The Indiana Pacers have solidified themselves as a top-notch Eastern Conference team through gritty defense and the continued emergence of Paul George.
If they successfully execute one major adjustment before the playoffs, they could potentially find themselves ousting the star-studded Miami Heat come this spring.
What's the featured adjustment the Pacers must make prior to then?
It's simple: They must re-integrate Danny Granger, who will likely return this week, into their rotation.
Granger, their leading scorer the past five seasons, has yet to play a game this season. Interestingly, there are mixed feelings about his return. Yes, he's familiar with his teammates and Indiana's style of play, but things have mightily changed since Granger was last in uniform.
In his absence, George has become the alpha dog of this ballclub and there are thus concerns if Granger can adjust to playing "Robin" to George's "Batman." There have even been some trade speculation involving Granger, but it doesn't appear that anything will develop before Thursday's trade deadline.
Quite frankly, trading Granger would be a foolish maneuver. For one, his value is currently low because he's coming off an injury, and secondly, the Pacers are in dire need of offensive production. While they rank No. 1 in points allowed per game (just 89.9), they are 28th in points scored per game (92.2).
The chart below illustrates how their offensive output has taken a hit without Granger.
If their stingy defense can remain while their offense receives a welcomed boost in Granger, then the Pacers are building momentum nicely for a deep playoff push.
The challenge here is establishing a lesser role for Granger than what he's used to. Will he willingly accept a backseat to George and become more of a sidekick? Is he content to average 13-15 points per game (rather than 18-20 PPG) while supplying suffocating defense?
If Granger is unwilling to decrease his shot attempts and defer to George more (as well as Roy Hibbert and David West), then Granger's presence could end up hurting Indiana's chemistry more than helping. He could introduce discontinuity into their flow and disrupt the confidence that George, in particular, has accumulated in 2012-13.
The reality, though, is that it's unlikely things unfold like this for the Pacers, in which Granger hurts their overall performance. Coach Frank Vogel has done a wondrous job in his tenure, giving fans every reason to believe he can iron out this issue and enable Granger to thrive in a newfound role.
Truthfully, if Indiana properly makes this adjustment, Granger should become a more efficient small forward than what he has been. In previous seasons, Granger has been too trigger-happy, often pulling up for mid-range jumpers in transition and hoisting long range balls whenever he sees merely an inch of space.
He should remain aggressive offensively, because the Pacers are in need of scoring, but he should also focus on taking higher percentage shots. This discipline will not only enable his field-goal percentage (just 41.6 percent in 2011-12) and overall efficiency to rise, it will also create more opportunities for George and others to showcase their scoring abilities.
Specifically, Granger's adapted role should feature less isolations and more of him spacing the floor for their bigs as well as penetrations by George. He should also seek more opportunities to score off cuts to the basket, where he can catch and utilize his step back jumper or get to the foul line after a pump fake. This is where Granger excels.
Furthermore, if Granger learns to embrace a lighter load offensively, he will free himself to be more effective defensively. The Pacers are already superb without him on the defensive end, but his long arms and ability to guard multiple positions will only vault Indiana going forward.
Overall, this is a simple adjustment to identify, but it is a profound one to implement. Chemistry issues don't always get resolved as teams would like. Granger, a former superstar, might not be content at the age of 29 to accept a diminished role while handing the reins to George, now an All-Star. Granger may not publicly voice this, but he may just continue to play as he always has.
But, this is not what the Pacers need.
The Pacers must orchestrate their offense in a manner in which Granger has to adjust his game. This new-look Granger must willingly recognize that he's now just another member of a potent Indiana lineup, rather than the lead dog whose back the team jumps on.
If Vogel, Granger and the Pacers can quickly make this adjustment in the season's second half, they don't just become a team who could win a series or two in the playoffs. They become a team who could potentially reach the NBA Finals.