When news broke this morning that Indiana's Danny Granger would miss the next three months — at least — after getting an injection from Dr. James Andrews for his aching left patellar tendon, Grantland's Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons couldn't resist barraging each other with e-mails. Here's what transpired.
Lowe: You were pretty down on Indiana when we talked before the season, even speculating they might be a lottery team if things were to go poorly.
Simmons: Yeah, I mentioned this during our preseason podcast and you nearly went into convulsions.
Lowe: I think I said I'd bet "huge sums of money" on them to make the playoffs, yes. I'd probably edit that down to "small sums of money" given Granger's injury.
Look: Indy had pretty pristine health last season, and basic probability laws said they were due for at least a small turn in luck this season. They've now had a big turn in luck, especially if Granger misses 40-50 games. Their offense has been a disaster through three games; they lead the league in turnover rate, they have almost no pick-and-roll game other than the occasional (and effective) David West slip, Paul George hasn't quite looked up to being a no. 1 guy and the overhauled bench is still a mess.
Simmons: And they don't have Larry Bird's godlike aura hovering around anymore to pick them up spiritually.
Lowe: Meanwhile, the Knicks have looked great. The Nets can score. Philly is a mess, and their best player (Andrew Bynum) is hurt. The Raptors, assuming a quick comeback for Kyle Lowry, are dangerous and fun. The Bucks and Hawks are feisty. The Bulls are still defending like hell. That makes 10 solid Eastern Conference teams.
Simmons: Everyone in Cleveland is wounded that you didn't mention the Cavs after that electric — repeat: ELECTRIC! — Irving/Waiters backcourt performance against the Clippers on Monday night. But keep going.
Lowe: That backcourt is fun, but Waiters will go through ups and downs, and the team just isn't deep enough in quality guys. Is Indiana in trouble? And if they are, what do they do?
Simmons: I thought Indiana was in trouble before the season, when Granger mentioned his knee wasn't getting better and did the whole "it is what it is" routine. Always a bad omen. The Pacers overachieved last year for two reasons — they had an unusually deep team, and they were blessed by a shortened season that favored deep teams. They also caught Miami at the absolute perfect time, in Round 2 right when Bosh went down and it briefly looked like the Heat might be imploding — I mean, remember when they were up 2-1 and we were making jokes about ABC getting stuck with a Pacers-Spurs Finals????
Lowe: I honestly thought they were a better than 50/50 shot to make the Finals at that point. Ian Thomsen at SI had picked them to make the Finals before the season, and I was ready to basically turn my life decisions over to him before Game 4.
Simmons: That seems like it happened about five years ago. But beyond Granger's injury, I didn't like their offseason: downgrading from Collison to D.J. Augustin (haven't we seen enough of a sample size from old D.J. at this point?), rolling the dice with Gerald Green, paying Ian Mahinmi to be their backup center in a conference where Miami has made the center position irrelevant, giving Roy Hibbert a max deal (even if they didn't have a choice, he's still Roy Hibbert) it just seemed like they were heading in the wrong direction.
Lowe: The Collison/Mahinmi exchange looks even worse now. Our buddy Hollinger hammered them immediately for it, since the Pacers had cap space to sign Mahinmi outright during a brief window before the Hibbert and George Hill contracts kicked in. Something obviously happened there — either Indiana felt like it wasn't going to be able to get the Mahinmi signing done quickly in straight-up free agency, or they knew another signing (Gerald Green) was coming down the pike and Herb Simon essentially forced them to dump an extra salary slot (Dahntay Jones) to make that happen.
Simmons: It was a genuinely perplexing move. Plus, Collison always produced whenever someone gave him big minutes, as any fantasy hoops junkie would tell you. Whenever he was splitting time with someone, he never looked as comfortable. We know Indiana felt George Hill was a better starting option, so maybe they believed Collison would suffer getting just 20-25 minutes a night. Either way, he always seemed like someone who couldn't find the right team. Now? He might have the right team.
Lowe: Yeah, Collison looks like a different guy under Rick Carlisle's mind control. He's being more aggressive, especially in transition, and he's thrown a couple of passes in the half court that made me rewind the DVR and make sure it was him. Really good stuff. The Pacers knew they were losing some speed/creativity when they lost him, but perhaps they thought (a) Augustin could replicate 75 percent of it; (b) Green would help in that regard; (c) it might not matter, given the way they play through their bigs.
Simmons: I'm beginning to think Carlisle should be in the running for the 2016 Olympics coach. He beat LeBron and Wade for the title; he's keeping the Mavs alive right now without Dirk; he's saved the careers of Collison and O.J. Mayo; he's made Jae Crowder a household name; he's turned Eddy Curry into a double-double guy — OK, fine, he couldn't do that last one. But everything else happened.
Lowe: Carlisle is clearly one of the half-dozen best coaches in the league, and he's in the conversation — maybe at the top of it — for the no. 2 spot behind Pop. Anyway, back to that Collison deal: Mahinmi is a useful player who can guard both big-man positions — a must for Indy after the Hansbrough/Lou Amundson front line was such a disaster — but he still has trouble just catching the ball on offense. D. J. Augustin is "meh."
Simmons: And really, what's your ultimate upside when guys like Mahinmi, Augustin, Gerald Green and Tyler Hansbrough are prominently involved in your nine-man rotation? This isn't the same team, and that's before Granger went down. Anyway, you mentioned on Twitter today that Indiana's pick-and-roll game has basically fallen apart without Collison and Granger — can you elaborate?
Lowe: It was never their bread-and-butter because they had such a potent post-up game. A lot of their pick-and-roll game was basically David West just cutting down the middle and catching a pass from Hill; there wasn't much aggressive dribble penetration. But there was some, especially when Collison came into the game. About 10 percent of Indy's possessions ended with a pick-and-roll ball handler finishing the play last season, and another 9 percent were isolations, per Synergy Sports. Those numbers are both way down this season, and the Pacers can't make a shot or hold on to the ball out of those play types — at least so far. They are also ice-cold on spot-up jumpers, many of which come via the pick-and-roll. Basically, the downgrade from Granger/Collison to Green/Augustin has robbed them of a lot of individual creativity. Can they adjust?
Simmons: Quick aside because we're both Celtics fans: During those two seasons when Gerald Green was running around like a chicken with his head cut off in Boston, did you ever imagine that, just five years later, he'd be holding the fate of a possible playoff contender in his hands? I've never seen anyone with less of a clue on a basketball court, and that's coming from someone who watched the immortal Kedrick Brown and Vin Baker during games when he may or may not have been a little sauced. This Gerald Green thing is AMAZING to me.
Lowe: It's a great story, assuming it continues. There are moments when you still see the old Gerald — a bad mid-range jumper, or a confused missed assignment on defense. But he's just a much more polished player, and good on him for putting in the work.
Simmons: Let's flip this glass of water around for Pacers fans from half-empty to half-full for a moment. For them to survive this Granger injury, Green would have to become an "instant offense" guy (conceivable — incredible, but conceivable), West would have to step it up offensively (it's been almost two years since his ACL injury, so this is also conceivable), and Paul George would have to blossom into a big-time player (very, very conceivable — it's already kind of happening).
Lowe: The leap from no. 3/no. 4 option to "big-time player" is just huge for a 22-year-old. I am not convinced George is ready to make it on offense right now. The Pacers very rarely ran him out there as the no. 1 guy on bench units last season, and both his numbers and their general scoring numbers have fallen off a cliff whenever George plays without Granger, according to NBA.com's stats database.
Simmons: So it's like Harden without Durant and Westbrook, only the exact opposite.
Lowe: So far, sure. Without Granger, we're seeing the usage/efficiency tradeoff so far this season and George taking on more of a burden. He's scoring more in raw terms, but he's shooting 40 percent, barely getting to the line and turning the ball over like Kendrick Perkins. But he's rebounding like hell and he'll always be a good defender. If the Pacers are going to stick around the middle of a 10-deep playoff race, it will be because of their defense.
Simmons: They'd also need a little mini–Ewing Theory magic here, which brings us to a fairly interesting topic. Was Danny Granger overrated? We keep remembering the fantasy hoops stud from 2009, but that guy was long gone. Check this out
2009: 25.8 PPG, 45% FG, 6.9 FTA, 40% 3FG, 21.8 PER, 29.6% Usage Rate.
2011: 20.5 PPG, 42.5% FG, 5.9 FTA, 39% 3FG, 17.8 PER, 26,7% Usage Rate.
2012: 18.7 PPG, 41.6% FG, 4.7 FTA, 38% 3FG, 18.6 PER, 25.9% Usage Rate.
Maybe that wasn't a Gilbert Arenas–like free fall, but it's a pretty subtle shift to "franchise scorer" from "good starter" over the course of just three years. He went from being a genuinely efficient offensive player to someone who wasn't as efficient and wasn't getting to the line nearly as much. And keep in mind — last year was only his seventh NBA season. (Granger and Green were drafted one spot apart, as crazy as that seems now.) Usually guys peak around Year 7, right? I thought Granger was overrated the past two years, so imagine how overrated a Playing Hurt Danny Granger would have been. And also, what if Granger's play slipped because his knee had been bothering him that whole time? Is there a chance we've seen the best of him?
Lowe: The Pacers say Granger has tendinosis, which is essentially a more serious version of the common problem tendinitis — that's what Donald Rose told me. Rose is an orthopedic surgeon, knee specialist and professor at NYU who has treated athletes of all kinds, including NBA players; he worked for the Sixers in the 1980s and has some fantastic Charles Barkley stories.
Anyway, Rose says tendinosis is indicative of a more chronic degenerative issue in the patellar tendon of Granger's left knee. Rose thinks the "injection" the Pacers say James Andrews administered was likely a platelet-rich plasma injection. (He knows Andrews but is unfamiliar with the particulars of Granger's case.) The alternative would have been a more invasive surgery to remove the damaged part of the tendon, but that carries a longer recovery time, Rose says — four to six months. The injection route helps some athletes by easing the healing process, but Rose says there is no guarantee it helps at all.
Simmons: Yikes. So long-term, this probably isn't great regardless of how it turns out. Short-term, I was never crazy about Granger as their lead crunch-time option, anyway — wouldn't you much rather go to David West, or even Hibbert against the right matchups? And don't you want to find out if Paul George has the elusive "It" factor or not? Granger's injury might give the Pacers a chance to reinvent their team for the better, right?
Lowe: Well, I'm sure the Pacers understood that even in his prime, it was never going to be ideal for Granger to be the undisputed top guy. They have compensated by sort of having three co–no. 1s in Hibbert, West and Granger, and Granger's "alpha dog" stats — points, free throws, etc. — have dropped accordingly. But he shot pretty efficiently after a horrific first month last season, and I think he could thrive as a secondary guy who mixes in better spot-up looks with the rest of his game. And he's a very solid defender. I'm not sure he was ever really overrated, at least among folks paying close attention.
Simmons: He's also getting paid big bucks — $13 million this season, $14 million next season — which creates a perception that he's a little better than he actually is, then a subsequent backlash to that perception that actually becomes too big of a backlash. Or as it's known in academic circles, "Joe Johnsonitis." I'd say he was overrated by casual fans and properly rated by anyone who diligently follows this stuff. Although even as a member of the latter group, I still think he was a little overrated. Wait, my head hurts.
Lowe: Well, he's going to be properly rated once the Pacers start giving his minutes to Green, Sam Young and Lance Stephenson. I still think Indy is a solid playoff team, but one that might have to battle to avoid the no. 7 or no. 8 seed and a bad first-round matchup. Let's hear it, Bill: Are they a lottery team now in your view?
Simmons: Working backward, I have Miami, Boston, New York and Atlanta as absolute locks. I think Chicago makes it because of their defense and because Tom Thibodeau is an absolute psychopath of a coach. (And I mean that in the most endearing way possible. That team only knows one speed: balls to the wall. I just can't see Thibs letting them become a lottery team.) The Sixers are the big hit-or-miss team for me — if they can't get 55-60 games from Bynum, they won't get to .500 and we can cross them off. So that means we either have two or three spots available for the Nets (haven't knocked my socks off, but at least we know they'll score 100 every night), Raptors (mildly intriguing, seems like they have one more big Colangelo-needs-to-save-his-job/win-now trade looming with Calderon's expiring contract), Bucks (possible 43-win semi-sleeper if Jennings remains in Eff You for Not Giving Me an Extension mode) and Pacers. Logic says it's between Toronto, Milwaukee and Indiana for that eighth spot. So I have two predictions:
1. The Raptors could steal that spot with an ambitious trade like, say, "Calderon's expiring contract plus lottery pick Terrence Ross to Memphis for Rudy Gay." Remember, Oklahoma City gets their no. 1 pick if it falls between no. 4 and no. 14 this year (via Houston, thanks to the Lowry trade), so if anything, it's in Toronto's best interest to make the playoffs because they also get to keep their 2013 no. 1 pick. I see them overpaying for one more quality player in January/February if they're close to sneaking in.
2. Regardless of what happens, the Heat are going to be delighted with their first-round opponent.
Here's what I really want to know, Zach: What would Nate Silver say about Indiana's playoff chances?
Lowe: He'd probably say something smarter than anything being said here, that's for sure. The geekery around the NBA will now project Indiana as not a sure bet to win the Central but also a probable lower-rung playoff team. And I trust the geekery, just as we all should have trusted Nate Silver.
Of course, that's not interesting. What would be interesting is if they underperformed and started contemplating the selling of assets — West's expiring deal and maybe even Granger's deal. But that's a long way away.
Simmons: It's almost like you're deliberately provoking me to spend the next five hours on the Trade Machine. Last point: Even if Granger had slipped a little, the one thing I always liked about him was his toughness. He carried himself like a badass and wasn't afraid to stare down the likes of Garnett, Pierce, LeBron and Wade, or even goad them into one of those annoying, double-technical "somebody hold me back!" fake fights that drive us crazy. Throw in David West (one of the NBA's elite you-don't-mess-with-him-under-any-circumstances guys) and Tyler Hansbrough (nickname: Psycho T) and the Pacers always made you feel like they were ready to battle whomever. Maybe the Pacers can replace most of Granger's numbers, but losing one of their most fearless players is a much tougher haul. They have a different identity than they did six months ago — and not in a good way.
Lowe: The numbers/production decline is a far more serious issue to me than the toughness decline. They'll be tough as long as West is around, and Granger should be back and ready for the playoffs — assuming they get there. But the Pacers rose from "nice little team" to "really intriguing playoff threat" last season when their offense caught up to their defense. Maintaining that balance without Granger is going to be very hard.
Simmons: We can agree on this much — Larry Bird is driving around in some golf cart right now thinking, I picked the right year to retire.