The Return of Danny Granger


One of the most impressive aspects of the Indiana Pacers’ rise to the top of the NBA is that they’ve done so largely without the player who was once their leading scorer. The emergence of Paul George has been the major talking point with these Pacers, and it’s also allowed plenty of fans to forget about that Danny Granger guy.

Granger, who was the fifth leading scorer in the NBA in 2008-09 at 25.8 points per game, has been hampered by injuries for the past two seasons. Indiana has done an admirable job without him, largely through increased contributions from George and Lance Stephenson.

While his long-term future with the team is undeniably in question, Granger is finally back on the floor. He’s an expensive backup; with a salary of just over $14 million, he is the highest-paid Indiana player not named Roy Hibbert. Granger is also in the last year of his deal, although this should be of little concern to Indiana at the moment.

Regardless, Indiana’s former go-to guy is a major factor when it comes to dethroning LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

He won’t be in the starting lineup, barring any major injuries to Stephenson or George, but Frank Vogel seems determined to give Granger almost all of the backup wing minutes off the bench.

Through six games, Granger has been far from his old self. A quick look at the box scores will show just three quality performances: games against Boston, Cleveland, and Toronto. In the other three games we have to look at, two against Brooklyn and one against Houston, Granger shot a combined 4-for-23 for 13 points with 7 turnovers.

As you take a look at some more advanced numbers, the story doesn’t look much better. Despite a 21.9% usage rate, which is just a bit below his 24.2% career average, Granger’s offensive rating is a measly 88, according to Basketball-Reference. For comparison purposes, Granger posted an impressive 111 in 2011-12, 107 in 2010-11, 108 in 2009-10, and 114 in 2008-2009, per BBall-Ref.

88 points per 100 possessions? Championship!

On a serious note, it will probably take Granger a while to get back into a groove. He has now played just 11 games over the past two seasons, and he’s now trying to find a way to contribute on a team that has already figured out how to win without him. Not to mention, Granger only came off the bench twice between 2007-2012. This is a huge adjustment for someone who is accustomed to starting games and constantly being the focal point of an offense. Not only has Paul George established himself as the alpha dog, but Stephenson has taken his game to another level as well.

If you’ve taken a look at the Eastern Conference at any point this season, you’ll notice that the Pacers will have to try awfully hard to finish below second place. They won’t need Granger for playoff positioning purposes, and an Eastern Conference Finals between the Heat and Pacers seems inevitable. The Atlanta Hawks, the third best team in the East, just lost their best player, Al Horford, for the year. Miami seems content with prioritizing health over winning every single night, particularly when it comes to Dwyane Wade’s knees. Even without Granger, the worst-case scenario for Indiana is a two seed.

The Pacers shouldn’t be challenged in the playoffs until they face the Heat, unless there is some sort of miraculous Derrick Rose return. Against Miami, Granger’s defense and supporting offensive role could be what finally pushes the Pacers into the NBA Finals.

Paul George is Indiana’s best defensive option against LeBron, but does Frank Vogel want to have George on James for an entire game? Foul trouble becomes an immediate concern for anyone guarding James, and the Pacers won’t win many games with George on the bench. A better strategy is spend some minutes with George on Wade, where he can use his length to play a few steps away and stay away from contact. George has roughly five inches on Wade, although his long arms actually makes his advantage even bigger.

Wade is still an elite player when healthy, but George should be able to force Wade into jump shots, where he is clearly not at his best. Of course, if George is on Wade, someone needs to guard LeBron. Danny, you’re up.

By no means should we expect Granger to transform into Bruce Bowen. At 6’9”, he simply has to be good enough to keep George fresh and out of foul trouble. It’s easier said than done, but Granger is capable of holding LeBron around his averages; even if that means he’s scoring 30 points. With Roy Hibbert behind him protecting the rim and George on Wade, Granger would have plenty of help to get the job done.

If the Pacers decide to match the Heat’s “small ball” lineups at times, Granger will almost certainly be on the floor. When Vogel decides to have two bigs in the game, it’s all but decided that Granger will be playing whenever George or Stephenson are on the bench. This should add up to big minutes, most likely more than the 21 minutes per game he has averaged so far this season.

This is no longer Danny Granger’s team. He’s a grossly overpaid backup at this point due to the development of the wings ahead of him, but this doesn’t mean he’s not important. Thanks to a disastrous Eastern Conference, Granger has the entire regular season to find his place. Come playoff time, particularly against the Heat, Granger will get his shot.

Instead of being the team’s leading offensive option, his role will probably that of a LeBron defender, spot-up shooter and situational scorer. It’s likely not exactly how he envisioned his career playing out, but it could be what gets the Pacers into the NBA Finals.