A season of high hopes for the Indiana Pacers began with some bad news, as leading scorer Danny Granger was sidelined indefinitely just before the team's first game with a sore left knee. On Wednesday morning, the news went from bad to worse as the "indefinite" shelving was replaced by a more definitive timeline that could derail Indiana's hoped-for ascension to the No. 2 seed in a largely up-for-grabs Eastern Conference.
In a press release, the Pacers announced that Granger had received an injection "to treat left patellar tendinosis" on Tuesday, and that team medical personnel estimates the forward's recovery time at about three months. NBA fans might be more familiar with the layman's term for patellar tendinosis, "jumper's knee," perhaps most famously suffered by then-Toronto Raptors star Vince Carter during the 2000-01 season; he'd miss 66 games over the next three seasons.
Three months puts Granger in line for a return in the beginning of February; if it's three months from Tuesday on the dot, he'd be looking at coming back for Indy's Feb. 6, 2013, road matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers. According to the Pacers' schedule, that comeback would follow 45 missed games, in addition to the four he's already missed. After tiptoeing through the tulips as one of the NBA's healthiest, injury-luckiest, most stable teams a season ago, the Pacers will play without their leading scorer — who, while not necessarily an iron man, has missed just seven games over the past two campaigns — for more than 60 percent of this year. Not quite what general manager Kevin Pritchard, head coach Frank Vogel or Pacers fans had in mind, to be sure, and a loss that will make Indiana's path from now through February significantly more difficult to navigate.
While Granger is firmly entrenched in the minds of most NBA fans as a very good player who isn't quite a star, we tend to emphasize the latter notion while giving short shrift to the former. While his minutes and play have slid a bit since his All-Star peak, Granger's still been the unquestioned focal point of the Indiana offense for the past half-decade, averaging 21.6 points per game and a shade under 17 field-goal attempts per game over the last five seasons. He's still the go-to option on better than a quarter of Indiana's possessions, he still gets to the line more often than any other Pacer (save reserve forward Tyler Hansbrough), and he's still their no-questions-asked late-fourth-quarter scorer, finishing sixth in the NBA in points scored per 48 minutes of "clutch" game time, according to 82games.com.
He might not be a truly elite small forward, but he's the organizing principle of the Pacers' offensive attack, and his long-term absence means Vogel will have to find new tools of production; as both Tom Lewis of Indy Cornrows and Tim Donahue of 8 Points 9 Seconds note, expecting the reserve-swing combination of Lance Stephenson and Sam Young to do so seems like a very dicey proposition, especially given how Indy's offense has looked through four games.
One year after smoothly and consistently working their way to a top-10 offense built around George Hill and Darren Collison orchestrating off high screens, David West and Roy Hibbert facilitating in the high post, and Granger turning in his not-always-pretty-but-most-always-there 18 to 20 points a night, Indy's looked stuck in the mud in the early going. It ranks among the league's six worst teams in field-goal percentage (26th of 30), 3-point percentage (24th), Effective Field Goal percentage (27th), True Shooting percentage (25th) and average points scored per 100 possessions (28th).
An attack predicated on taking care of the ball has become the NBA's most turnover-prone — given Hill's early struggles and the new-team learning curve for D.J. Augustin, this looks like a team that could really use Collison right about now — and an offense bolstered by the league's third-most free-throw attempts has slid to the middle of the pack in trips to the charity stripe. Without Granger there to threaten defenses as a reliable long-range shooter (38.4 percent from deep for his career), Indy's having difficulty spacing the floor in the half-court, making it more difficult for their guards to drive and their bigs to routinely post, resulting in fewer looks at the rim (10th fewest up-close per-game attempts in the league) and a tougher time converting the ones they get, posting the NBA's fifth-worst field-goal percentage in the restricted area.
There hasn't been much smooth, consistent or successful about the Pacers' offense to date, and that should continue in Granger's injury-spurred absence, according to SB Nation's Mike Prada:
Last year, the Pacers scored nearly 109 points per 100 possessions with Granger in the game and just under 101 points per 100 possessions with him out of the contest, according to Basketball Value. To put it in slightly different terms, the Pacers were as good as the San Antonio Spurs offensively with Granger in last year and as bad as the Sacramento Kings with him on the bench.
[...] the Pacers plan so much of their offensive attack around Granger's ability to get shots up. The Pacers generally are a post-oriented team, but it's not always possible to get Roy Hibbert and David West the ball when teams are fronting them or devoting weakside help to shrink the floor. When those post-entry passes just aren't possible, it's a huge luxury to have a guy like Granger that can at least manufacture something.
That manufacturing job will now likely fall to third-year pro Paul George, a player who took a step forward last year and was already being counted on to take a much bigger leap this season. He's certainly taken on a larger offensive responsibility in the early going, trailing only West in shots taken through four games, but the results — drops in field-goal and 3-point percentage, as well as points scored per 36 minutes — have left something to be desired.
If nothing else, Granger's absence will give Vogel and Indiana's brass a three-month window into what life might be like with Paul George as the Pacers' primary offensive option on the wing; if the 22-year-old isn't up for the challenge, Indy might find itself not reaching for the East's second seed, but instead clawing to avoid falling all the way down to the bottom of the conference's playoff bracket before Valentine's Day.
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