As we head into the 2013-14 NBA season, Grantland will examine key players — X factors — for contending teams.
Danny Granger thought about it. Of course he did. Deep into Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, with Miami’s triumph now inevitable and Indiana’s season over, Granger allowed himself to wonder. If only he’d been in a jersey and not a suit. If only he hadn’t undergone surgery, if he’d played through the pain. If only that one piece of cartilage — “tiny, so tiny,” he says — hadn’t lingered in his patellar tendon, adding a twinge to his every movement and rendering him earthbound and barely mobile, a weak imitation of his former self. If only his 2012-13 season hadn’t ended after five games.
“But you can’t let yourself think about it too long,” Granger says now. “You can’t dwell on it.”
Perhaps not, so let’s do it for him. Let’s say Granger plays in the conference finals. Let’s take an Indiana team that pushed Miami to seven games, and let’s give it a career 18-point-per-game scorer, a versatile long-range shooter who could divert Miami’s attention from Paul George. Game 7 was a Miami blowout; Granger wouldn’t have changed that. Same goes for Game 3, and Game 5, though closer, was also a double-digit Pacers loss.
But what about Game 1? The game neither team led by more than five points in the second half; the game Indiana had in hand until LeBron beat the buzzer with a layup in overtime.1 The game when Granger’s replacement, Lance Stephenson, shot 2-for-10 from the field and 0-for-5 from 3. The game, like every other game in that series, when Frank Vogel couldn’t trust any member of his bench to play more than 18 minutes. What if you put Granger on the court then? Does he hit one of those five 3s Stephenson missed? Does he space the court enough for George Hill to shoot better than 2-for-9? Is there one play, somewhere in that game, in which Granger is the difference between a Pacers basket and a Heat stop, between a win and a loss, between a second-straight Miami title and Indiana playing San Antonio in the Finals?
We can’t know, of course, just like we can’t know how Granger’s insertion might have hurt the Pacers on defense. Lineup changes don’t happen in a vacuum. But the biggest reason we can’t know how Granger would have affected the game is the same reason we don’t know how to assess Indiana’s contender status in 2013-14.
We know what kind of player Danny Granger used to be. But as this season gets under way, we no longer know what kind of player he is.
Granger says it before the question is even finished. He grins, then nods. He’s sitting in the visitor’s locker room in Atlanta’s Phillips Arena, where the Pacers have just beaten the Hawks 107-89 in the preseason. Granger did not play in this meaningless game, just like he didn’t play in last May’s most meaningful games, and all of this not playing has league observers thinking of Granger less as a flesh-and-bones basketball player than as a name on a piece of paper to which an exorbitant amount of money is assigned, money that will come off of some team’s books at the end of this season.
Even here at Grantland, he has already been renamed: no longer Danny Granger, now Danny Granger’s expiring contract. It makes sense. Lance Stephenson stepped into Granger’s starting role last season, and that lineup played more minutes together than almost any other group in the league,2 outscoring opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions. Stephenson paired with Paul George to form one of the NBA’s best defensive wing tandems, and once he was forced to become the team’s top scorer, George emerged as an All-Star. Indiana advanced further in the playoffs than it had since 2004. The Pacers were good — almost championship-level good — and they had absolutely no need for the man who had led them in scoring each of the past five years. So it is natural, now, to look at Granger’s name on the Pacers roster and wonder not what they can get out of him but instead what they can get in exchange for his expiring $14 million contract.
Granger knows this. “You can’t fight it,” he says. “Everybody in this room has either been in those conversations or is going to be in those conversations. The NBA is a revolving door.” Yet he won’t relinquish his claim to the role of one of the Pacers’ leaders. On a night when he watched in street clothes as Stephenson started and played well, further cementing himself as Indiana’s 2-guard, Granger was asked about Indiana’s potential starting lineup once he’s fully recovered.
“We really don’t know yet,” he said. “But the plan, I think, is for me to start. Lance is actually very creative when he’s out there with the second unit. But really, at this point, who knows?”
Growing up near New Orleans, Granger certainly never knew he’d be in a position like this. “The NBA,” he says, “was never even really a goal.” Six-foot-seven and skinny, with few perimeter skills, Granger received two offers: one from Bradley, of the Missouri Valley Conference, and one from Yale.
“I always had a head for numbers,” he says, “so I broke down those odds — this many high school kids get a D-1 scholarship, this many D-1 players make the league, this many NBA players have careers longer than two or three years — and I thought, I didn’t get recruited. With those odds, the NBA probably isn’t going to happen.” If the NBA truly never crossed Granger’s mind back then, he probably would have chosen the Ivy League, but he didn’t. He enrolled at Bradley, the program that offered better competition and a better chance of making the NCAA tournament. After two years in Peoria, Granger transferred to New Mexico. He grew an inch, added a 3-point shot, and became a better ball handler on the perimeter. Now, instead of a 6-foot-7 power forward, he was a 6-foot-8 shooting guard.
Before Granger’s senior year, UNM coach Ritchie McKay sat him down for a conversation about his pro prospects. “I don’t care if I’m sitting at the very end of the bench,” Granger said. “I just want to make it.” Then the Lobos won 11 of their first 12 games, with Granger as their leading scorer. “You know, I think I can contribute right away,” he told his coach. “I just need to go somewhere I can get some minutes.” By the end of the regular season, Granger was an honorable mention All-American, suddenly considered a potential lottery pick. Says McKay: “By that point, he was saying, ‘You know, this team doesn’t have a solid 2 or a solid 3 — if I go there maybe I can start right away.”
When the Pacers invited Granger for a workout before the 2005 draft, then-coach Rick Carlisle told president of basketball operations Larry Bird that he liked what he saw from the New Mexico guard. According to the Indianapolis Star, Bird responded by saying there was no chance Granger would be available when the Pacers picked at 17. Bird even went so far as to apologize to Granger for bringing him to Indianapolis. Surely, Bird thought, any workout for a non-lottery team was a waste of Granger’s time.
It certainly looked that way. In his final mock draft, ESPN’s Chad Ford pegged Granger to go to the Raptors with the seventh pick. NBADraft.net slotted him in the same spot. But on draft day, word circulated among general managers that Granger’s left knee, which he’d injured midway through his senior year, might not completely heal. Knee troubles might hound Granger throughout his career. So on a night when he expected to be among the first 10 picks, Granger listened as others’ names were called and found himself clinging to one desperate hope: “I just don’t want to be the last one in the green room,” he told McKay.
At no. 17, Bird and the Pacers ensured that he wasn’t. Granger was the team’s first draft pick after the Malice at the Palace brawl, a pick that the organization pushed as a symbol of its commitment to high-character players. As a rookie, Granger contributed. In his second year, he started 57 games. By his third year, Granger had emerged as the Pacers’ go-to guy. Through all of this, the knee held up. But Indiana’s high-paced, free-shooting, Granger-led teams hit a ceiling under coach Jim O’Brien. After O’Brien was fired in January 2011, new coach Frank Vogel changed the team’s philosophy. He slowed the pace, emphasized defense, and ran much of the offense through the post. And Granger says his response to this shift should show people all they need to know about how he might adapt to his place within this year’s team.
People talk about my role changing,” he says now. “My role already changed. It became completely different when Frank took over. It’s not about my role changing now. That’s when my role changed.” No longer did the Pacers ask Granger to go one-on-one throughout each game. The percentage of his plays coming from isolations and post-ups was cut in half, according to Synergy Sports. Meanwhile, he was spotting up and coming off screens more, scoring off skip passes and kick-outs from Hibbert or David West. His scoring average dropped from 24 a game in his last full year with O’Brien to 20 a game in his first full year with Vogel. And yet his efficiency numbers stayed almost exactly the same. Granger was just as good as he’d always been — but now he operated within a more natural offensive flow.
“This team now,” he says, “we have three guys who can average 20 a night.3 This team is crazy. We pass; we move the ball; we get everybody going.” So, Granger’s thinking goes, now he can step easily into becoming just another very good player on a team full of very good players. And let’s not forget: When Granger last played a full season in 2011-12, he was arguably the best among Indiana’s crop of borderline All-Stars. He led the team with 19 points per game and was better than the league’s average in virtually every manner of scoring — from spot-ups to post-ups to coming off screens to isos. Now, Granger feels like his role has been boiled down to its essential element: “I’m a shooter,” he says. “That’s where it starts.” And in 2011-12, he did that better than almost anyone in the league, scoring off catch-and-shoot situations more efficiently than any high-volume shooter not named Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson.
Granger is right that the Pacers changed after Vogel took over and before his knee gave out, but in Granger’s absence, those changes have become more pronounced. “He has to work his way back in,” says West. “We’re a different team now. Now it’s truly, no question, defense first. That’s our whole identity.” Two years ago, with Granger in the lineup, the Pacers ranked seventh in defensive efficiency. Last year, with Stephenson in his place, they were the best in the league. That’s not all attributable to the Granger-Stephenson swap, of course — George cemented himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and Hibbert did the same in the post. But as much scoring punch as Granger can provide (and the Pacers need it; they were in the NBA’s bottom third offensively last season), he’ll have to adjust to a team that has continued to evolve away from his greatest strength.
He’ll also have to acknowledge that if this team belongs to any one player, right now it’s Paul George. Yet Granger insists that Indiana’s offense, which doesn’t ask any perimeter player to dominate possessions, will allow for George and him to complement each other. Says an Eastern Conference scout: “We know he and George can play together. That’s not an issue at all.” Adds George: “When Danny’s out there, it frees everybody up. The whole court is just bigger. I have more room, George [Hill] has more room — everybody.”
All this talk of readjusting assumes one thing: Someday — possibly soon — Granger will be healthy. He insists that his knee feels good, that he’s back to his old self. Yet his health issues stem from tendinosis — a degenerative condition that can be managed but that tends to linger. When asked what to expect from Granger, the scout is noncommittal. “You’re asking me to give an opinion on a guy who no one has really seen in, what, almost two years?” he says, though at this point, it has only been about 17 months. “He could be an All-Star again,” the scout says. “He could be done. I end up sticking my foot in my mouth, whatever I say.” But if Granger is healthy, the scout sees him readjusting with no problem. “When they got David West they took on this physical identity,” he says, “and Granger can fit with that. He doesn’t change their identity at all.”
The scout continues: “If he comes all the way back — if he’s anything close to All-Star level again, then I put them back in the conference finals with Miami. Even with Brooklyn adding everybody they added, even with Chicago getting Rose back — Indiana’s better. And once they get to the conference finals, maybe it’s different this time.”
Again, Granger knows that his spot on the team is tenuous. Bird has scoffed at the suggestion that the Pacers would trade him, and Vogel has said that he’d like Granger to work his way back into the starting lineup, but Granger knows that his value comes from both his play and his contract. “If I get traded,” says Granger, “then I’ll go, I’ll thank Indiana for everything, I’ll keep rooting for all my guys here, keep cheering them on, and I’ll go play for another team.” But, he says, “If we can see this thing out — I mean, this is the last year of my contract, so you know, if we can see it through — we can really do something. Honestly, we’re probably the most talented group in the NBA. I mean, we’ve got eight starters. Not a lot of teams have that type of talent.”
Opening night in Indianapolis. An hour before tipoff, Granger is everywhere. His name is stitched into the jerseys that hang highest in the team’s store. Same goes for many of the jerseys that stream into the arena on fans’ backs. He is on the JumboTron, plugging an upcoming Demi Lovato concert. And then he’s back on the JumboTron, mean-mugging for a video to hype the crowd. And again he’s on the JumboTron, dancing to “Gangnam Style” on one side of the screen, singing Jay Z and Justin Timberlake’s “Holy Grail” on the other. While injured, it seems, Granger became the domain of both Indiana’s training staff and its marketing department.
But in the Pacers’ locker room, a Louis Vuitton garment bag hangs from Granger’s locker. Right now the room belongs to Lance Stephenson, who’s rapping along to Jay Z’s “Can I Live.” The room belongs to Orlando Johnson, who sits on a foam roller half-watching Magic-Pelicans film, and it belongs to first-round pick Solomon Hill, whom the others address only as “Rook.” And it definitely belongs to George, who gives an NBA TV cameraman a tour of the place — “We call this ‘the hood,'” he says, pointing to the corner of the room he shares with Hibbert.
On the other side of the wall that divides the locker room from the training room, there’s Granger in his warm-ups, deep-lunging his way up and down the hallway. He’s not playing tonight — and according to the Pacers, he won’t be playing for the next three weeks — while he nurses a strained calf. Granger insists that this has nothing to do with his knee, but the Pacers have grown accustomed to seeing suit bags in the locker of their onetime leading scorer. In Atlanta, when Hibbert was asked how Granger would readjust to the team, he shrugged and said: “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen him — I mean, not in a serious game — in basically more than a year. He’s not playing right now, so I don’t know what to say about him. But last year we went about our business with the group that we had. So I’m just not too worried about that whole situation right now.”
Minutes later the players take the court and the lights go dim and the fireworks and the screaming begins. Since it’s the opener, the PA announcer begins by introducing every member of the team, including the reserves. The crowd claps for Rasual Butler and lets out a few cheers for Chris Copeland, and both of the new acquisitions high-five teammates and nod to the fans. Just before getting to the night’s starters, the noise rises toward a crescendo as the PA announcer yells, “A forward … out of New Mexico … Danny Granger!”
The fans scream. The players clap. Eyes go toward the JumboTron, which shows an image not of Granger, but of Hibbert looking around and then, finally, shrugging his shoulders. In a moment, his team’s title chase will begin, but for now, Granger is nowhere to be found.
This article was updated to reflect that Yale does not offer athletic scholarships; it offers financial-aid packages instead.