Will Danny Granger's Return Push Indiana Pacers over the Hump?

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Will Danny Granger's Return Push Indiana Pacers over the Hump?
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Indiana Pacers are on nearly equal footing with the Miami Heat, and Danny Granger's impending return could provide the extra push necessary to finally shoot past the two-time defending champs.

Per a team press release, Granger will suit up for the first time this season when the Pacers host the Houston Rockets on Dec. 20:

 

What's He Got Left?

On a personal level, returning is a huge positive for Granger. The former star has fought through myriad injuries over the past two seasons, and it's always great to see persistence pay off.

What Granger will actually bring to his team might be more of a mixed bag, though.

We have to go back pretty far to get a large enough sample of Granger's production to draw conclusions about his value. But the journey through time is worth it to find out that during the 2011-12 season—the last time Granger played consistently—he was remarkably effective.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Per NBA.com, the Pacers scored 106.4 points per 100 possessions with Granger on the floor that year. When he sat, Indy managed just 98.1. On the other end, his impact was similarly positive. The Pacers' defensive rating was 99.2 with Granger in the lineup, but it jumped to 102.6 when he was on the bench.

Those are big numbers. In fact, they're downright surprising. Granger wasn't a particularly efficient offensive player that year, nor has he ever been. He made just 41.6 percent of his field-goal attempts in 2011-12, leading to a scoring average of 18.7 points on more than 15 shots per game.

Stephen Curry he wasn't.

And defensively, Granger has long been viewed as capable, but never elite.

At any rate, Indiana was a whole lot better with him on the floor when he was healthy in the past. So that's a good starting point to address what he'll bring to his team in the present.

Before anybody gets too enthusiastic about adding a former All-Star to an already dangerous mix in Indy, let's keep in mind that Granger simply isn't the player he once was. He played five games last year and has seen his scoring average and field-goal percentage decline every year since 2008-09. Truth be told, we don't really know what Granger has left.

In addition, there's no way to know how he'll fit with this version of the Pacers.

Remember, when Granger was last a relevant part of Indiana's rotation, the team was vastly different.

 

Familiar and Foreign

Michael Hickey-USA TODAY Sports

Now, the defense is a finely tuned machine with a wrecking-ball big man in the middle. Roy Hibbert was on the roster when Granger was the Pacers' focal point, but he hadn't yet turned himself into the league's most dominant defender.

In some ways, Hibbert's improvement will help Granger. Knowing there's a shot-stuffing eraser behind him will help ease any pressure he'll feel as a perimeter defender. At the same time, if Granger can't play with the kind of athleticism and precision necessary to execute Indiana's exacting schemes, he might do more harm than good.

More broadly, Granger will have to navigate the difficult transition from leading man to supporting player. Now, with Paul George and David West acting as primary scoring threats, he'll be no better than the third option when playing with the first unit. This could be a problem for Granger, who has never been much of a facilitator.

In his last full season, he averaged just 1.8 assists per game.

For what it's worth, George isn't concerned about the questions surrounding Granger's fit, as Scott Agness of Pacers.com reported:

Realistically, Indiana's past and present won't intersect all that often. Granger is likely to spend most of his time with the second unit, meaning he'll have to adjust to playing with guys like Luis Scola and C.J. Watson more than George.

In that capacity, Granger has real value. Scola is currently the de facto leader of the reserves, and the big man's crafty interior game could mesh well with with Granger's perimeter-oriented skills.

Right now, the Pacers aren't totally sure what they'll be getting from their new (old) addition. This is very much a wait-and-see situation, but it's one that could wind up making a world of difference in their season.

 

The Only Obstacle That Matters

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The key here is that Granger doesn't have to make the Pacers better in all facets of the game. He doesn't have to improve their overall play against every opponent for the rest of the season.

All he has to do is give Indiana a tiny boost against the Heat.

The Pacers are going nowhere this year unless they can get through Miami. They know it, I know it and you know it.

Based on his recent comments, even Granger knows that his present impact doesn't matter as much as what he'll be able to do down the stretch.

He doesn't mention the Heat by name, but the implication is there. Everyone on Indiana's roster knows that there's just one team they need to beat this season.

Perhaps Granger will give the Pacers another big, rangy body to throw at LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Maybe he'll produce a clutch bucket with the second unit that ends up swinging a playoff game. Who knows?

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The point is that the Pacers are incredibly close to being on the same level as the Heat, and if Granger can give them that last tiny nudge, his return could mean everything.

Grant Hill, a former star with plenty if injury experience himself, sees Granger the same way.

He told Agness: "It’s a luxury in some respects that he’s not forced to come back and be necessarily the Danny Granger of old, who carried the team and had to score 25 points a game. At this point in time, he’s icing on the cake."

The Pacers are right there. They took Miami to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals and played them dead even in a game that could have gone either way on Dec. 18.

If Granger provides the tiniest, most miniscule boost, that might be all Indiana needs.

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