And what it affirmed was this:
Whenever Danny Granger does return, whatever level he does manage to reach in his comeback from knee surgery, Stephenson should remain in the starting lineup.
Overshadowed by Paul George’s 24 points, six rebounds, five assists and three blocks, lost in the glare of the team’s home record of 18 blocked shots, was the most significant performance of the 97-87 season-opening win over Orlando Tuesday at BLF.
Stephenson played nearly 36 minutes, second only to George, and produced 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists. He made eight of 12 shots and committed just one turnover.
“Lance is one of our best players,” Coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s really showing what he can do. Five assists, one turnover, 8-for-12 shooting, it just reeks of efficiency. And he just gives us great energy and an edge out there. Very valuable to what we’re doing.”
So much so that there really shouldn’t be a debate about who starts or who comes off the bench, assuming Granger does make it all the way back.
From a basketball standpoint, Stephenson was a significant part of one of the NBA’s most effective starting units last season. He manages to play with anger, aggression and edge while staying under control.
We used to cringe when he had the ball in his hands chugging full-tilt toward the hoop. Now, we slide to the edge of our seats, especially when he’s in full locomotive mode on the fast break.
“Just being aggressive,” Stephenson said, “trying to make plays for my teammates and create for myself – just being aggressive and making smart plays.
“I know where my teammates are going to be. When I drive … I just pass it to a spot. I’m just trying to make plays when I’m running the fast break.”There is absolutely no need to even consider disrupting the chemistry and productivity of the first unit – especially when the bench is the perfect fit for Granger.
For one, it clearly is going to take time for Granger to rebuild his personal conditioning and timing. To try to do so while trying to mesh with an established group of starters would be exponentially disruptive to the team.
The second unit, quite clearly, is a work in progress. The new guys are going to need some time to get comfortable with each other and the scheme. Four of the six reserves that played Tuesday night did so for the first time in a Pacers uniform in the regular season.
And then there’s this: the glaring need for a perimeter shot-maker off the bench. We thought that role was going to be filled by Chris Copeland but his continued struggles defensively coupled with a major adjustment from New York’s spread offensive to the Pacers’ more traditional approach have pushed him to the bottom of the depth chart.
Orlando Johnson’s performance (nine points in 15 minutes) was encouraging but he doesn’t possess the ability to change a defense. Granger would give the Pacers that Ray Allen dimension off the bench.
There’s also a practical matter in play, the elephant in the room: Granger’s durability. He probably won’t be able to play in back-to-back games for a while. His minutes certainly will have to be closely monitored. That type of specialized usage is much better managed with the second unit than the first.
Ultimately, though, it boils down to this: Who has earned the job?
This isn’t about history, contract or ego.
This is about what is best for the Pacers.
And that’s why there is only one answer.