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Granger Deserves to Start - If Healthy

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

September 27, 2013

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The Pacers' Media Day focus on Friday was on Danny Granger. Is he healthy? Will he start or come off the bench? What will his role become now that the Pacers have grown up around him?

It's potentially dramatic, and certainly crucial to the Pacers' championship hopes, but the actual story is mundane. Here it is, brief enough to tweet: Granger is progressing well from last season's knee surgery, he claims not to care about starting and his role will be to score, although not as much as in the past.

The bottom line is that it will work itself out as training camp progresses. The prediction here, however, is that Granger will start (if healthy, of course) and Stephenson will come off the bench. It's entirely possible that it won't matter in the long run, because both will get starter minutes.

As well as Stephenson played at times last season, Granger is the better player (when healthy, of course). He should be a better 3-point threat, although Stephenson improved dramatically in that regard last season and focused on it over the summer. He's longer, and should be a better defender if he applies himself. He's more experienced, so he should make fewer turnovers. And, as a 30-year-old former All-Star who's in a contract year, he deserves some entitlement.

There are arguments for Stephenson, of course. The Pacers developed good chemistry last season, reaching Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals with him starting in the backcourt. They would run the break better with him in the lineup – remember Roy Hibbert taping that makeshift Gump nameplate to his locker? – and he's a more aggressive rebounder than Granger.

The question was asked over and over again, in every form imaginable, to Roy Hibbert, Frank Vogel, George Hill, David West, Paul George and Granger himself on Friday. The company line among Granger's teammates was that they have no preference, and to let Vogel earn his money on this one. Vogel seems determined – perhaps content is a better word – to let the pre-season games make the decision for him.

“My message to both of those guys was this: the team comes first, your goal is to be the best you can be to contribute at the highest level and to be willing to accept whatever role is best for the team,” Vogel said. “Both of those guys are 100 percent on board with that.”

Granger says all the right things about accepting whatever role comes his way, but there's reason to believe he much prefers starting. Go back to the postgame locker room, after the Pacers were eliminated by the Heat. Granger, who had played just five games that season because of knee issues that eventually led to surgery on April 4, was there, and giddy about the prospect of rejoining such a promising team. He and George talked excitedly about playing together. George, meanwhile, began promoting Stephenson for Sixth Man of the Year, and Stephenson expressed no problems with that.

“No one can stop us with me coming off the bench as a sixth man,” he said then.

Friday, Granger hesitated when asked if he would be content playing off the bench (if healthy, of course).

“I mean … my role … as far as what I would do … I just want to win, honestly,” he said, finally.

Stephenson, meanwhile, maintained his stance from the Miami postmortem. He's also in a contract year, but he just turned 23, and therefore is on better terms with Father Time than Granger. He can better afford to be patient, and less afford to complain.

“This is bigger than me and Danny,” he said. “Our team is great. Whatever it takes to win a championship. I'm happy starting or coming off the bench.”

The important factor for the Pacers is that Granger, who led the Pacers' scoring five consecutive seasons before the last one, appears to be back to peak form. He worked harder than he's ever worked in an off-season, according to Vogel, and he looked sharp in the team's scrimmages the past few weeks. He'll be held out of some portions of training camp as he completes the rehabilitation phase of his comeback, but he's playing without pain or worry. He has grown tired of all the requests to put a number on his current health status, but George Hill did it for him: 98 percent.

“Danny's ready to go,” Paul George said. “My bet is that if we had a game tomorrow, Danny's going for 30. He looks good. Everything is back to being how Danny was.”

Added West: “He's got an edge on him. He's almost in that mode where he feels like he has to prove who he is and what he is … I know Danny's coming back to be who he was, if not better.”

The determining factor for Granger's role this season – beyond health, of course – is whether he can fit in with a team that's dramatically different than the one he last played for. Not in personnel, but in maturity and accomplishment. The Pacers were one of the NBA's best rebounding and defending teams last season. Granger's norm has been to focus on scoring, a desperate need earlier in his career, and let the dirty work slide.

He could get away with that then. He can't now, if the Pacers are to live up to their status as title contenders. But he has a sense of urgency. Heading into his ninth NBA seasons, this is by far his best hope to win a championship. It's also the final year of his contract, and team president Larry Bird has admitted the financial difficulty in being able to bring him back next season.

For Granger, opportunity is both great and diminishing.

It's mind-blowing when I think about it,” he said. “We were playing pickup a couple of days ago, and Luis Scola was making moves and hitting hook shots, and shooting jump shots, and that's our backup power forward. It's really amazing the team they have assembled.

"If I come back healthy, the sky's the limit. We're definitely talking championship, 100 percent."

Granger deserves the opportunity to be part of that, and as a starter. Unless he proves he doesn't.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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