The Indiana Pacers have started the 2013-14 season about as well as you can. They haven’t lost through eight games and once again possess the best defense in the NBA, but the uncertain future of Danny Granger, and how he will fit into such a cohesive unit, does provide reason for trepidation.
Granger, who played just five games last season because of a knee issue, is dealing with a calf strain. He worked out with his teammates for about an hour on Tuesday afternoon, but was held out of practice on Wednesday because of soreness.
A journey back to the court that began last September remains an inexact process. The Pacers and Granger insist that the calf injury was expected due to inactivity following knee surgery this past April. The best case scenario seems to be that Granger will play in a real-life NBA game as early as next week.
The worst case? It’s hard to determine at this point.
The Pacers pushed the Miami Heat to the brink last June without Granger, who was an All-Star in 2009 and led the club in scoring for five-straight seasons from 2007-08 through 2011-12. You could argue that a healthy Granger, who would have provided a much-needed offensive punch, might have pushed the Pacers past Miami and into the NBA Finals.
However, that’s a tough sell given what transpired with Granger sidelined. Paul George emerged as the team’s No. 1 option and Lance Stephenson blossomed into a starter-level player as he absorbed a majority of the minutes that had been allocated for Granger. It’s impossible to project how the 2012-13 season would have played out if Granger had been at least healthy for the playoffs as the franchise initially expected.
If that was the case last season for a 49-win team that was 48 minutes from the game’s greatest stage, then it’s still the case for a team that through Wednesday night hadn’t lost a game.
Further complicating the situation for both Granger and the Pacers is that his $14 million contract is expiring. After spending his first nine NBA seasons with Indiana, Granger will be free to sign with any team this coming summer.
As far as Granger is concerned, he has two short-term priorities regarding his long-term future. He has made approximately $66 million in his professional career, but the safe assumption is that Granger, 30, hopes to play for another six years. In order to become a coveted player on the open market he will need to prove to suitors that he is 1) healthy and 2) focused more on winning than individual goals.
In talking with a handful of executives around the league, the popular belief is that Granger will absolutely be a good solider when it comes to reintegrating into the rotation. There is no reason to predict otherwise. You have to remember that Granger wasn’t your classic volume scorer during the years he led the Pacers in scoring. The team needed him to take on the scoring load as they rebuilt their roster.
During that stretch his No. 2 scorers were Mike Dunleavy (twice), Troy Murphy, Darren Collison and David West (in his first season with the team).
Granger averaged 16.74 shots (and 35.4 minutes) per game over his five-year run as the leading scorer. During the 2011-12 campaign, when West and George Hill came aboard and George and Roy Hibbert started to mature, Granger attempted just 15.2 shots.
When looking to fit him back into Indiana’s rotation, a standard has to be formed. When Granger does return he will initially face a minutes restriction, but I’m going to project that once he gets the full green light that he’ll average about 20 minutes. Frank Vogel has said that he will absorb some of the time currently going to Orlando Johnson (15.2 MP, 4.4 FGA) and rookie Solomon Hill (9.3 MP, 1.6 FGA).
Given George’s quick transformation into a full-fledged superstar over the first few weeks of the season, it’s hard to believe his minutes and looks will be affected. Stephenson, however, may not be as lucky.
The fourth-year swingman, who recorded the first triple-double of his career against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night, is second on the team in minutes (35.3), points (14.3) and shot attempts (11.8), fourth in rebounds (5.9) and first in assists (5.8). His continual emergence has created an argument for another time -- how much will he make as an unrestricted free agent next summer? Will the Pacers pay to retain him?
The best case for Indiana over the long-term may be that Stephenson’s numbers decline upon Granger’s return, lowering his market value at the same time. That would make it easier for the Pacers to re-sign him eight months from now. That’s a macro view on a team with micro goals, but it is certainly possible.
Impeding the development of Johnson and Hill, who have provided strong minutes, is worth the gamble of having a healthy, prepared Granger for the playoffs. Things get tricky, however, when you consider what it might do to Stephenson.
A second-round pick in 2010, the Pacers have invested a lot of time and money into him. They are currently reaping the rewards, but a diminished role will have an untold effect on his confidence. More than anyone else on the roster, Stephenson needs to be aggressive and supremely sure of himself to maintain his current level of production. In the open floor with a head of steam, perhaps only LeBron James is better with the ball in his hands.
The ideal case for Vogel might be to get an equal amount production from Granger and Stephenson, no matter who comes off the bench and who is on the floor for the opening tip. For what it’s worth, I’m in favor of keeping Stephenson in the starting five and adding Granger to an already-improved bench.
I discussed during this week’s edition of RealGM Radio with colleague Danny Leroux whether or not the Pacers, who seemingly have their best shot at their first NBA title since 2000, should go all-in and try to acquire someone like Jamal Crawford to add even more to their bench. The easy answer is no, at least not before they find out whether or not Granger can get back on the floor and how exactly it will effect the entire rotation.
An easy transition back into the rotation for Granger might propel the Pacers to heights they have never before reached, but that isn’t inevitable. For now, that’s the only thing that seems to be between the Pacers and a very memorable season.