By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Oct 22, 2013 12:26 AM
It's not a competition, except that it is.
Both Danny Granger and Lance Stephenson are penciled in to play "starter's minutes" for the Indiana Pacers this season, but only one truly will have his name inked into the starting lineup.
And despite the age-old saying, the Pacers ain't broke but they may end up getting fixed anyway. And fixed isn't always a good thing -- ask your household pet.
Last season, the Pacers turned a setback (Granger's left-knee soreness and eventual surgery) into an opportunity, two of them really. Paul George, who had spent most of his first two seasons at shooting guard, slip up to Granger's spot at small forward and thrived, meeting and exceeding the already lofty expectations folks had for him.
George was chosen as the NBA's Most Improved Player and was alone in the league in averaging at least 17.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.75 steals. His confidence and personality grew and he became, not just in deed but in nature, a real leader for Indiana.
Stephenson, meanwhile, emerged from the protective little bubble in which he'd been stashed for two years for his immense but raw potential. Six games into the season, he moved into George's backcourt spot and made it his own. At 8.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg and 2.8 apg, Stephenson, at 22, essentially tripled the production of his first two seasons. He brought an aggressiveness, even a brashness to a Pacers roster heavy on quiet, rather nice guys.
Indiana's starting unit -- George-Stephenson-George Hill-David West-Roy Hibbert -- not only was the strength of its team but one of the most complete in the league, averaging 108.6 points per 100 possesions and giving up just 96.5. The Pacers pushed all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, taking eventual champs Miami to Game 7 and fulfilling a step-by-step, year-by-year progression.
After their elimination game, Granger was a popular fellow in the locker room and he said all the right things about his determination to get back for 2013-14 and to help in any way possible. But sports being sports and media being media, that didn't take off the table the question that has turned into a debate, with tinges of argument and even controversy: Who starts?
"One of the things people don't talk about with the job of being a head coach is deciding who to play," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after one week of preseason. "It's not always about your defensive scheme and your play-calling and all that stuff. It's which rotations are best for your team. That's something we talk about every day as a staff and we'll see it all plays out."
On one side, the Pacers have Granger, a former All-Star and the team's primary source of offense for much of his eight-year career. His career scoring average (18.1) is higher than any of his teammates managed last season. Also, Granger, 30, is a proud veteran who lost his assignment only to injury. He missed a lot of fun and felt too much like a spectator last season, and he's a leader who brings a toughness to Indiana's game, too.
On the other, there's the individual and collective play of the starting five in Granger's absence, the comfort zone that George carved out at forward, the confidence Stephenson gained with the rotation toehold and a sense that it all might be fragile enough to suffer with a change for change's sake. Plus, given Indiana's weak bench last season, having Granger lead the second unit with new additions such as Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland and rookie Solomon Hill holds its own intrigue.
Then there are those speculating that Granger might be traded, snuffing the debate in one swift transaction.
Certainly, there are worse problems to have. In theory, Vogel could reverse his decision at any point and, frankly, multiple times. And whatever happened to that thing coaches say about "It doesn't matter who starts games, it matters who finishes them?"
Maybe it's to the Pacers' credit that there aren't larger issues to crowd out this modest one.
Vogel said that October basically is the final month of Granger's rehab from knee surgery. That means ups and downs, a close watch on his conditioning and comfort and patience while the rust on his game flakes off. And then...
"Obviously if Danny Granger comes back to the level he was playing at before, he's our starter," Vogel said. "It will be an exciting group, and Lance comes in and gives us a spark off the bench.
"Look, there's a lot of different ways you can use guys. I haven't made any final decisions. [San Antonio's Manu] Ginobili and [Houston's James] Harden are starter-level players who can come off the bench. So there's the possibility for that there. We're just going to take it day-by-day and see how it plays out.
"Oh, one thing I do know is, both of them are going to play starter-level minutes and be major factors."
Stephenson, conceivably, could do well in reserve, though he doesn't have the experience or may not yet have the maturity to lead a second unit. The confidence that blossomed last season should be watered, not watered down. Besides, Stephenson was a pet project of Larry Bird, who is back as Pacers president after a year's sabbatical.
It's unclear how Stephenson would handle a role change, which some would consider a "demotion," particularly if he felt he didn't get beat out in practices or compared performances. Granger might not be the same player, physically, that he was before his knee injury but he might be a whole 'nother level of driven.
"He's almost in a mode where he feels like he's got to prove who he is and what he is," West told reporters at Media Day. "Ultimately it's Frank's decision, but I know Danny is coming back to be who he was, if not better."
The bottom line is that the Pacers be who they can be, which definitely means better.
1. The next phase for Paul George is now. He went from Scottie Pippen-like potential to Pippen-in-1993-94, "No more Michael" attack mode. That means he'll be the subject of other coaches' game plans and multiple defenders like never before, so it will be on George to grow his game again and counter.
2. Roy Hibbert is always 7-foot-2, so his rim protection rarely has to be questioned. But the Pacers center still can get stronger, more assertive and quicker in his decisions. Just because the All-Star ballots no longer list "centers," a switch that made him grumpy, doesn't mean he has to surrender completely to the "frontcourt" trend. Stay big and play big, Roy.
3. Like a lot of guys bringing the ball upcourt in this league, George Hill plays like a shooting guard trapped in a point guard's body (and on a roster that needs him as its playmaker and organizer). Indiana also needs him to look for his shots when they're there and to chase the other guys' point guards, and maybe every once in a while -- given Hill's tendency to criticize his own game -- cut himself some slack.
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LAST YEAR: 49-32, 1st in Central
FINISH: Lost in Eastern Conference finals
2012-13 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2012-13 Stats|
GEORGE HILL, POINT GUARD
14.2 PPG | 4.7 RPG | 3.7 APG
If he's not going to be a "classic point guard," Hill needs to be a more willing scorer. He's his own toughest critic and pretty tough defender.
PAUL GEORGE, SHOOTING GUARD
17.4 PPG | 7.6 RPG | 4.1 APG
A star was born last season and George will face new challenges as Indiana's premier guy. Beware of volume shooting or an energy drain to stay sticky defensively.
DANNY GRANGER, SMALL FORWARD
18.7 PPG | 5.0 RPG | 1.8 APG (2011-12)
Granger's ability to return from knee issues and fit into the Pacers' new pecking order is a boon or potential bust. His shooting range and leadership could be big pluses.
DAVID WEST, POWER FORWARD
17.1 PPG | 7.7 RPG | 2.9 APG
West is a throwback, as fun to watch in the low post as most high flyers. What he lacks in size or quickness, he makes up in toughness and guile.
ROY HIBBERT, CENTER
11.9 PPG | 8.3 RPG | 1.4 APG
Force enough vs. Miami that the Heat went seeking a counter (Greg Oden?). He's also a deft passer and his rim protection is a weapon.
|Lance Stephenson||6-5||230||G||Talent still needs harnessing.|
|Luis Scola||6-9||240||C||Veteran upgrades bench.|
|C.J. Watson||6-2||175||G||Best when ball comes back.|
ADDED: G C.J. Watson, G Donald Sloan, F Luis Scola, F Chris Copeland, F Solomon Hill
LOST: G D.J. Augustin, G/F Gerald Green, F Miles Plumlee, F Tyler Hansbrough, F Jeff Pendergraph
FRANK VOGEL, HEAD COACH
Vogel has gotten serious buy-in in his 2 ½ years on the job, but now the task is greater. Reaching The Finals means Miami must not. Vogel and his team haven't had a reverse gear yet. Something is going to give.