A year ago at this time, everything was looking up for Danny Granger. After suffering through years of mediocrity in Indiana, the Pacers had turned the corner, putting a talented core around him. For the first time in his career, Granger was on a team with legitimate championship aspirations.
But then injury struck. Granger was diagnosed with patellar tendionis (jumper's knee). It was supposed to keep him out for three months, but ended up costing him all but five games last season.
A lot changed in his absence.
The Pacers moved on without him, inserting Lance Stephenson into the starting lineup and advancing to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Paul George, who plays Granger's position, emerged as a star in his own right, winning Most Improved Player and making his first All-Star team. Even if Granger can return at full strength, he will have to adjust to a new role where his touches, shots and minutes drop considerably.
The starting lineup is the first order of business for Frank Vogel. With four spots spoken for, either Granger or Stephenson will have to come off the bench. In his first season as a starter, Stephenson dramatically improved in nearly every facet of the game, teaming up with George to form one of the most athletic wing duos in the NBA. His wayward shooting and questionable decision-making cost Indiana dearly in the playoffs, however: he shot only 28 percent from the three-point line.
The argument can be made either way. Moving Stephenson to the bench, where his ball-dominating tendencies would be less of a concern, makes a lot of sense. At the same time, Granger might be more comfortable in a sixth man role, where he could still be the focal point of the offense. As a starter, he would have to adjust to the less glamorous life of a role player, spotting up in the corner and giving up his body on the defensive end.
A 6'8, 230-pound forward with a 39 percent career three-point stroke, Granger should be able to adjust his game as he moves into his 30s. However, with George emerging as the Pacers' primary playmaker on the perimeter, the other wing will have to take the tougher defensive assignment on many nights to take some pressure off the 23-year old. In the Eastern Conference Finals, George was asked to run the offense, score 20-plus a night and defend LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
One possible wrinkle is a lineup that features Granger and Stephenson. While the Pacers are committed to a two-post offense with Roy Hibbert and David West, a small-ball unit with Granger at the 4 would give Frank Vogel another card to play in a seven-game series. Granger is bigger than Harrison Barnes, a nominal three who flourished as a small-ball four in last year's playoffs. Opening up the floor, even if only for brief stretches, could improve the 20th-rated Indiana offense.
No matter what Vogel decides, Granger will have to adjust to a new pecking order in Indiana. Last season, as a starter, Stephenson averaged nine field goal attempts in 35 minutes a night. Granger hasn't taken fewer than 15 field goal attempts a game since his second season in the NBA. He's a big-time scorer whose been paid like it throughout his career, with over $54 million in earnings. Sixth men don't normally make that type of money.
Granger is set to be an unrestricted free agent next season. At the age of 30, it's his last chance to secure a long-term NBA contract. In an alternate reality where he stayed healthy, he would have been looking at a near-max salary in 2014. As a former All-Star with no problem playing in a smaller market, there would have been no shortage of suitors. Granger would make sense next to Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas or DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento, two franchises who will have money to burn next off-season. But can he return to the level he once was at?
What this season represents, for both Granger and the Pacers, is an opportunity. A $14 million role player is a luxury most small-market teams can't afford. The only reason Indiana can is because Stephenson and George are still on their rookie deals, generating surplus value with their combined $4 million in salary. To keep Granger -- and by extension, this team -- together next season, the Pacers will have to go deep into the luxury tax which they surely won't do. Because of that, this might be his swan song in Indiana.
In the NBA, windows of opportunity can close that quickly.