Paul George and the Indiana Pacers presented the biggest competition to the Miami Heat last season in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. In the 2012 playoffs the Indiana Pacers also presented a challenge to the Heat, though at that point nobody was saying Paul George and the Indiana Pacers.
Instead, it was Danny Granger’s team. He led the team in scoring in 2011-12 with 18.7 points per game, his first season below 20 ppg since 2007-08. This season, Granger only played in five regular season games. He was forced to sit out the beginning of the season due to patellar tendinosis. It was a long road back for Granger and a short return before soreness returned to his knee and surgery was deemed the best course of action, ending his season.
The Pacers hardly missed a beat though, advancing to the conference finals to meet the Heat. Center Roy Hibbert actually set the pace for the team against the Heat this year, recording 155 points in the seven-game series. Though George wasn’t far behind, scoring 136 including three games of 27 plus. Hibbert was equally, if not more important to the Pacers success against the Heat than George; however, it was George that dominated the highlights with thunderous dunks, buzzer-beaters and the most well-known high five in the NBA last season. He matched up with LeBron and played the greatest player on earth shot-for-shot in many instances throughout the series.
On a team devoid of a superstar, the first-time All-Star separated himself as the alpha dog. The offense was his, the last shot was his, the Pacers became his team.
But now, Granger is back and ready to return to his role as the team’s starting small forward, a spot George shifted to last season during Granger’s absence. This leaves the Pacers with a decision: how to handle their now two star wings?
Granger’s name has been mentioned in trade rumors throughout the summer, though nothing more than murmurs that may have come from anyone with a Twitter account. This seems to be the least likely course of action. A team one win away from a trip to the NBA finals should never trade away a player with the potential to put them over the final hump.
A second option involves shifting George back to shooting guard, where he started in 2011-12, and re-inserting Granger into the starting small forward spot. This would send Lance Stephenson, another breakout performer for the team last year, to the bench as a potential sixth man. This is definitely what Granger wants. The benefits of this choice are clear as well, as the Pacers could start their five most talented players.
Finally, the team could decide to keep their starting five from last season intact and have Granger come off the bench as the sixth man. Granger would likely be irresolute about such a choice, but the benefits of such a decision could sway him to accept the role.
The Pacers bench was their clear weakness last season. Gerald Green and Tyler Hansbrough tied at 7.0 ppg as the team’s leading scorer off the bench. Green only played 14 minutes in the Heat series after he fell out of favor with coach Frank Vogel due to inconsistent play. All five Pacers starters played more than 263 minutes in the series and not one bench player played more than 100.
For comparison, the Heat had just two players play more than 263 minutes, LeBron (nearly 304) and Wade (played less than every Pacers starter), and eight guys who logged more than 100.
Throughout last season, just one Pacers bench player, Jeff Pendergraph, managed a positive +/- on the year, +55, per 82games.com. He earned just 4:46 minutes of playing time against the Heat, the lowest of any Pacer.
Granger would help solve some of these bench woes, as will new offseason additions Luis Scola and CJ Watson. In Granger, the Pacers second-unit would have someone more than capable of carrying the scoring load. The bench could go from abysmal to featuring a potential sixth man of the year candidate.
If Granger started, the bench role would go to Stephenson, an inefficient scorer who is sometimes out of control. Handing him the ball as the go-to scorer could get scary for the second unit. He’s much better served as the third, fourth or even fifth option in the loaded starting-lineup where he is most counted upon to make life hard for team’s first or second best wing scorers.
The starting unit doesn’t need the influx of scoring that Granger can provide. Last season they posted the second-highest +/- average, +284, of any five-man unit in the NBA, per NBA.com. Only Oklahoma City’s starting five was better at +288.
Granger’s return will also benefit the Pacers by providing them the possibility of a productive small-ball lineup. Against the Heat, the Pacers struggled to match up when Miami went to their small lineup with LeBron at power forward and were forced to hide West on shooters like Shane Battier. With Granger healthy, the Pacers can choose to match small lineups, like the Heat’s, with a talented group of their own. Both he and Paul George have potential as a small-ball four with the other occupying the three.
With a backcourt of George Hill and Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert protecting the rim, the Pacers could have one of the most dangerous small-ball lineups in the league. Their potential on the offensive end would be great with two scorers of George and Granger’s caliber along with an attacking Hill and improved Stephenson and Hibbert. David West could also occupy the center position for an even smaller lineup, such as the one the Heat trot out with Bosh at center.
Their defensive potential, however, may even dwarf this. Last season George began to separate himself as the league’s second-best wing defender, behind LeBron of course. Granger is a solid defender, Stephenson has potential to be another well-above average wing stopper. And with Hibbert in the middle, teams would struggle to score at the rim.
Trading Granger should be out of the question for a team that desperately needs bench talent. If the Pacers started their best five, he would be in it. But from a team standpoint, Granger can better serve the Pacers as a scorer off the bench. Something in the mold of a James Harden in OKC. He can provide a spark to second-units and still play important minutes down the stretch when the team needs his scoring over Stephenson’s.
Whatever coach Vogel and the Pacers decide to do with their returned star, one thing is sure: Miami and the rest of the NBA better take notice.
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