.

Danny is a natural finisher.

Danny surveys the court, recognizes where space exists and expertly exploits that space to score. Creators survey the court, see no holes in the defense and expertly create space to score.

What separated Danny’s breakout 2008-09 season from his earlier years in the league, however, was a new-found ability to be more dynamic with the ball. He still wasn’t a guy you wanted to give the ball on the wing in an iso and yell “get some,” but he learned to create more scoring chances for himself, even when opportunities were not immediately apparent. No longer was he just a catch-and-shoot guy in the mold of Rashard Lewis. He was a guy who could take a routine swing pass and wind up with a pull-up 15-footer in just two dribbles. He was a guy who could take a dribble hand-off on the perimeter, turn the corner and get all the way to the rim. He was a guy who could catch at the elbow, pump-fake and go by his defender to finish at the hoop.

He also learned how to do these quick, “not using many dribbles” dribble moves to set up others. If he caught the ball at the elbow and another defender collapsed on his first dribble from the wing, he could turn, look opposite and fire a good pass to an open jump-shooter. If he was penetrating into the lane and someone helped over to challenge his pull-up eight-foot jumper, he would dump it down for an easy lay-up.

None of these things were really in his arsenal before 2008-09. At least not consistently. Now they were. And with all these new toys in his toolbox, in addition to his still-unreal shooting accuracy, he became a ferocious scorer — and one whose possession usage rarely hurt the offense.

For Pacer fans, it was beautiful to watch.

Danny’s offensive evolution made an otherwise painful season joyous at times. On those nights that he took over — vs. Atlanta, vs. Charlotte, in Detroit, vs Golden State, in Phoenix, in Golden State — he could do no wrong. And it was a pure pleasure to witness a great shooter become a great scorer. And it wasn’t just onlookers that recognized this. Danny, too, clearly understood how far he had risen, sticking clutch jumper after clutch jumper to help give a mediocre team a few more victories than it probably deserved.

But at the beginning of last year, Pacer fans did not see that same player.

At least not nearly as often.

Danny entered the year with a balky knee, and just as he started to look right, the team looked anything but. The offense, missing Mike Dunleavy and attempting to integrate many new players into key roles, was a mess. It wasn’t just Danny failing to create opportunities for his teammates as he had in the previous year; it was an entire offense incapable of creating easy buckets for anyone.

Just like most everyone on the roster, Danny began to appear frustrated. At first, it was just on certain possessions. After a while, it was almost always.

He wasted possessions chucking up off-balance and questionable threes. When he did attack the hoop, he usually settled for the pull-up at the first sign of confrontation and did little with the ball to initiate anything other than his own jump shot. The elite efficiency was largely gone, both in his field-goal attempts and in the way he valued every touch.

You didn’t even need to watch the games to know this was happening.

Danny was leading the league with more than nine three-point attempts per game and his overall shooting percentage was hovering near 41%. For a career 45% shooter, it was obvious that the lightning Danny had trapped in a bottle throughout the 2008-09 season had disappeared. He was now looking like just another run-of-the-mill volume shooter wasting altogether too many possessions — on a team full of other guys who were wasting plenty of their own. A caustic blend.

In the midst of this, Granger tore the plantar fascia in his foot. In fairness, injury concerns had obviously hampered his play both before and after the month he sat on the shelf in street clothes recovering. But even once he was back, little improved.

His January numbers were just as depressing as those he posted to start the year. The 20.1 points per game he amassed in January were the lowest he had totaled in any month since January 2008. And his 39.4% field-goal percentage was the worst he had shot since the first month of his rookie year.

What made things worse were the flashes of the previous-year Granger. For stretches in many games — and even a few full games — he showed that the ability was definitely still there. He stopped settling for quite so many “screw it … I’m bored” threes, but any efficiency gains in this regard were largely lost by the fact that wasn’t getting to the line much. Throw in a few nights where he nearly cost his team the game single-handedly (shooting 6/21 in Oklahoma City, 2/16 in Miami, 6/23 vs. Cleveland and 3/13 vs. Toronto) and it was looking like the theme of the year for Danny would be regression. He looked to be picking up bad habits playing in a bad offense.

Then something weird happened. The calendar hit February and Danny Granger started playing like Danny Granger again.

It was glorious.

The stoic, even-keeled ballplayer who had been a draft day gift for a franchise on the rise only to immediately become ingrained in one of the more miserable stretches of fate any NBA team has experienced in recent decades was back to being the offensive bedrock that Pacer fans had come to expect. Danny Granger was once again being Danny Granger.

Increasingly, he was shooting better than 45% during games, which paired which his three-point accuracy was turning him back into an efficient scorer. But it wasn’t just that he was making more shots — it was that he was taking better shots. He was engaged and dribbling with a purpose again. He was catching at the top of the key, making a quick “shake the defender” move and sticking elbow jumpers. He was passing off to someone in a better position to score when he didn’t feel he had an advantage.

One late-season, 11-game stretch saw him tally point totals of 29, 32, 32, 31, 44, 18, 33, 25, 18, 33 and 36. And he did it on 44.3% shooting from the floor and 41.5% from three. Perhaps most tellingly, he got to the line 9.0 times per game over these 11 contests — a vast improvement from the 6.3 FTAs per game he posted prior to the All-Star break.

Of course, pretty much nobody noticed.

Those watching the NBA generally had long tuned out the Pacers to focus on teams with playoff implications and/or, ya know, promising futures. And many Pacers fans were simply too disappointed that the Pacers were killing their chances at a top five pick by lodging so many “meaningless” late-season wins to care how any individual was playing. (Indiana won 11 of its final 16 and ended up with the 10th pick in last Summer’s draft.)

There is no doubt that Danny’s 2009-10 season was disappointing. I’m sure he would admit that it was discouraging both for him individually as well as the team. Most outsiders thought he took a step back from his breakout All-Star performance the year before. And for much of his injury-plagued early season, he did.

But he was able to turn it around.

And that’s important.

Now, the upcoming season for him will be about redemption. He knows he at least partially redeemed his poor play last year with good play late. I’m sure most of those in the Pacers world feel the same way. But in a way, that didn’t “count” since the team’s chances to have a decent season were already effectively over.

So he needs to go out there out of the gates this year and re-prove that he is the all-tool, versatile offensive weapon with a jumpshot from heaven who everyone thought he was 18 months ago.

If he does that, expect to see him rocking an All-Star jersey in the Staples Center in February.

If he doesn’t, well, those who thought he fell off last year might just be right.

granger state

I started this post a while ago and was going to call it “The State of the Union of Danny Granger.” Thus, I did this Photoshop in which Danny appears to be telling the Union about its state. It no longer makes a ton of sense to put here, but I did it already and have nowhere else to use it, so I’m just going to include it here if that’s cool with you. Biden loves it.

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