In the summer of 2008, three young small forwards signed hefty long-term contracts with their incumbent teams.
Restricted free agent Luol Deng got 6 years and $72 million from the Bulls, overcoming both contentious negotiations and an injury plagued 2007-08 campaign in which the team inexplicably slipped from an up-and-coming juggernaut to a 33-49 mess.
Fellow 2004 draft mate and RFA Andre Iguodala got 6 years and $80 million from the Philadelphia 76ers, who had just completed the free agent snatching of Elton Brand and were hoping to unleash a monster two-man tandem on an unsuspecting conference.
Meanwhile, Danny Granger, drafted a year later than those two, got a 5 year, $60 million extension from the Indiana Pacers right before the October 31st deadline, spared the need to muck through the waters of restricted free agency and cemented as the team’s post-Jermaine O’Neal cornerstone.
Over the following seasons, these three players (and some might add Josh Smith, another 2008 RFA) became something of a symbol of the perils of paying the supporting actor like the lead. Deng played just 49 games in 2008-09, as the Bulls turned their attention to Derrick Rose; Brand broke down instantly, leaving Iguodala to shoulder too heavy a load and take too large a portion of the blame; and Granger’s Pacers wallowed in mediocrity, firmly entrenched as the best Eastern team outside the playoff picture, even as Granger made his only all-star team in 2008-09.
A few years later, the narrative has flipped for two of the three. Deng, health re-discovered, had the burden of a cornerstone lifted, fitting in perfectly as an indestructible workhorse that does everything Tom Thibodeau asks him to. Iguodala lead the Sixers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since that other AI, and was then shipped out to Denver, where an ensemble cast magnifies his strengths and covers for his weaknesses. If you were to press enough, you would still hear admissions that they are overpaid, but it no longer defined them.
Granger, done for the season all of 5 games in, is a trickier story. Even last season, when he was still leading his team in scoring, he was easy to criticize for his declining percentages and all-around contributions. He did not have the luxury Deng had, of a well-defined role in the shadow of a superstar, and he is not nearly the defender Iguodala is, which often helps us excuse players on account of showing effort. Both Deng and Iguodala made the all-star team last year, for the first time in their careers; Granger was left on the outside looking in despite posting the best offensive numbers of the three and his team performing well, as Roy Hibbert took the token Pacer spot.
Now, as the Pacers battle for second place in the conference without him, Granger has become downright dismissed. In reality, the Pacers improving without Granger is a congruence of many orthogonal factors. In no particular order, Paul George’s emergence as an all-star caliber player, Lance Stephenson’s emergence as an NBA caliber player, David West being another year removed from surgery, George Hill being given the keys to the point guard position full-time, Roy Hibbert’s defensive improvement, and the overall ineptitude of the East have all played tremendous roles in the Pacers flying high.
Additionally, it should be noted that while the Pacers may be winning more than they did last season, they are doing so by jumping from the league’s 10th best defense to its best, bar none. Offensively, Indiana has slipped from the league’s 9th best offense at 103.5 points per 100 possessions last season, to rank 19th at 101.7 this season. While the offense has improved as the season has progressed and Hibbert’s post game has come back from the dead, there’s a whole lot of no-Danny-Granger in those offensive numbers.
Granger was the team’s primary offensive creator last year, and those 19 points on 15 shots went a long way for a team that struggled to score without him. But even if his shot attempts can be given to other players, the spacing he creates is sorely missing without him. Those 08-09 percentages can be long gone, but opposing defenses note Granger is a constant scoring threat, and tilt accordingly. No matter how good Lance Stephenson has been this season, he doesn’t get that same attention. It’s no coincidence that Indiana scored 8.3 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court last season, or that the team’s offensive rating gradually improved throughout last season in accordance with Granger’s own scoring numbers.
But the main point here isn’t the Pacers – they’ll be fine, with an exciting young quasi-star in George, good pieces around him, and a lot of flexibility going forward. The main point here is Granger, and a career that is suddenly careening towards the unknown. While constantly reminding that we know nothing of anything, it’s hard to feel optimistic about the future. Knees are fickle beings, and Granger, at 29, is somehow already 4 years removed from his best year, on a roster that could use him but is also doing well without him.
It’s unfair, to say the least. Granger arrived just as the O’Neal-Artest dynasty that never was fizzled away. He persevered as the franchise bid its sweet time, providing as convincing a facsimile of a franchise player as he could as trade rumors danced around him. In a perfect world, he too would complete the transformation Iguodala and Deng have gone through, hitting his prime just as this new core rises, settling in as a player who, depending on the given night, ranges from first to fourth option on a semi-contender. Instead, with one more season on that contract extension, there are only questions.
Statistical support for this piece from NBA.com.