Danny Granger and the What-If Machine: This Picture is Worth a Thousand Words #7

In case this is your first time here or you forgot because it’s been years since I’ve put one of these out, here’s the concept of This Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: I find an interesting picture from the history of the Indiana Pacers whether from their ABA glory or the more modern era and then take the cliché literally and write at least 1,000 words inspired by the photo.

In the past in this column, I’ve covered the five stages grief of Knicks fans captured in a single moment against Reggie Miller, that game the Pacers played with only six active players the day after the infamous brawl, and a few other things. You can see all the past columns here. Let the word count begin:

Today, we talk about Pacers legend Danny Granger and the iconic picture—taken by Robert Duyos of the Sun Sentinel—of him towering over LeBron James like he’s Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston.

Over eight and a half seasons with the Pacers, Granger played through three distinct eras in the history of the franchise: first as a rookie in the tail end of the first Indiana stint for Rick Carlisle in the post-Reggie Miller season, then as a shining beacon of hope during the Jim O’Brien reconstruction era, and finally as the team leader during the beginning of the journey back to contention with Frank Vogel.

I was a little surprised which era the photo in question actually falls under. I had always just assumed with the intensity of the moment that it was within the first of three straight playoff series where the Pacers faced off against the LeBron Miami Heat 10 years ago in 2012. But as many times as I’ve seen this picture, I couldn’t remember this exact moment happening even though there were plenty of dust ups between Granger and just about everyone that played for Miami that initial series. So, I decided to do some digging by first gathering as much information from the image itself as I could:

  • The obvious: it’s a road game at Miami.
  • Timeframe possibilities: Granger and LeBron’s time with their pictured franchises overlapped from 2010-2014 but Granger played only five games in 2012-13 and was traded at the deadline after playing 29 games for the Pacers in 2013-14 and didn’t play against the Heat in either season. So that leaves us with just two seasons to scour 2010-11 and 2011-12.
  • The key evidence: zooming into the back of the photo you can see the score and time remaining in the quarter. The Heat were leading the Pacers 19-16 with 1:11 remaining in the first quarter.

Examining the crowd in the photo also made it feel less likely to be in that initial playoff series with many empty seats and no whiteout attire for the home fans. Still, I checked the play-by-play data for each of those three road games in the 2012 second-round matchups first but none of those games had the score at that particular time remaining eliminating what I had always incorrectly assumed about the image. Working my way backwards from there, I finally found the exact moment this iconic photo was from: a beginning of the year regular season game on November 22, 2010.

It was the first time LeBron James played against the Indiana Pacers while a member of the Miami Heat. The picture was taken after a foul committed by Mike Dunleavy Jr. who left James on his back and Granger hovering over him likely already sick of his flopping in Miami less than one quarter into that tenure. The Pacers won this initial matchup 93-77 behind big performances from Brandon Rush, Granger, and T.J. Ford.

At this point in the season, Jim O’Brien was still the head coach. A rookie Paul George was still miserably planted to the bench as his favorite part of the season hadn’t yet occurred. This was the very end of the mostly brutal JOB era that saw the Pacers miss the playoffs every season that ended with him still at the helm.

It’s fitting that out of this seemingly meaningless first encounter against the LeBron, Wade, and Bosh trio compared to so many in a storied era of the Pacers as underdogs challenging the Heat and an inconsequential foul (I could find no video context of the moment, indicating that it wasn’t much of a big deal at the time, no kerfuffles between the teams as far as I can tell) would come a moment that sums up this time in Pacers history so well.

You have Granger representing the Pacers not bowing down to King James. You have James on the ground baffled that he’s being challenged in the Eastern Conference at all after combining forces with two of his best friends thinking it would lead to not 1, not 2, etc. This picture perfectly encapsulates the “smash-mouth” basketball that Vogel instilled into the group once he took over. The Pacers were a physical team and they made their opponents earn every inch under Vogel. Except, at the time of this image, O’Brien still had two months before Larry Bird would finally pull the plug and before Vogel would put his imprint on the roster and lead them to the playoffs that season as the 8th-seed against the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.

The Pacers would face off against the Heat the next season in the conference semi-finals and offer up their first challenge to the eventual champs going up 2-1 after winning Game 3. Granger got into the faces of James and Wade on numerous occasions throughout the series including multiple moments with James throwing his elbow up after a Granger foul. Much ado about nothing for the most part but once again it fits the picture from a year and a half prior.

Granger struggled offensively in the series as he made just 37.7% of his shots and averaged just 13.4 points. He suffered a sprained ankle in a pivotal Game 5 as James stepped under him on a deep 3-point attempt and missed half the game. He came back for Game 6 but the Heat prevailed to win their third straight and moved on to the next round.

Unfortunately for the Pacers, this was the last season they would have a healthy Danny Granger leading the way. Granger became one of two of the biggest what ifs in franchise history. A quick rundown of what ifs in Pacers history in sequential order:

  • What if the Pacers were financially stable enough to draft Larry Bird in 1978?
  • What if the Pacers didn’t trade their 1984 first-round pick to the Blazers, who took Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan with the pick, for a single season of journeyman center Tom Owens?
  • What if the Pacers didn’t take a scrawny kid from California in 1987 at 11th overall in Reggie Miller? Would they even still exist?
  • What if the Pacers won that jump ball in Game 7 late against the Chicago Bulls?
  • What if the refs didn’t give Larry Johnson that bogus 4-point play in 1999 conference finals?
  • What if Jonathan Bender’s knees allowed him to reach his full potential?
  • What if Reggie dunked the ball against the Pistons in 2004?
  • What if that cup missed Ron Artest instead of hitting him square in the chest on the night of the Malice in the Palace? What if Ben Wallace didn’t play that night while still mourning his brother’s death? What if Jamaal Tinsley didn’t tell Artest to go get his foul with the game in hand? What if Carlisle emptied his bench and took out the starters to finish off that early season game?
  • What if Josh McRoberts didn’t ruin the perfect shooting quarter by taking and missing that 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter against the Nuggets? (This happened less than two weeks before the Granger towering over James picture.)
  • What if they didn’t trade for George Hill but instead kept the pick and took Kawhi Leonard?
  • What if Danny Granger had been healthy for just one or two more seasons before his knees gave out?
  • What if Vogel didn’t take Roy Hibbert out of the game for the final possessions in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals?
  • What if the Pacers didn’t trade Granger for Evan Turner and pickup Andrew Bynum and wreck Hibbert’s confidence?
  • What if the stanchion at a USA basketball scrimmage was placed at a safe distance away from the baseline and Paul George never breaks his leg?
  • What if they correctly called the goaltend against LeBron James on Victor Oladipo’s drive in Game 5 of the first round?
  • What if Victor Oladipo (and then seemingly the entire rest of the team for multiple seasons) never got hurt?

So, maybe I got a little carried away there. The Pacers, a team without an NBA championship, has come closer than it seems to reaching that pinnacle many times which makes it easy to get lost in the what ifs that may have changed the fate of just one of those teams. Some more than others of course. For Granger, his loss affected the franchise in that fashion multiple times.

The Pacers ascended to new heights as a group in that first season without Granger as George took advantage of his increased role to blossom into a star and took the Heat to the brink of elimination before getting blown out in Game 7 of the conference finals. It’s not hard to see how a healthy Granger could have pushed that group that struggled with depth over the hump but there’s also no telling whether George reaches his potential as quickly as he did without being forced into being the lead option.

To a lesser extent, Lance Stephenson was also able to step up and fill a hole in the Pacers lineup without Granger. Initially the team struggled to find a 5th starter in 2012-13. They looked at free-agent acquisition Gerald Green to be that guy first and started the first three games of the season but he couldn’t play good enough defense to fit in the Pacers scheme and struggled to hit shots. Sam Young was given the next opportunity with four straight starts and was adequate defensively but a complete negative on the other end. Finally, they turned to their rarely used second-round pick from the same 2010 draft as George in Stephenson but if Granger was healthy, there may have never been a chance for him to play consistent minutes and eventually become the Fieldhouse cult hero that’s had three separate, yet all memorable tenures with the team now.

The trade for Evan Turner, however, is really where the Granger loss stings the most. There were no positive developments from this trade other than enjoying the personality of Lavoy Allen for a couple seasons. David West told the IndyStar this a few years ago about how he felt the 2013-14 was affected by that trade.

“That was the death-knell,” West said. “When we did that for Danny, I just sort of in my gut, I knew we weren’t going to be able to get by the Heat. Even though it was in February, I knew we’d be able to get through the first two rounds, but without Danny, without OJ (Orlando Johnson was waived as part of the Granger trade), without Roy being mentally confident, I knew we weren’t going to have enough to get by them.”

George, who has always been quick to air his prior grievances since leaving Indiana, has mentioned the Granger trade as one of his first frustrations with the franchise, especially the fact that they sent him to the Sixers, who at the time were in full blown Process tanking mode. The Sixers bought him out and he went to play for the Clippers for the remainder of that season.

Evan Turner just never fit on the court or in the locker room. His numbers were inflated with a huge usage rate on a bad Sixers team, Stephenson saw him as a threat, he couldn’t keep up in the hard-nosed defensive system, and it simply didn’t work.

Once Granger came back from his battle with tendinosis, he shot just 35.9% in 29 games before being traded and was out of the league completely after the following season. While Granger clearly didn’t have it on the court anymore, he still could have offered so much to the team as a locker room leader and as George’s mentor. Defensively, he could still have held his own as a role player and the Pacers needed all the help they could get in terms of their bench in this series. But we’ll never know if that would have been enough to get the Pacers through all the things that were going wrong in the back half of that Struggle season.

Granger’s personal peak came in the 2008-09 season when he had one of the best individual seasons in Pacers history: averaging 25.8 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 40.4% from deep, being named the Most Improved Player, and making his lone All-Star appearance in the league. Granger became the first player to up his scoring average by at least five points per game in each of his first four seasons.

Granger was a gazelle on the court with the purest of jump shots and ability to play on both ends. He was clutch. Multiple game winners during the O’Brien era came from Granger’s sweet shooting stroke. Daydreaming about adding prime Granger to any of the Pacers teams in the last decade—especially the last few seasons that have been supremely short on large wings—has become a personal hobby of mine. In the 2005 Draft, many mocks had him slotted to go within the top-5 picks but he fell to the Pacers all the way down at 17 due to concerns about his knee and quickly became one of the best picks and players in the team’s NBA history. Turns out his knee was fine for the first seven years of his career and then it was an unfortunate steep decline in health.

Granger will always be remembered fondly by Pacers fans who look at him staring down a constant thorn in Indiana’s side and can’t help but wonder “What if?”

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