When Danny Granger returns to full strength, should he replace Lance Stephenson in the starting lineup or serve as sixth man?
And yet, here we are.
When Granger returns, either Wednesday or after the All-Star break, it will set in motion a domino effect on the Pacers’ roster, rotation – and ultimately the team’s prospects.
ONE OF SEASON’S BIGGEST SURPRISES
The first domino is Stephenson, whose importance to the team has been one of the surprises of the season. He is the locomotive that drives the transition offense, the one guy on the roster whose instinct is to pour coal in the burner and chug full speed toward the basket.
In the halfcourt game, he has become a legitimate late-clock option because of his ability to create something out of nothing – not always good, but at least something. He is the most creative passer on the team, although his hunger for the spectacular sometimes overwhelms the need for more basic ball movement.
Stephenson has played at the highest level of his career in the past couple of weeks, averaging 13.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and .507 shooting in the last seven games.
On a per-minute basis, he is the team’s individual leader in plus-minus (+6.8 per 48 minutes). The Pacers’ four best lineup combinations in that category have two common denominators: Stephenson and Paul George.
Beyond the numbers, Stephenson plays with an aggression, a passion, an edge that helps push the team through flat spots.
Simply put, the Pacers would not be 31-20 and one of the two or three teams in the East with a legitimate shot at the conference title without Stephenson.
Please note the choice of words in the original question: when Granger returns to full strength. That will take awhile.
EITHER WAY, BENCH WILL GET BOOST
Frank Vogel is debating the best way to deploy the man who has led the team in scoring the past five seasons. At first, Granger will be available only for limited minutes, and very likely will see a gradual progression to test both his conditioning and the thoroughness of his recovery from knee tendinosis.
But at some point in the next few weeks, Frank Vogel will have to make the decision. The nice thing is, it could very well make itself.
The team’s most consistent and significant weakness this season has been the second unit. Even for 12-15 minutes a game, Granger will be a major boost.
If Granger stabilizes the second unit and the Pacers continue to play well, would Vogel mess with success? Would Granger, already facing a secondary role given the emergence of Paul George, accept another perceived step away from the spotlight? Would Stephenson wilt as he felt Granger’s hot breath on his neck?
Chances are, this is the scenario that will play out: Granger will come off the bench for a couple of weeks, and will be back in the starting lineup shortly thereafter.
That would push Stephenson to the second unit, where he could thrive in more of a go-to role.
The very fact we aren’t sure makes the most important point: just how far Stephenson has come in a very short time.