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Will Danny Granger's Return Make Indiana Pacers Legit Title Contenders?

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Will Danny Granger's Return Make Indiana Pacers Legit Title Contenders?
Michael Hickey-USA TODAY Sports
Danny Granger

Even without Danny Granger, the Indiana Pacers have managed to stay at or near the top of the NBA’s Central Division all season long.

And as his season debut creep nearer, many wonder whether his return will make the Indiana Pacers legit title contenders.

The team entered this season with high hopes after losing to the Miami Heat in the second round of last year’s NBA playoffs.

Some of the wind was taken out of the Pacers' sails, though, as during the preseason it was learned that Granger was battling a chronic knee issue. Granger managed to play just just two games in the preseason before the Pacers announced that he would be "out indefinitely." Since then, he has continued to experience continued soreness in his left knee. 

Since then, however, the Pacers have become one of the NBA’s stingier defensive teams and have been led by the meteoric rise of swingman Paul George. George has led the team to an improbable start and is poised to make his first appearance as an All-Star representing the Eastern Conference in Houston.

According to coach Frank Vogel, the hope for the Pacers is that Granger will return to the court sometime before All-Star weekend.

The real question is whether or not that would be a good thing for the team.

During last year’s lockout-shortened season, Granger started 62 games in which he played for the Pacers as a small forward and averaged a team-high 18.7 points per game.

George started alongside him as the team’s shooting guard. Together, with both of them starting, the Pacers were successful. During the 2011-12 season, the club put together two separate win streaks of at least six games en route to a 42-24 season.

In the playoffs, the Pacers defeated the Orlando Magic in the first round and advanced to the second round for the first time since 2005.

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Paul George

Naturally, as Granger’s debut draws nearer and George has because an All-Star, the question as to whether or not Granger’s return will solidify the Pacers' place amongst the conference-elite can’t be avoid.

And the answer to that question lies in how Frank Vogel and his staff incorporate Granger into the team the Pacers have become.

For Vogel, Granger can probably best help the Pacers as a reserve.

The New York Knicks faced a very similar situation with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Forced to play the first two months without Stoudemire, coach Mike Woodson made Anthony the team’s starting power forward. The Knicks just so happened to begin the season by going 18-6.

It was the third best 24 game start in franchise history.

Now, with George’s emergence and the Pacers battling the Chicago Bulls for supremacy in the NBA’s Central division, Vogel and his staff are facing a very similar situation with Granger.

Without him, the 6'9" George has become one of the more productive small forwards in the league, and it has become clear that he was playing out of position as a shooting guard.

It’s also difficult to argue that the team is better off with George as the full-time starter. As a team, the Pacers are playing a much slower pace than last year, indicated by the team’s 92 points per game this year, as opposed to the 97.7 points per game it scored last year.

However, defensively, the Pacers have improved. Entering play on Feb. 5, the Pacers ranked second in the league in opponent points per game (89.9). That’s a marked improvement from last year’s 94.4 points per game.

Last year, the Pacers opponents shot just 43.5 percent against them. However, entering play on Feb. 5, the Pacers are holding opponents to a league-best 42 percent from the field.

A team that was already good defensively has become even better.

USA TODAY Sports
Lance Stephenson

What Granger’s injury has also done for the Pacers was allow Vogel to insert third-year shooting guard Lance Stephenson into the starting lineup. Stephenson is turning in career-high numbers across the board.

If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.

At 29 years old and battling a chronic knee issue, Granger is probably best suited coming off of the Pacers bench and allowing the pair of 23-year-old third-year players in George and Stephenson continue to start.

Granger does not have the reputation of being a strong defender and is probably most renowned for his ability to score and shoot from beyond the arc. The best way to entwine his skill set with the team the Pacers have become is to allow him to spell both George and power forward David West.

As a “stretch 4,” Granger could effectively play off of George, so long as he continues to connect on his three-point looks at or near his 38.4 percent career mark.

As a small forward, Granger could excel with Vogel’s second unit, looking for his offense first and foremost. For the Pacers, the move would help two-fold.

First, Granger would not be forced to play anywhere near the 35 to 37 minutes he would play as a starter, and secondly, the game would probably be easier for him since he would be playing against other second-string players.

Entering play on Feb. 5, the Pacers bench ranked No. 28 in the league, scoring just 25.8 points per game. That’s something that Granger would absolutely help.

Typically, in pro sports, players don’t take kindly to “losing” their starting job due to injuries, however, in some rare occasions, those tough decisions need to be made.

Vogel has managed to galvanize his team behind Granger’s injury, and in Granger’s absence the Pacers have become a blue-collar team that might not be able to consistently score 100 points, but does not need to in order to win.

Along with the Chicago Bulls, the Pacers are a gritty team who have the athletic defenders on the perimeter and shot blocking at the rim to the point they can effectively defend both the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks. Through play on Feb. 5, the Pacers are a combined 3-1 against the top two teams in the conference.

What really needs to be fortified is the team’s bench scoring.

Michael Hickey-USA TODAY Sports
Danny Granger

If that’s the role that’s given to Granger, if he accepts it and flourishes, then the Pacers could legitimately enter the conversation as being one of the true sleepers in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

As we continue to count down the days toward the Feb. 21 trading deadline, Granger’s name will continue to come up in trade rumors.

It would probably behoove the Pacers to take time, however.

If handled correctly, Granger’s return could help push the Pacers from being a mere surprising overachiever to a team with a legitimate shot at scoring an upset or two come playoff time.

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