Is Granger a Danger? A Look at the Most Important Piece in the 2013-14 Pacers Puzzle

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For the purpose of this article, let’s assume that Danny Granger is healthy for the majority of the 2013-14 season and that Larry Bird and the Pacers’ front office decides not to trade him. As Kevin Garnett would remind us, anything is possible. But for clarity, it’s just too difficult to deal with every single possibility from this season in only one editorial.

The Indiana Pacers and their fans enter the 2013-14 season on a high note. After pushing the NBA Champion Heat to the brink last season, players, fans, and commentators all agree that this is the best Pacers team in years. No Indiana team has carried such high expectations into the season since 2005 – the year the famous brawl splintered into pieces the best team in the NBA.

The optimism is warranted. Last year’s team played without a guy many people considered to be their best player. With the return of Danny Granger and the additions of Luis Scola, CJ Watson, and Chris Copeland to shore up last season’s atrocious bench, this iteration of the Pacers would seem to be a lock to improve on last year’s version.

Still, the rest of the East improved dramatically as well. Derrick Rose returns to an inspired Bulls’ team, the Brooklyn Nets are trotting an All-Star team (maybe an All-Star team from 2007, but still…), and the Knicks still have have Carmelo Anthony, one of the greatest scorers alive.

To compound the issue even further, the Central just might be the best division in all of basketball. The Bulls and Pacers each landed in the top five of most power polls while Detroit has been picked by many to finish as high as 4th or 5th in the East. The Cavs added the #1 overall pick to an improving team with Kyrie Irving, and even the Bucks seemingly fought tooth and nail at least maintain mediocrity. One could easily envision a world in which four Central teams make the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Fortunately, the Pacers improved this offseason as well – but one question seems to linger over the season:

How much will Danny Granger’s return help the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers?

Self-aware Pacers fans fully understand what last year’s team was: An unbelievable defensive unit that featured the best five-man unit in the NBA when its starters were on the floor – but ultimately a team whose horrific bench failed them when it mattered.

For a variety of reasons, the Indiana starters were the best defensive five-man unit in the entire league. Paul George turned into an All-NBA defensive player and Roy Hibbert patrolled the paint as well as any big man in the league. George Hill and Lance Stephenson added length and aggressiveness on the wings and Frank Vogel’s defensive scheme put everything in its place.

But as dominant as their starting unit was, things practically careened off a cliff for the few minutes a game that the starters needed rest.

If we were to completely ignore Granger and his comeback, then at face value, turning DJI struggle with dribbling the ball against even token pressureAugustin and Sam “Every Pacers fan in the world is absolutely terrified when I catch the ball wide open in the corner” Young with Watson and Copeland was an instant upgrade this summer. If Watson can only manage to run the second unit as effectively as he has done for each of his previous teams, and if Copeland can simply catch the ball (that right there would be an upgrade) and make open jump shots like he did last season, the Pacers’ second unit will be on pace for a huge upgrade.

None of that even factors in the upgrade of Tyler Hansbrough to Luis Scola. The offensively talented Scola will be replacing one of the worst passers in basketball. Hansbrough’s Assist Rate of 4.4% was the third worst rate of anyone that played more than 1000 minutes and had a similar usage rate last season (only the immortal JaVale McGee and Derrick Williams were worse passers). Scola, on the other hand, was a top 20 passer among big guys, and was actually a better passer, statistically, than Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki – two guys known around the league to be great passers. Scola is also a much more consistent rebounder than the former Tar Heel. While Psycho T built a reputation on hustle and muscle, he was only ever an average rebounder. Defensively, it’s hard to say at this point whether Scola’s slow, plodding footwork and inability to defend pick-and-rolls will be better or worse than Psycho T’s constant over-rotations and frenetic energy. Still, most analysts agree that the Pacers not only addressed an issue this offseason, but they turned a weakness into a comparative strength.

But we can’t just ignore Granger’s comeback. And fair or not, it seems that most basketball fans are worried that Granger’s addition will add a monkey wrench into what was a successful team.

In fact, many basketball fans fear that Granger’s return will actually be detrimental to the Pacers’ 2013-14 season.

If Granger were to simply join the bench squad and hoist up shots a-la Jamal Crawford in LA, it’s hard to envision a world in which Indiana’s bench was only average. Offensively, you would be hard pressed to find a team with two scorers as effective and potentially explosive as Granger and Scola. Granger would undoubtedly be a Sixth-Man of the Year candidate. Add in Watson and Copeland’s floor spacing with Ian Mahimni’s six fouls a game, and the Pacers bench not only looks good on paper, but makes sense from a chemistry standpoint.

And yet, Granger may dislike “simply joining the bench squad,” and who could blame him? As easy as it is for Pacers’ fans to point out his shortcomings, both subtle (he struggles to create his own shot, he can’t dribble with his left hand, and his defense has slipped) and more obvious (he occasionally takes terrible shots and his presence forces Paul George to play shooting guard, a spot he can play but is far less effective in), we often forget just what Danny Granger brings and has brought to the table for the past eight years.

Granger joined the team during one of its most difficult times in franchise history. Without ever complaining about the plummeting attendance and his mediocre teammates, Granger worked hard every night and became the first player in the history of the league to increase his scoring by five points per game in three consecutive seasons. Granger transformed himself into an All-Star, a class act, and a franchise savior of sorts. While he had to toil through years of mediocrity, the team slowly started to build a team around him that could succeed.

Then, as soon as the team had finally made it, he suffered a debilitating injury that knocked him out for an entire season. Simultaneously, the Pacers took off and reached heights it hadn’t seen in a decade.

Let’s be clear: the 2012-13 Indiana Pacers did not succeed because of Danny Granger’s absence, they were going to succeed whether he was there or not.

Last year’s success had far less to do with Granger’s absence and far more to do with Hibbert’s verticality, West’s leadership, George’s leap into stardom, and Frank Vogel’s otherworldly defensive schemes.

Unfortunately for Granger, NBA fans are fickle and always covet what’s new and unknown while devaluing what is old and certain. Ask most casual NBA fans whether they would rather have Dirk Nowitzki or Blake Griffin this year, and most would wrongly sing the praises of the humorous Kia spokesman. Granger’s skills (incredibly shooting, above average passing, and versatility) have been so maligned at this point that the former All-Star has become underrated.

The NBA is all about the “here and now.” Lance Stephenson’s upside intrigues me as much as anybody (Count me among the many irrational fans that believes that “Born Ready” could morph into a more aggressive and defensive minded Dwyane Wade. Our own Avi Friedman wrote this about Lance’s potential last postseason). Regardless, if any player has earned the right to fight for a starting job and one more big contract, it’s Danny Granger.

That leaves the Pacers with an interesting dilemma. In reality, it’s probably unfair to expect an equal level of domination from the starting lineup in 2013-14. Even if Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and Roy Hibbert all improve incrementally, regression is still a real possibility. The Pacers won’t be catching anyone by surprise this year, and we’ve already discussed the widespread improvement among their peers. Pacers fans should ready themselves for a small drop off, no matter who is in the starting lineup.

Of course, moving Lance Stephenson to the bench in favor of Danny Granger would possibly cause that starting unit’s dominance to fall, but are we sure? How do we know Granger’s shooting won’t create even more space for Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert all over the floor? I mean, it can’t possibly be a bad thing to add a 38% career 3-point shooter to the mix. And even if the starting five’s numbers do fall, won’t the bench improve enough to offset that drop?

The Pacers were a good team last year. Even with their bench woes, they had the eighth best point differential in the league. If the starting lineup’s production decreased by three or four points, the Pacers would still theoretically be better just as long as their bench improved by five or six. With the offseason upgrades, a five or six point increase seems pretty likely. Adding Lance Stephenson to the bench would only expand that improvement. The question then should not be, “What is the Pacers’ best starting five?” but rather, “Which lineup yields the best possible net result?”

Of course there are more questions that are just begging to be answered.

  • How many minutes will everyone get in the playoffs?
  • Will Vogel strive to keep either Hibbert or West on the floor at all times during the regular season like he did in the postseason?
  • While Scola is practically a West clone offensively and should slot in nicely beside Hibbert, could he and West ever share the floor at the same time without being a disaster defensively?
  • Where does Ian Mahimni fit into the big man rotation?
  • With four bigs, don’t Paul George, Danny Granger, and Lance Stephenson get the lion’s share of the minutes on the wings? Does Copeland even earn playing time to begin with barring injuries? Where does the improving Orlando Johnson fit into the mix?

I hope to address some of these questions and other soon, but the Granger question looms larger than all others. Pacers fans need not fear. It’s incredibly unlikely that Danny Granger will hurt the Pacers this season. The real question is how helpful will he be? Will he be a small help, a huge boost, or a title changing catalyst? As this season commences, give the Pacers and Frank Vogel a little bit of time to figure it out. Trust in Danny Granger’s unselfish past and his competitive fire to make it work. Approach the conundrum with the same level of optimism that you are approaching the season as a whole.

This team is still blue collar. They will still play with that Gold Swagger.

Indiana’s game. Indiana’s team. Your 2013-14 Indiana Pacers.

Editor’s note: Shortly after this article posted, the Pacers announced that Granger would miss up to three weeks with his current calf injury, rendering the initial premise of assumed good health a moot point.

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