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A New Appreciation for Granger

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 7, 2012

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This might be a good time for Danny Granger to sit back, allow himself a sly grin and say, "How ya like me now?"

Suddenly, the player who fans and media types have portrayed as a No. 2 guy—you know, Robin and not Batman—appears awfully valuable to the Pacers. He looks, in fact, like a No. 1 guy, the kind of player around whom the rest of the team revolves. All because of his absence.

Granger will miss an estimated three months while the latest attempt to heal his left knee (an injection to treat patellar tendinosis by a doctor in Florida) runs its course. By the end of that period it appears safe to assume everyone associated with the Pacers and their fans will want to welcome him back with a group hug, because so far his teammates have looked lost without him. The Pacers are 2-2 heading into Wednesday's game in Atlanta. The record is hardly cause for panic, but Granger's absence is a worthy cause for serious furrowed-brow concern.

What we know is that he injured his knee during the playoffs last season, tweaked it over the summer, and had a blood platelet injection in Los Angeles on Sept. 16. The plan all along was for him to play in the final two preseason games and then be ready for the season-opener on Oct. 31, but he told team officials during practice two days prior to then that the knee still wasn't right. What we don't know is exactly how long he'll be out and whether he'll ever return with a healthy knee.

We also know the Pacers haven't been right without him. They've been badly out-of-sync offensively, averaging 20.25 turnovers per game, nine more than they force. That explains why they've taken 26 fewer field goal attempts than their opponents, even while shooting better and out-rebounding them. And that explains why winning, even against weaker teams, has seemed like an odds-against chore.

It would be exaggerating matters to blame – or credit – Granger for all of this. Point guard George Hill sat out the entire preseason and there are six new players on the bench to incorporate into the game plan. Still, hearts are growing fonder for the player who has led the Pacers in scoring the past five seasons and provides a go-to source for crucial end-of-game possessions.

"When you take him out of the lineup you have a lot of young guys who are very talented to take his place, but they're going to have to learn how to fill that role," team president Donnie Walsh said. "It's a specific role, and you need a guy who knows what to do when the game is on the line and can help his teammates during the game.

"Danny took the shots he should have taken, knew when it was his time to take a big shot, and made a lot of them. With this team, there are enough weapons that people can adjust to (his absence). But it's going to take time to adjust to that."

Coach Frank Vogel started Gerald Green in Granger's place the first three games, then went with Sam Young against San Antonio on Monday. He's not looking for either of them to become the leading scorer, just to contribute and fit in with the rest. The Pacers' balance in the starting lineup and presumed depth on the bench should allow them to absorb most of Granger's points, but they will be challenged to find someone to distract the defense and create opportunities for the others.

Granger's value can be clearly proven statistically. All four of the other starters—Roy Hibbert, David West, George Hill and Paul George—had a positive plus-minus rating when Granger was on the court last season, and a negative one when Granger was on the bench.

George figures to be the player most needed, and most capable, of stepping up in Granger's absence, but it will be a new challenge for him. He shot 46 percent when playing with Granger last season and 40 percent without him. He also had a plus-minus of +6.8 with him and -2.3 without him.

There are loose precedents for the Pacers' predicament. Reggie Miller missed the first 16 games of the 2004-05 season with a broken hand. The Pacers were 10-6 when he returned, and finished 44-38. Miller was in the last of his 18 seasons, however, and mostly a role player then. Granger's offensive role has been reduced as the talent around him improves, but he's still the major offensive threat.

So, all the people who didn't consider Granger a go-to guy, who considered him Plan B, who blamed him first for the team's shortcomings, might develop a new appreciation for him if the Pacers struggle to find their way without him.

"Normally, with somebody who's been in a place a long time you get (complaints) – until he's missing," Walsh said. "I saw it in Denver with David Thompson and I saw it with Reggie Miller. People give you all the things he can't do. And I say to them, 'If he's not there tomorrow when you call out the 2 play, you're going to see a gigantic difference.' It's a different ballgame. You get used to a guy coming off a screen and hitting a shot. Those guys are always under-appreciated until they're not there.

"I know the people who have never overlooked Danny, and that's the other team. Every game they play against us, they've talked a lot about how they can't let Danny Granger get going."

The Pacers' schedule will make it more difficult for them to adjust to Granger's absence. Twelve of their first 18 games are on the road, and practice time will be minimal. But there is a potential silver lining. It will afford the likes of Green and Young more playing time. Should Granger come back healthy, he'll be less leg-weary late in the season, and his backups will be more experienced. Who knows, maybe George will have grown more confident and emerge as a greater threat. And, hey, there's also value in knowing Granger's fate, at least for the next few months. He was lurking throughout the preseason, assumed to be coming back soon. Now everyone knows where they stand for awhile.

Still.

Granger's absence is not a good thing.

"The reality is Danny won't be out there for awhile," Walsh said. "It's an opportunity for others to grow into their roles, so that's the way we're going to go. I don't think there's any thought we can't win games, but it's going to be harder."

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