Danny Granger: From "The Gift" to "The Blowout Machine"

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For years, Danny Granger was the solitary ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary Pacer landscape. Christened “The Gift” after falling to Larry Bird’s waiting arms at the 17th pick in the 2005 Draft, Granger was the talent and personality upon which the beleaguered franchise and fan base rested their hopes for salvation.

And hoping for “salvation” isn’t hyperbole.

Years of bad players and bad basketball followed years of bad actors — Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley — creating a situation where apathy was welcome relief from outright hatred and contempt. When Larry Bird traded away Jermaine O’Neal and announced his three-year plan to revive the Pacers, Danny Granger was to be at the center of the rebirth.

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Six years later, the rebirth has generated greater results than this writer’s wildest hopes. After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the Pacers have bolted to the best record in the NBA at 32-7. Indiana has won two thirds of their regular season games since the lockout — a mark exceeded by only Miami (.750), San Antonio (.739), and Oklahoma City (.729). If the Pacers haven’t become the best team in the Association, then you wouldn’t need all the fingers on one hand to count the ones better.

But Danny Granger’s role in the trip hasn’t been as many of us had expected — or as Danny himself probably hoped.

After a rocky start, Granger played arguably as well as he ever had over the second half of the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season. He was the leading scorer on a team that earned the third seed in the East. That team got up 2-1 to Miami, before succumbing to the superior Heat in the second round. From there, it took a sour turn for Granger.

Judging by the light in Granger’s eyes after yet another Pacer victory, numbers and credit — like so many other things that used to seem so important — don’t really matter any more.

In the preseason entering his eighth year, the University of New Mexico product felt the pain in his knee worsen, culminating in him departing a preseason game in Chicago. Days later, the Pacers announced that Granger had undergone treatment for tendinosis and would miss at least three months.

At first, the Pacers missed their star badly, limping to a 3-6 start against what was considered a relatively light schedule. Concerns deepened when Roy Hibbert and Paul George struggled to deal with the heightened expectations placed on them in Danny’s absence. Only the stalwart defense and step-up efforts from David West and George Hill allowed the Pacers to stay close to .500 during the opening weeks of the 2012-13 season.

However, things began to turn in December. Paul George finally found a comfort zone, catapulting himself from a player in over his head to All-Star and Most Improved Player. The defense became historically dominant, Hibbert settled into his role, and the Pacers took the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Many came to believe Danny’s absence had been a blessing, allowing Paul George to blossom the way he did. There’s a strong case for that; a healthy Granger may have changed PG’s trajectory or, alternately, relieved some of the pressure that forced the Pacer defense to become the diamond that it is. However, that doesn’t give proper due to who Paul George and the other men — coaches and players — in that locker room are. But if it wasn’t a blessing, at least it showed that the Pacers didn’t miss Granger.

Except, they did.

The players missed Danny, even if it didn’t show in the results. Danny Granger — whether in uniform or not — has remained a part of this Pacer culture. “[Granger] has been with the team dealing with his injury,” said David West at last year’s trading deadline. “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.”

Those comments were a part of an exploration of how Granger could be seamlessly integrated into a winning situation, one we attributed to chemistry and a common goal. Throughout the discussion, the voice of West — the team’s unquestioned leader — could be heard clearly.

“What we’re going to be with Danny is better than what we are now.” That is how West concluded the discussion.

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Less than a year later, West started a different discussion with these words: “Danny’s the blowout machine, man.”

This discussion came after Saturday night’s 106-92 victory over the visiting Los Angeles Clippers. It was the Pacers’ 20th double-digit win. For context on how impressive this is: 20 NBA teams have managed 20 or fewer victories this season. Danny Granger returned 14 games ago, and 10 of those double-digit wins have come in those 14 games.

“He’s just strengthening absolutely what we have,” said West, “and added another dimension to this team that opposing teams have to deal with.”

The Clippers certainly had trouble dealing with it on Saturday. In Danny’s 26 minutes last night, the Pacers were +16. That brings the total number of points that Indiana has outscored their foes to 108 in 324 Danny-filled minutes. That equates to a 16-point advantage over a 48 minute game.

Of course, it’s not all Danny. The Pacers’ bench had improved over last year’s, with the addition of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, even before Granger’s return. Indiana was posting a net efficiency (points by which they outscore their opponent per 100 possessions) of +6.5 with those two players on the floor. However, Danny’s impact on the bench is startling. In the 164 minutes that coach Frank Vogel has been able to put Granger, Scola, and Watson on the floor together, the Pacer offense has scored 106.5 points per 100 possessions, while the Pacer defense allowed only 86.2 per hundred.

The Pacers’ starting unit — “The Five” — remains one of the best units in the league. But, for the last two years, production and efficiency has dropped precipitously as Vogel sat more of them down. Even this year, the Pacers have been hurt when they have two or fewer starters on the floor. This has happened for about one-third of the minutes this season, and the Blue-and-Gold have eked out a net efficiency of +2.2 (94.7 on offense vs. 92.5 on D).

But breaking that down to “without Danny” and “with Danny” tells a dramatic story. Take Danny out of the equation and these units are scoring a paltry 89 per hundred, while giving up almost 96. Put him on the floor, and the offense skyrockets to more than 105, while the defense constricts to allow fewer than 87 points for every 100 possessions.

To some degree, this was to be expected. Danny Granger had been replaced with a patchwork collection of wings consisting of Gerald Green, Sam Young, Solomon Hill, and Orlando Johnson. Even an impaired Granger would be an upgrade to that assembly. But his presence against second units is almost unfair, and it’s coming in ways that are more subtle and different than people expected.

Against the Clippers, it came when David West was ejected at halftime for elbowing Blake Griffin. Frank Vogel had a capable reserve in Luis Scola, but at 33 years old, he could not be expected to play the entire second half. When Scola picked up his fourth foul with 5 minutes left in the third, Vogel called on Granger. It wasn’t something that surprised David West.

 “Any contribution I can give, I’ll give. I’m constantly building my game to get back to where I was, but to be able to come in and help my team, and we win by 20 points almost every night is awesome.” – Danny Granger

“He’s got unbelievable size and strength,” said West. “There are only a few guys that play the small forward position that have that combination. Carmelo’s one. LeBron’s one. Danny’s one of those guys. Danny’s 240 pounds, but he can play the perimeter, knock down threes. On most nights, he can probably match up with most fours — in terms of being able to hold his ground and force them to score through him.”

This wasn’t most nights. Granger was being asked to guard one of the most dynamic power forwards in the game. Blake Griffin is a handful for anyone. Griffin was enjoying some success backing Scola down, but the first time he tried Granger, Danny did not budge. Griffin leaned and bumped but made no headway, eventually kicking the ball back out in what turned out to be an empty Clipper possession. Over the final 9 minutes Griffin played while being guarded primarily by Granger (and briefly by Ian Mahinmi), he managed only 4 points on 1-for-3 shooting, with just one rebound and one assist.

Frank Vogel made a point of it during his opening comments after the game. “I was proud of Danny Granger for coming in and playing extended minutes and playing some at the power forward, which he hadn’t played in a couple years, really,” Vogel said. “He really battled Blake Griffin, and gave us some critical, critical minutes in a tough match up.”

Granger, himself, recognizes that the Pacers need him, but not necessarily the Danny Granger of yesteryear. “You put me in, I can play the four,” he said after the game. “That’s the type of thing that I bring. I just got so much experience, so they were waiting for me to come back, and I just wanted to come back and play.”

His desire to be a part of — a contributor to — what is happening with this franchise is palpable. “Coming off of not having played in a year-and-a-half, it was to the point where I was just happy to be a part of it,” Granger said. “Any contribution I can give, I’ll give. I’m constantly building my game to get back to where I was, but to be able to come in and help my team, and we win by 20 points almost every night is awesome.”

Now is as good a time as any to draw attention to the fact that — despite exercising my normal penchant for liberally peppering this post with numbers — I have not discussed a single individual statistic. I could, but they really are unimportant here. Just like with David West or George Hill, individual numbers distract from what is happening with this team.

Danny Granger has had the career arc of many very good, but not great, players. They enjoy the praise and adulation during their rise, then the expectations come. For many players, they reach the point where they are no longer judged on who or what they are, but on who or what they aren’t. For Danny, as with most of these players, that often misses the point. Granger’s teammates understand.

“I think Danny’s been one of our best playmakers,” Paul George said when trying to explain how Danny helps. “He’s been willing to give the ball up and make plays when he’s had opportunities to be aggressive offensively.”

Granger, for his part, doesn’t miss being the volume scorer of years past. “Yeah, I’ve put up a lot of numbers in the past, but it just killed me not to be able to win,” Granger said.

Danny Granger has had the career arc of many very good, but not great, players. They enjoy the praise and adulation during their rise, then the expectations come. For many players, they reach the point where they are no longer judged on who or what they are, but on who or what they aren’t.

Granger heard the questions and concerns coming from outside of the organization, and it wore on him. He showed a rare flash of frustration after the Houston game, when asked about concerns that his return would hurt the team chemistry. However, he wasn’t alone in his contempt for that idea. David West has openly scoffed at that thought repeatedly over the last year, going so far as to actually laugh at a reporter who suggested that trading Danny would help Indiana. West, Frank Vogel, and Paul George all understood his value and believed in him. Danny is an intelligent young man with a better, more intimate understanding of this franchise’s evolution than any of us.

Danny felt that support. “They knew that I wouldn’t have a problem saying, ‘OK, Paul, here you go. Go do this thing,'” said Granger. When he mentioned George, he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. He went on, “[George] is a crazy talent…like crazy…you know…like MVP-ish talent. He’s going to be MVP in one of the next three years, I promise you. We all saw that. We all see that. It’s like, ‘Paul, this is your show. Take us to where we gotta go.'”

Frank Vogel has spent the better part of the last week praising the sacrifices David West has made — citing them as a big part of the Pacers’ gaudy record. Danny Granger seems willing — excited even — to make the same kind of sacrifices. Paul George, for one, doesn’t think people understand what Danny has done or meant for this season.

“I think him playing that way, and him having that commitment to just be a playmaker — a floor general — for us, it really just flows through our whole offense,” said George. “He has what our offense is all about, and that’s playing for one another. I don’t think they’re really giving him credit where he deserves.”

But, judging by the light in Granger’s eyes after yet another Pacer victory, numbers and credit — like so many other things that used to seem so important — don’t really matter any more. What matters in that locker room is playing for one another. From that, the Pacers would tell you in one voice, all good things flow.

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