Midway through the third quarter of January 10th's nationally televised handcuffing of the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers forward Paul George jumped a passing lane near the top of the key, intercepted a pass, and with an effortless indifference, slammed the basketball through the rim.
Knicks head coach Mike Woodson responded with a quick time-out and shake of his head. Moments before TNT went to a commercial break, color commentator (and the greatest Pacer in franchise history) Reggie Miller declared George as the new face of Indiana’s franchise.
As there are only 30 teams and only one face can be “the face” at a given time, passing-of-the-torch declarations like Miller’s are special. The Indiana Pacers have unofficially been Danny Granger’s team since 2008, when he first led them in scoring and seemed to be the type of player that could help change the franchise’s cracked image.
Now, six years later, at an age that was supposed to be his prime (29 years old) Granger’s spot as the franchise’s best/most important player has been usurped by George.
George is their leading scorer, shot-taker, three-point shooter, and a top-two defender. He’s second on the team in assists, third in rebounds, and first in steals, filling in for Granger at the small forward position while he recovers from knee surgery.
When Granger returns, the Pacers—the NBA’s best defensive team and a possible championship contender—have two options regarding how they can deal with him: 1) Gradually work to insert him back in the starting lineup as the team’s small forward, shifting George down to the backcourt and pushing Lance Stephenson (one of the league’s most pleasant surprises) to the bench, or 2) Have Granger embrace a new role by coming off the bench and embodying the burst of offensive energy Indiana desperately needs.
George is playing like an All-Star, and All-Stars shouldn’t have their position or role changed in the middle of a season. In the 14 games where his usage percentage has been at least 25.8%, the Pacers are 11-3..
Only three 22 year olds in NBA history grabbed at least 7.6 rebounds per game while scoring at least 16.9 points per game while shooting over 37.3% from behind the three-point line: Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, and Chris Webber. Paul George would be the fourth if he can keep his numbers where they are.
When you throw 1.7 steals per game into the mix, out of every player in league history, only five have hit all those averages for a complete season (Larry Bird four times, Shawn Marion twice, Greg Ballard, Fat Lever, and Webber). Not bad company for George to join if he’s capable of maintaining his numbers.
It’s a situation incredibly similar to what went on in New York with Amar’e Stoudemire. While he was hurt, the Knicks thrived by shifting Carmelo Anthony (the face of their franchise) to power forward and surrounding him with shooters. Since returning, Stoudemire has come off the bench in all seven games he’s played, and there’s no reason to believe this isn’t a permanent transition.
Why is bringing Granger off the bench a good idea? Well, offensively the Pacers die just about every time their reserves enter the game. The likes of Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, and Ian Mahinmi haven’t played well this year, and none are anywhere near talented enough to carry a team’s scoring load for an extended period of time.
Stephenson and Green combine to average 48.7 minutes per game, which in an ideal world is too much. Having Granger come in off the bench to bite a chunk off both their playing time would be a perfect solution. And having him out there for the 12 minutes George is on the bench should severely limit the team’s overall offensive woes.
The Pacers badly need help on offense. And how they use Granger upon his arrival could be the difference between another second round exit and a serious shot at the NBA championship.
Michael Pina is a writer for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network and ScoreBig.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelVPina