For the past couple years, many have wondered what the Indiana Pacers might look like if Danny Granger wasn't in the lineup. His game has stagnated since his all-star campaign in 2008-09, and he was blocking promising youngster Paul George from his natural position of small forward.
But now that we finally get to find out that Granger is out for three months with a left patella injury, I suspect it won't be pretty. Make no mistake: this is a huge loss for Indiana.
For all of Granger's shortcomings, he's vital to a Pacers' offense that lacks perimeter shot creators. Granger isn't the most efficient scorer, and he has a tendency to fire up contested perimeter shots when resetting the offense would be preferable. His true shooting percentage has fallen for four straight seasons, and he was only able to produce five free throws per 36 minutes last year. But his on/off court numbers simply don't lie.
Last year, the Pacers scored nearly 109 points per 100 possessions with Granger in the game and just under 101 points per 100 possessions with him out of the contest, according to Basketball Value. To put it in slightly different terms, the Pacers were as good as the San Antonio Spurs offensively with Granger in last year and as bad as the Sacramento Kings with him on the bench. Things have only gotten worse this year, as the Pacers are scoring a putrid 95.2 points per 100 possessions through their first four games, despite playing teams like the Charlotte Bobcats and Kings.
There are all sorts of reasons why Granger's average efficiency is vital to the Pacers. In a macro sense, high-volume, average-efficiency offensive players have consistently proven to be valuable to their teams. There tends to be an inverse relationship with volume and efficiency. The more volume goes up, the more efficiency goes down. This is because there just aren't a ton of open shots to go around in an NBA game. If you're taking more shots as a player, chances are that several of those additional shots are with a hand in your face. Because of that, it's so hard for players to maintain elite shooting proficiency as they take more shots. If you're a moderately efficient scorer like Granger with that much usage, you're already ahead of the curve.
More specifically, the Pacers plan so much of their offensive attack around Granger's ability to get shots up. The Pacers generally are a post-oriented team, but it's not always possible to get Roy Hibbert and David West the ball when teams are fronting them or devoting weakside help to shrink the floor. When those post-entry passes just aren't possible, it's a huge luxury to have a guy like Granger that can at least manufacture something. Additionally, when the Pacers aren't going to post plays, they're usually running Granger off baseline screens to free him for his jump shot. The pass can come from the point guard or Hibbert (a proficient passing center), but the action is still the same. Without Granger, there isn't a single player on their roster that can do those kinds of things.
Worse, there isn't a single perimeter player on the roster that can consistently create offense for himself even using different types of plays. George might be one day, but for right now, his loose handle and lack of upper-body strength makes him exclusively a spot-up shooter. George Hill, who got a $40 million extension last summer, is more of a caretaker than a playmaker. Gerald Green is very gifted, but he hasn't ever demonstrated that he can provide sustained scoring for a good team. The Pacers' second-best playmaker last year was Darren Collison, and he got traded to the Dallas Mavericks because he didn't mesh all that well with the Pacers' grind-it-out style. I bet Frank Vogel wishes he had Collison now.
Finally, we must also consider how this injury affects the Pacers' rotation. As usual, it's not the backup that gets exposed, it's the backup's backup. George will slide over to small forward, which may be his natural position anyway, and Green will get more of an opportunity to prove himself as the starting shooting guard. But with Green in the starting lineup, Sam Young and Lance Stephenson -- two of the worst rotation players in the NBA last year -- must now play more minutes. The Pacers spent a lot of time trying to rebuild what was a pretty subpar bench last year, bringing in Green, D.J. Augustin and Ian Mahinmi. Now, with Green pressed into duty in the starting lineup, that bench is looking as shallow as ever.
The only silver lining to Granger's injury is that it may force George to step up his game. In the long term, it may serve the Pacers well to throw George into the fire, because he's the only player with the potential to take his game to another level in the future.
But in the short term, this is a huge loss for the Pacers, made worse because West is in the final year of his contract. This was a team built to win now, and they just lost by far their most valuable player.