The Indiana Pacers don't seem like a team facing a lot of big decisions. After all, they just finished up a terrific run that brought them to within a single game of the NBA Finals. And with tons of young, improving talent on board, there's no reason to expect anything less than a second straight season of title contention.
But it's precisely because the Pacers are so close to breaking through, that the little decisions have become big ones. Poised on the brink of greatness, the tiniest ripple effects from seemingly insignificant choices can make a world of difference.
So while deciding between Danny Granger and Lance Stephenson as the team's starting shooting guard might not seem important, it could wind up determining whether the Pacers are NBA champs or slated for another painful shortfall.
The Case for Starting Stephenson
The starting lineup that featured Stephenson last season is far from broken, so if we're taking the simplest approach, there's absolutely no reason to fix it.
In 2012-13, Indy's first unit—George Hill, Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert—played 1,218 minutes together. In that time, they accumulated a net rating of plus-12.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
That's a spectacular margin, and among units that came anywhere close to the number of minutes Indy's starters played, only the Oklahoma City Thunder starting five was any better.
It'd be easy to attribute the success of the Pacers starters to the presence of its more heralded stars, but Stephenson played a major role last season. He locked down opposing wing players, holding shooting guards to a PER of 12.4 and crushing small forwards (in an admittedly small sample of minutes) to a figure of just 4.7, according to 82games.com.
His energy, activity and aggressiveness were all important parts of the Pacers' dominance. Those attributes certainly wouldn't disappear if he came off the bench, but the point is that Indy knows how valuable they are in the first unit.
By comparison, the Pacers can't really be sure which version of Granger they'll get this season. Introducing a variable like that to a group that was so constantly good seems like an unnecessary risk.
If Granger suddenly reverts to the All-Star form he showed in 2009, the decision gets trickier. But at the same time, wouldn't it make more sense for the Pacers to preserve a highly useful Granger by monitoring his minutes off the bench?
For his part, Stephenson is playing things diplomatically. He told Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star: "I’m just coming in to play hard. Whatever coach (Frank Vogel) decides to do, I think it’s a great decision. Me coming off the bench, Danny coming off the bench, either way, we’re deep. Whatever helps the team, that’s what I want to do."
There's no reason Granger can't finish games for the Pacers if he doesn't start them. And if the team has to deal with some kind of minute restriction for its returning star, it makes much more sense to use him in high-leverage situations at the end of games, or at least when specific matchups make his size and shooting more important.
Even if Granger is somewhat limited when the season starts, it's difficult to argue that Stephenson is a better overall player. But this analysis isn't taking place in a vacuum; fit and chemistry matter just as much as objective skill.
Stephenson was part of one of the NBA's best five-man units last year. That shouldn't change this season.
The Case for Starting Granger
If we pretend that the tendonosis that robbed Granger of two prime seasons is a thing of the past, it's possible that the Pacers could actually improve the productivity of their already excellent starting five by including him in it.
And that's a compelling argument because we know that Indiana actually needs to get better in order to overtake the Miami Heat. Plus, the Chicago Bulls are welcoming back Derrick Rose and the Brooklyn Nets set fire to the salary cap by bringing in every able-bodied veteran to create some kind of playoff-eating Frankenstein monster.
Indy will have to take a step forward to deal with the new-and-improved beasts of the East.
So if Granger is healthy and capable of adding another star-quality scoring option to the starting five, head coach Frank Vogel might want to risk tossing him out there. Chemistry be damned.
On an individual basis, Granger is unquestionably a better outside shooter than Stephenson. He's a 38 percent shooter from long range for his career, which blows away Stephenson's overall average of just under 30 percent.
As Hibbert matures in the post and George becomes a more dominant driver in isolation, the extra spacing Granger could provide would be extremely valuable. In addition, he'd almost single-handedly prevent aggressive teams like the Heat from excessive double-teams in the post and on the strong side of the floor.
There were times last postseason when defenders basically ignored Stephenson in the corner so they could sag into the middle to help on Hibbert or George. That won't happen with Granger around, and if it does, he'll make them pay.
One of the best arguments for using Granger as a reserve was the Pacers' need for a "leader" on the second unit. Last season, Indy's bench was a joke. But now that Luis Scola and C.J. Watson are on the roster, the backups won't be quite so bad.
Scola, in particular, has the skills to captain the second unit as both a facilitator from the elbows and as a post-up option. The offense can run through him for 15-20 minutes per game if necessary, which means Granger doesn't have to be the captain of the reserves.
Plus, Stephenson's manic energy could work well off the bench. Good teams generally feature spark plugs that take the court by storm midway through the first quarter, and that seems like a viable role for the feisty Stephenson.
Finally, the Pacers might not talk about it publicly, but it makes sense to showcase Granger in the starting lineup for a possible trade during the season. By running him out there with the No. 1's, Indy would get a chance to say to the league, "Hey guys, check it out! Granger's healthy and ready to help you! Make us an offer!"
The truth is that Granger has no long-term future with Indiana, so if the Pacers want to avoid letting him walk for nothing next summer, featuring him in a high-profile, attention-grabbing position might be a good idea.
It has to be Stephenson, doesn't it?
Look, the Pacers don't need to take risks to improve their already excellent starting unit. We know it's awesome as it is. Maybe Granger would fit as well as Stephenson in the first five, but what if he balks at being the fourth option?
And remember, the whole goal of Indy's offseason was to rebuild its bench. Granger could team with Scola, Watson and Chris Copeland to create a seriously dangerous set of reserves—one capable of hanging with most teams' starters.
Ultimately, Granger can still finish games with the Pacers' first unit if he proves healthy enough. So it's not like coming off the bench is any sort of banishment.
Starting Stephenson preserves the Pacers' greatest strength, while using Granger off the pine bulks up a formerly weak bench.
Sounds like a title-winning move to me.
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