The Indiana Pacers are expecting a 6-foot-8-inch former all star, who has averaged over 18 points per game in his career back from a knee injury, but yet there is a strange idea out there that Danny Granger should not be inserted into the 2013-14 starting lineup.
Who starts a game is extremely overvalued. If you want to know who a coach trusts, pay attention to the players on the court in the end of a game not the beginning. Ultimately, if Lance Stephenson starts over Granger, it isn't that big of a deal, as long as Granger is on the floor in the final minutes.
Indiana needs Granger's offense. The Pacer offense scored 101.6 points per 100 possessions last season, 19th best in the NBA. They were closer to the Washington Wizards (97.8) than they were to the Miami Heat (110.3). They are getting back the player that led the team in scoring every year from 2007-08 to 2011-12. But, some people think Stephenson earned a spot ahead of Granger with his performance last season. Stephenson was a key factor in the Pacers run to the Eastern Conference Finals, but this is a player who has had one season as an established NBA player.
Stephenson was third most efficient offensive player for the Pacers last season, per Synergy Sports. He averaged .911 points per possession on 756 possessions. A season of .911 points per possession would be Granger’s worst ever in the NBA, excluding his extremely brief stint last year. Granger’s worst season was his rookie year when he posted a .954 points per possession on 605 possessions. Since that season, he has had at least 1,000 possessions each season and had three seasons above 1 point per possession. Even if Granger doesn't return to his all star level scoring, his worst NBA season would have been the third most efficient on the Pacers last season.
Defensively, Stephenson posted a .876 points per possession. A good number, but it was 11th best on the Pacers. (Defensive points per possession are heavily dependent on the entire team defense.) In Granger’s last three full season he has posted defensive efficiency numbers of .821, .905 and .830, on teams that were not up to the defensive level of last year’s Pacers.
There is a worry that Granger will disrupt the chemistry and effectiveness of the Pacers starting unit from last season. Among 5 man units that played at least 500 minutes, the Pacers top five was the third best in the NBA. Per NBA.com, Indiana’s starters scored 108.6 points per 100 possessions while allowing 96.5 for a differential of 12.1 points. That was better than the Miami Heat’s top lineup. It is fair to worry that changing that lineup would cause inefficient play, but Granger has always been superior to Stephenson offensively, and defensively Granger was better in his last few healthy seasons. Assuming Granger comes back at 100 percent, he should help improve the efficiency of the Pacers.
Some arguments for starting Stephenson center around Granger helping the second unit with scoring. A valid point, if the second unit were to be used all at one time in meaningful minutes. Sure during the regular season Indiana may make wholesale substitutions, but during the playoffs the top players will be maximized and having five bench players in the game together would be very rare. The Pacers played without a single starter for 22 minutes in the playoffs, and the Pacers played in seven games that finished with a 15 or more final score differential, meaning the bench got emptied out in quite a few blowouts.
There has been plenty of absurd speculation that Paul George and Granger could not coexist in the same starting unit because they are both small forwards. Positions are vastly overrated in basketball, especially the NBA. Too often position trumps talent when it comes to setting a lineup. It is nice to be able to match up to your opponent, and it is at times necessary if you are getting burned by a specific player. Are George and Granger both in the Pacers top five most talented players? Absolutely. Talent should usually trump position, and not playing George and Granger together because they are considered the same position would be foolish.
George and Granger were extremely effective when playing together. According to NBA.com, the George-Granger duo was the best Pacer twosome in 2011-12. The Pacers scored 106.6 points per 100 possessions while allowing 96.8. That point differential of 9.7 was the 15th best in the NBA of duos that played at least 1,000 possessions. (They were 7th best if you take out Miami Heat duos.)
Another reason for not returning Granger to the starting lineup is that he could stunt George's development as a superstar. Granger could take away shots and opportunities that George could use to improve his offensive game. But when did having a great offensive weapon harm a player from developing his own game? If Granger is good enough he may garner the attention of opponents' top defensive player, making George's match up much more favorable. Plus George could develop his passing game much more with another high level offensive option. Having two high quality wing players at 6-foot-8 should be an exciting proposition for the Indiana offense and not something that gets hidden on the bench.
Stephenson and Granger will likely get similar minutes for the entire season as Stephenson looks to continue his development and Granger returns from injury. But only one will be playing in the final minutes of close games. As long as Granger comes back as Danny Granger, and assuming Stephenson doesn't take some astronomical leap, Granger should be the guy on the floor.