With the best record in the NBA, the Indiana Pacers are making a case for being the best team in the Eastern Conference. The rotation has the potential to get even better, according to ESPN.com, with word of forward Danny Granger returning to practice this week. It might be some time before he realistically returns to the court, but should the Pacers use him off the bench?
Indiana secured an 8-0 record with a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on November 11, continuing their dominant play on both ends of the court. The Pacers have arguably the best defense in the league, holding opponents to a league-low 84.5 points per game. It's unlikely inserting Granger back into the rotation would have a major effect on this, but offensively he'd have the potential to create issues.
Paul George has emerged as a conceivable top-10 player this season, putting up 24.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists, all the while shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from three-point range. George has established himself as the unquestionable leader of the franchise, despite Granger holding that title in the past.
Granger hasn't played since March 3, playing in just five games last season.
Although Granger's absence has given George the space he's needed to develop, it's difficult to predict how they'll mesh in the lineup. The last time the duo was on the court simultaneously, George wasn't the star he is now, which creates a rotational problem given their roles.
To make a comparison, we have to look at Granger's statistical output from the 2011-12 season. He played in 62 of the 66 regular season games in the lockout-shortened season, averaging 18.7 points per game.
Courtesy of NBA.com, 42.7 percent of Granger's scoring came unassisted two seasons ago. He relied on his teammates for 57.3 percent of his points, with a whopping 95.1 percent of his three-point field goals coming on assists.
George is holding his own offensively by scoring 50.7 percent of his points on his own this season. His teammates are finding him on the perimeter, as 81 percent of his three-point makes are assisted. It's a testament to the consistency of the Pacers' offensive system, as Granger and George have similar outputs as the primary scorers.
What we can take from this is that it would be damaging to the team for both Granger and George to be counted on as major contributors at the same time. Both are scorers and neither possess the ball-handling or passing abilities needed to be consistent distributors. Granger's career assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.01 and George's 1.31 average are both indicative of how both struggle to pass with efficiency.
Granger has never averaged more than 2.8 assists in a season, making it almost certain he has the inability to distribute well. The Pacers certainly don't want George passing the ball more, even though he has solid ball-handling, as his scoring is too valuable to disrupt. In short, having two score-first players side-by-side does not work.
Other teams, such as the Miami Heat or the Oklahoma City Thunder, have shown that it is possible on rare occasions; however their star players are also hailed as being versatile scorers and passers simultaneously. It doesn't always go to plan, however, as seen in cases with the Milwaukee Bucks (Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis last season) or the New York Knicks (Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire).
Lance Stephenson is one of the multi-talented players for the Pacers who can manage to score and distribute effectively. His 14.4 points and 4.9 assists per game are impressive thus far, with a 2.00 assist-to-turnover ratio that keeps the Indiana offense going. Stephenson dropped his first career triple-double against the Grizzlies on November 11, with a 13-point, 11-rebound and 12-assist night.
He turned the ball over just once: Memphis guard Tony Allen stole a bad pass three minutes into the game. Aside from that, Stephenson's night was flawless and helped Indiana continue their winning streak.
When Granger returns, Stephenson must remain the starting guard and the former All-Star comes off the bench. His versatility is a major boost for the Pacers, while Granger's one-dimensional offense will clog the flow of the team offense. Stephenson would work very well as a sixth man, but the team chemistry is at an all-time high, and messing with it could disrupt what Indiana has going.
In addition to this, the Pacers are a relatively young team.
Roy Hibbert will turn 27 in December, making him the oldest of Indiana's "Big Three" of George, Stephenson and himself. Granger is a veteran player, who turned 30 in August, and will have missed 104 games up to this point. While it will obviously take time to get back into form, it goes away from the nice balance of youth and experience the Pacers have with veterans George Hill, David West and the aforementioned trio.
Hill is just 27 years old and in his sixth year in the league, but his tutelage under San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in his first three years makes up for it. He's a well-developed guard and makes good decisions on the court (just 1.2 turnovers per game for his career), giving him the air of a veteran player.
Granger would work well as a backup for George, or even as a stretch forward when David West is subbed out of the game. His outside shooting would allow Indiana to play their own version of "small-ball", creating matchup problems while Roy Hibbert's defense (4.4 blocks per game) would eliminate any defensive woes.
As aforesaid, Granger has been out for more than six months. The Pacers have accomplished more without him, mostly due to the brilliance of George and Hibbert, thus his return cannot be a high-priority situation and must be a path that is tread lightly. He ultimately deserves a semi-major role with the team, due to his scoring and and good one-on-one defense; however, Granger should accept a reserve role for the better of the team.