You may have heard that the Indiana Pacers are taking names on the basketball court this year. They have the best record in the league at 18-3, a half-game ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers, and they’re tied for the second best net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) in the league with the Miami Heat at +9.1. On the back of an otherworldly defense and roughly league average offense, the Pacers have taken the league by siege.
Yet for all of their name-taking, there’s one name that floats around the periphery in Indiana. Not so long ago, Pacers forward Danny Granger was an All-Star, a big part of Indiana’s brightening future. But leg injuries derailed his progress and sent him to the edges of the conversation surrounding what at one point looked to be Granger’s team. Now, he’s rather regularly considered an afterthought, icing on the cake for a Pacers organization that’s built around Roy Hibbert and Paul George. When people do talk about Granger, it’s generally to wonder whether he can return to form and fit in with a team whose starting unit is among the very best in the league. Or, perhaps worse, the conversation regarding Granger turns to how much value he might bring back in a trade, were Indiana so inclined to shop him, once he finally made it back onto the floor.
According to Granger himself, those questions and conversations could be answered in short order. Granger told reporters on Tuesday that he was looking to make his return on Friday, according to the Indianapolis Star’s Candance Buckner:
“There’s a good chance. A very good chance,” Granger said. “I’m working on it everyday.” [...]
“I’ll have a minutes limit, strictly because I have to play my way into shape,” Granger said. “We don’t have enough practice for me to practice my way into shape. It’s literally going to be in games where I am playing where I get in shape.”
Granger’s return would be even more good news for a team with an embarrassment of riches. With Indiana’s weaker schedule as a result of playing against the lesser competition of the Eastern Conference, Granger should have plenty of opportunity to play himself into game shape. He’ll almost certainly come off the bench for the Pacers, and while their second unit is much improved this year compared to last, if there’s any weakness in Indiana, it’s the reserves. An in-shape Granger could offer the Pacers a strong scoring punch when the starters rest; remember, we’re talking about a player whose pre-injury PER hovered in the 19-20 range.
But the pall of a potential trade will hang over everything that Granger does once he does return. The Pacers will likely be in little hurry to shop him, but as Granger works himself back into the rotation, other teams will certainly be watching. And if they like what they see, they’ll pick up the phone and call Indiana. At that point, the Pacers might find themselves in a bit of a bind. Will a player of Granger’s caliber (at least, his caliber when he’s healthy) be content coming off the bench, with Lance Stephenson continuing to start? If Granger plays so well as to threaten the possibility of reinserting him into the starting lineup, will Stephenson handle the demotion well after working so hard to make a name for himself? Would Granger’s return complicate the future in Indiana? As Zach Lowe noted in discussing the growing legend of Lance Stephenson:
But the Stephenson fit is going to be very tight. And Danny Granger, by the way, is a near 100 percent lock to play elsewhere next season. Stephenson’s a higher priority. The Pacers have invested a ton of player development capital in him, and they’d like to continue reaping the benefits of that nurturing. Ditto for the question about which player should start once Granger returns this season. If Stephenson keeps playing like this, Vogel has no choice. You don’t break up a lineup scoring nearly 115 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 80 out of loyalty to a rusty, aging player. And the notion that the bench unit could use Stephenson’s ballhandling more than Granger’s shooting is moot. Bench units already have Stephenson’s ballhandling because of the way Vogel staggers minutes and mixes his starters and bench. As long as Hill, Stephenson, or George is on the floor to run the offense, the Pacers only need to slot Granger the minutes now going to Solomon Hill and Johnson.
Granger’s return, assuming he can regain some semblance of his old form, gives Indiana options in the short term. Which of those options they exercise may go a long way toward determining the future window of this young, championship-contending organization.