While the whole world speculates whether Danny Granger’s return will slow down the juggernaut that is the Indiana Pacers, at least one person has no concerns. The team’s leader doesn’t think there is any chance that the return of the team’s captain will disrupt anything — either chemistry-wise or on the court.
“Danny’s going to help us,” said David West. “He’s been with the team dealing with his injury. He’s been around us. It’s not like we’ve forgotten how he plays. He been around. He’s been in the locker room. He’s been on the road with us.”
Some fans and media members thought the Pacers should have added a player — perhaps a shooter like J.J. Redick — at the trade deadline. But the team believes that its biggest “acquisition” will be simply getting Granger back on the floor.
“What Danny Granger brings to the table is everything we could possibly hope to acquire at the trade deadline,” said coach Frank Vogel. “Hopefully, he gets back pretty quickly and returns to his form. If he does, it’s really going to give us a big boost.”
West agrees. “There’s just nothing we can add that’s going to be better than getting Danny Granger back,” said West. “Six-nine, 235-pound, 20-point-a-game scorer. A matchup problem for these teams that just aren’t going to be able to deal with our size. Our tempo. Our ability to guard one through five. There’s nothing that we can add that’s going to be better than what Danny’s going to bring.”
West went on to explain the other factors that Granger will bring to the team. “He’s going to add to what we’re doing on both ends,” said West. “His size. His basketball IQ. His ability. He’s going to open the floor up, because you can’t help [off of him]. He’s just going to make everybody better. He’s going to make our team better.”
“I Hope It Doesn’t Change Much”
Then again, change always comes with some uncertainty. Granger returns to a team with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. In Detroit tonight, he’ll get his first minutes as the Pacers are coming off back-to-back 30-point victories. Somebody, somewhere, is saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Many of the gains made by this team were made possible by Danny’s absence.
That is not to say that Granger held this team down. Far from it. Rather, Indiana’s success has been spurred on by forcing the organization and its players to respond to loss of Danny over the course of the last four months.
And there has been no more shining gain than the emergence of Paul George, who recently notched his first career triple double and made his first All-Star appearance. Many are worried about how Granger’s return will affect him. Even Paul himself sounded a little worried, when Pacers.com’s Mark Montieth asked him.
How much will George’s role change? “I hope not much,” he said. “I really hope not much. That’s the most I can say, I hope it doesn’t change much.”
But, worry isn’t always generated internally. These players — especially Paul — have been asked ad nauseam if they thought Danny’s return might cause problems. The constant questioning on the subject — which I have both observed and been a willing participant in — led me to have this exchange with David West.
Me: Is it to fair to say that when we — collectively in the media — ask the question, “Are you worried about Danny?” that we are inserting the worry?
West (laughing & nodding): “I think so.”
Beyond that, there are fears about what injecting Granger’s presence into a group that has seemingly finally gotten comfortable with each other and with a new persona.
“I think we’ve kind of found an identity that we can play at,” Paul George said Friday night. “We can wrap our hands around the style of play we’ve been playing at lately. Getting up and down the court…really pushing the tempo and trying to find things early.”
The defense has always been there for this team — they are still on pace to be statistically the best defensive squad in the franchise’s NBA history — but the offense has been, well, ugly. However, it has been turning around (rising 4.8 points per 100 possessions since December 31), and tempo has been a factor.
Danny’s return will have at least some affect on that, as much of the tempo comes not from the point guards in Vogel’s offense, but from the wings — specifically, the shooting guards. Lance Stephenson has been described by Coach Vogel as “our best push guy,” and all Pacer observers can close their eyes and immediately see Stephenson getting the ball and changing ends as quickly as he possibly can.
However, it’s not just Lance. Rookie Orlando Johnson has been given the same freedom to push the ball, and he has done it well.
Orlando Johnson has had an increased role on the court in the past few weeks. Since Gerald Green fell out of the rotation, Johnson (who likes to be called “Pulp” rather than more common “O.J.”) has stepped up and played well. After going 5-for-5 last night (including 3-for-3 from behind the arc), he has now made 16 of his last 23 attempts (69.6%) from three-point range since January 18. (His first meaningful minutes of the season came on January 4. Before the hot streak, he started the year missing eight of his first 10 from deep.)
More than the hot shooting, however, it is his confident demeanor that has provided a ray of hope that the team may finally have some consistent perimeter scoring off the bench.
Still, if Granger’s return means that he won’t get as many minutes, “Pulp” seems to be fine with that. “We’re trying to win a championship this year, and it’s not about me playing or not,” said Johnson. “I want to play. I think I can and should play, but if [coach] thinks that Danny’s the best option, then that’s what we’re going to roll with. If we can win a championship, then I have no complaints about it at all.”
“Everybody Has Bought In”
The attitude of Orlando Johnson is one that seems to be shared by everyone in the locker room. “That’s our total focus, and everybody has bought in,” said West.
That, more than anything else, is why he is not worried about the adjustment.
“We’ve got a group that can deal with adding an elite player,” said West. “We’re not adding somebody that we’re gonna have to bring along…tip toe with. Danny’s going to come in and immediately be an issue for teams to deal with.”
Like Johnson, Stephenson — at least outwardly — isn’t worried about this changing place in the rotation. In fact, he actually thinks his contributions from the bench can be greater than they are now.
“In the second half the season, I’m going to be very aggressive, especially with Danny coming back,” said Stephenson. “On the second unit, I think my role will be even bigger.”
This stands to reason.
Danny Granger isn’t the type of player who can score all that efficiently within a bad offense. That doesn’t make him unique: Given the brand of defense played in 2013, few NBA players are going to have through-the-roof shooting numbers within a five-man collective that is easy to stop.
But Stephenson’s ever-improving ability to create off the dribble — and make something out of nothing by pushing the ball in transition — should help make a bad scoring unit more dynamic. Especially since D.J. Augustin and Orlando Johnson have found their shot, Lance’s drive-and-kick game should create open looks for others on the perimeter. (Besides, Stephenson will likely still get plenty of minutes with either Paul or Danny. Vogel on the small forward position: “One or the other of them [Granger or George] will be playing the three 48 minutes a night.”)
In short: Granger is an excellent offensive weapon who can become deadly within a high-functioning offense while Stephenson seems to have the skill set to turn a scuffling unit into one that is less predictable and harder to defend.
It’s Not About the Positions, It’s About the Men
Perhaps the biggest reason not to worry about the team adapting to an offense that features Danny Granger is because Danny Granger has already adapted his style of play. For years, he was a self-admitted “gunner” who hoisted long-range shots even when they weren’t great looks in an objective sense.
But last year, as the team incorporated better players — and adjusted to showcase young guys who were improving organically by the day — Granger gradually made changes to the way he plays.
Here is what I wrote about it last year in April, in a piece called “Danny Granger Is Playing as Well as He Ever Has — And He Knows Why.”
“It was kind of a puzzle to figure out, because I really had to change the way I’ve played over most of my career,” said Granger before last night’s win. “You know, I’ve always been a gunner. I could go for 40 any given night, because I’m just going to get shots up. That’s the way I had to play to keep my teams in games.
“Just took me awhile to figure out, that right now, we have a lot of weapons. David West is a great low post scorer. Roy Hibbert. Paul George. Leandro Barbosa gives us a big punch. We’ve got so many weapons on this team, and I can pick my spots now, so it’s become easier for me.”
As Granger rattled off his teammates, a smile crept onto his face, and a gleam into his eye. There’s an audible chuckle of joy when he says, “We’ve got so many weapons on this team …” I followed up by saying it must be nice to look around the locker room, and see playoff-tested veterans like West, Barbosa, and George Hill, and was met by an even bigger smile from Granger as he nodded his head emphatically, and said, “Yes, it’s so very encouraging for our team.”
I’ve long believed that players are judged at the intersection of three things: what they can do, what they can’t do, and what you need them to do. This last one profoundly alters the perception of almost all players, mostly to their detriment. Danny’s game and role are approaching the point where the three intersect, and there was an almost palpable feeling of mixed joy and relief as Granger talked about his evolving situation.
Still, Granger was able to go through a daily process to make that happen. So just because the adjustment worked last year, it doesn’t mean that he can definitely come in and fit in seamlessly.
But West believes that it will actually be even easier now due to the fact that this team isn’t last year’s team; it’s even more focused on the common goal of winning.
“This team is more together than we were last year,” said West. “We take pride in the fact … when guys play well, we’re with them. We try to keep wins and games in perspective. I thought last year, we weren’t ready to deal with some of the success that we had. This year, we’re a little bit more prepared. We expect to win games. We’re confident in our ability to prepare to win games. Guys are going out and being professional about talking about what we’re going to do in practice and letting it translate into games.”
Paul George feels similarly.
“Our chemistry is amazing,” said George. “It’s easy, when you’re going through a slump, because you have guys that will pick you up. It’s all for one, here. It’s not an egotistic team. Guys aren’t looking to get numbers. We all enjoy one another. We really bring it at practice. That’s where we really gain this momentum. It’s from practice. We really compete at practice, so when it comes to game time, it’s a lot easier.”
That mentality starts with West, but it is something that David believes Indiana’s All-Star understands in a way that makes him wise beyond his age. “PG’s humble, man,” said West. “He’s not an ‘I’ guy. He’s a team guy. He’s just going to continue to improve, because he knows that’s what’s going help our team ultimately get the most out of this group that we have.”
This isn’t just off-court wisdom. West also expects George to play just as well alongside Granger on the wing as he has next to Stephenson. Though he scored less, Paul was very effective with Danny on the floor last year. Additionally, he thinks that the tweaks the team has made to the offense will ensure that George won’t see his touches limited.
“We’ve changed our offense,” said West. “The shots are coming, but we’re not so lopsided. We’re not so one dimensional.” I suspected he was referring to moving away from featuring Roy Hibbert in the post. When asked if the way the offense has de-emphasized Hibbert has opened up more shots for the wings, West said “absolutely.”
The cumulative result will be an easy transition for George, he says.
“Paul’s not going to have to adjust,” said West. “I think right now, we have him primarily on one side of the floor. When Danny gets back, he’s going to be able to play on both sides. I’m going to do what I have to do in terms of making sure that when Danny gets back in the fold, things run as smoothly as possible.”
It’s that mentality of accountability that will ultimately make this work.
David West will not let this transition become a problem. Frank Vogel will not let it become a problem.
Both are looking at Granger’s return as nothing but a blessing. Instead of having two potent players on the wing, in George and Stephenson, now they have three.
“You know [Paul] is our guy, right now,” said West. “We’re going to play through him, and we’re going to play through Danny. We’re just going to make this transition work. What we’re going to be with Danny is better than what we are now.”