When the Indiana Pacers announced right before the season that Danny Granger would be out indefinitely with patellar tendinosis in his left knee, I foolishly assumed he’d miss about a month. Knee issues can be tricky, however, and just a week into the season it was announced that he would miss three months after receiving an injection performed by Dr. James Andrews.
Granger participated in shootaround on Friday and will resume non-contact activities any day now. The initial three-month projection, which falls two weeks from now on Feb. 7, seems like it could be met -- but the Pacers will undoubtedly be cautious with the $13 million knee.
The Pacers have played well without Granger despite a slow start. They won four of their first 11 games, but have gone 22-9 since and are presently third in the Eastern Conference. Indiana has thrived thanks to the emergence of Paul George, who has blossomed into an All-Star caliber wing in his third season.
You could see George maturing, as early as 2011’s first round series with the Bulls, but he has taken a considerable leap in the first half of the season. The question is -- would George have broken out this drastically if Granger was healthy?
He is averaging career-highs cross the board -- 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.8 steals in 36.6 minutes per game. He’s taking 15.1 shots (including 5.6 threes per game) an increase of more than five attempts. His usage rate has increased to 23.9 percent, which is a jump of 4.6 percent, but is second to team-leader David West (24.7 percent).
George has a 17.3 PER, again second to West, and the pair are atop the team’s list of Win Shares along with George Hill at 4.5 wins contributed. He has been extremely valuable because of his ability to take on some of the shots usually reserved for Granger, while also playing tremendous defensive against the league’s best wing players.
“He’s been a little bit more assertive and carried more of an offensive load for us with Danny out, but I think he’s just going to continue to get better,” West said. “He’s also helped make us be one of the top defensive teams with his ability on the wing.”
On Jan. 18, George produced the type of performance that has both the Pacers and the rest of the league buzzing. He scored 31 points on 11-for-19 shooting, including seven threes, and added six rebounds, five steals and three assists in 43 minutes. Perhaps even more impressive was his effort on the other end of the floor. He held James Harden, the league’s fifth-leading scorer, to 17 points on 5-of-19 shooting. The outing snapped a streak of 22 straight games with 20 or more points.
“It wears you down, but it’s something that I’ve been getting better at,” George said earlier this month when I asked him if elite assignments exhausted him. “It definitely takes a lot out of you when you have to guard an elite guy and then try to come down the other end and produce as well.”
Despite his emergence as a budding star, George is an unassuming player. He can make a spectacular play in a variety of ways, but rarely changes his expression on the floor and blends well into Indiana’s locker room.
Granger is the longest-tenured member of the Pacers and the assumed leader, even though West is the roster’s backbone. There has to be some concern as to whether George’s game will change when Granger returns to the floor. As you might expect, he isn’t concerned.
“Yeah, but that’s in the long run,” he said when asked about what Granger’s return will mean for his game. “I’m taking it game-by-game right now. I haven’t really worried about his return; I’ll just continue to play at this level and try to be aggressive.”
It will take some time before Granger returns to the level of play we’ve come to expect and he’ll likely see reduced minutes and might even sit out the second night of back-to-backs early on. Still, if he returns in early February, he should be assuming the role he had in 2011-12 as the playoffs arrive.
In Frank Vogel’s first full season, using a balanced attack, Granger played 33.3 minutes, attempted 15.2 shots per game and had a 25.9 percent usage rate. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that by April, Granger is not only back, but also playing 30 minutes per game and attempting 14 shots.
It’s unlikely that George will see a reduction in minutes, unless Vogel tries to keep the young buck rested for the postseason, but with Granger back in the fold Lance Stephenson and Gerald Green will see less time. Dominic McGuire, currently on his second 10-day contract, will have to look for employment elsewhere.
The main concern is that George will defer to Granger, but his teammates don’t believe either player will let that happen. George said recently that Granger has been pushing him along all season.
“I have no worries about that,” Roy Hibbert said. “He’s got to stay aggressive and keep doing what he’s doing on the offensive side of the ball.”
“Danny’s only going to add to what we are doing,” West predicted. “PG’s gotten better and he’s on track in terms of his career, Year 3 is a big year for most guys, and he’s proven that he’s capable of playing at a high level. If anything, it’s going to help him having another high caliber threat like Danny out there on the floor.”
West might be onto something. George is shooting a career-low 42.5 percent from the floor and his TS% (.528) and eFG% (.496) are also three-year lows. He’s had to carry more of a load and with Granger drawing attention he’ll have better looks with fewer forced looks. For those that watch the Pacers regularly, it should also mean fewer 10-second segments of the Paul George Dribbling Show.
The best case scenario would simply see Granger absorb minutes currently reserved for Stephenson and Green, with Green seeing the biggest reduction in minutes. Stephenson has shown flashes, while Green has been a disappointment.
Green, a poor defender signed for his offense and athleticism, is shooting just .354 this season. Close to half of his shots have come from three-point land and he’s hitting just .286 of those attempts. On a defensive-minded club, he can be exposed.
The Pacers lead the NBA with a 98.8 defensive rating, but Green carries a 103 rating. That’s a large differential. George leads the team with a 95 defensive rating and Granger is a much better pure defender than Green.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Granger’s return will make the Pacers that much better, but that hinges on George remaining the two-way force he has been. Vogel doesn’t simply want to swap George for a health Granger. He wants two above-average wing players leading what should immediately become an improved defense.