There’s this hidden secret in the NBA keeping itself from the casual fan–that each team is led by a single player. A team doesn’t give a player this “Alpha Dog” title, it comes naturally, most commonly because that specific player is simply more talented than the rest of his teammates. Some teams never come to this realization or accept it, but some do. And when it happens, they are often more successful on the court than than those that don’t.
When Danny Granger eventually returns to the Indiana Pacers from a left-knee injury, this scenario will unfold once again.
The Pacers have been Granger’s team for a while now. While not possessing superstar-level ability, he’s been the most talented player on the roster. That has changed this season. Granger’s injury has propelled Paul George on to the scene and he has proven that he is a budding star.
Granger’s breakout season came in his fourth year, where he posted a career-high 21.88 Player Efficiency Rating. He was 26-years-old during that season. George, coming off his first All-Star appearance last weekend, currently has a 17.61 PER mark at the ripe age of 22.
The numbers can’t summarize the whole story here, as they never will, but the two player’s skill sets suggest George is more capable of carrying the larger offensive load as well. George separates himself from Granger by being able to handle the ball; executing the pick-and-roll with David West, splitting double-teams when they appear during on-ball screens, and finishing at the rim after drives better than Granger ever could.
“I’m gonna’ do what I have to do to make sure that when Danny gets back in the fold, it goes as smoothly as possible,” West told USA TODAY Sports. “Danny’s our guy and we’re going to play through him.”
In the recent past, when Indiana’s offense ran through Granger, it featured numerous 18 to 20 foot isolations for him and setting on-ball screens that usually ended with a long, two-point jumper from number 33. Both actions are among the simplest to defend for NBA teams.
Without Granger this season, head coach Frank Vogel has injected much more creativity into the Pacers’ offensive play-calling. While they can still become infatuated with locating Roy Hibbert for inefficient post-up opportunities at times, the Pacers have had much more off-ball movement and screening, playing to the shooting strengths of George and point guard George Hill, while allowing Granger’s de facto replacement, Lance Stephenson, to catch passes heading towards the basket. Also, having Hill and George operate out of pick-and-rolls with West has resulted in much more ball movement, a must for just about every offense.
Don’t get me wrong, Granger makes the Pacers a better team. That’s obvious. But for them to improve their 21st-ranked offense in terms of offensive efficiency, they’ll need Granger to take a back seat to George, and even West, by using less of the possessions that he grew accustom to pre-injury. In fact, I believe Granger can truly thrive in this role. Playing off George and West, spacing the floor (career 38.4 percent three-point shooter), and using screens off the ball to get open looks should reduce the amount of poor shots he was taking in previous offenses for the Pacers.
I’d argue Granger is now the Pacers’ third-best player and I believe that would’ve been the case without the absence that the knee injury has caused. I can’t recall the last time an NBA team had any kind of success “playing through” their third-best guy, either.
If Indiana were to make a deep playoff run and serve as the Eastern Conference’s leading candidate to knock the Miami Heat from their throne, Granger must accept this new role.
Brandon Curry is an NBA columnist for Rant Sports. Follow Brandon on Twitter @ByBrandonCurry