“Addition by subtraction” is a term used a lot in sports, typically to explain the less-is-more results when a name player is traded or lost to free agency, yet his former team does just fine or maybe even thrives in his absence.
Few teams better exemplified that than the Denver Nuggets after Carmelo Anthony forced his way to New York in February 2011; without their scoring star, the Nuggets fired back to go 95-53 (.642) over the next two seasons, their ensemble style tapping into basketball as art.
The Toronto Raptors are a terrific example of that right now, winning nine of 12 games since they traded leading scorer and obligatory first option, forward Rudy Gay, to Sacramento in December. Since Gay played his last game for the Raptors on Dec. 6, they are 9-3, beating Oklahoma City on the road, sweeping pairs of games from the Bulls and the Knicks, toppling the Indiana Pacers Wednesday at Air Canada Centre and rising to the top of the Atlantic Division.
A less obvious case, though, is happening in Indiana. Technically, the Pacers’ version might have to be labeled “addition by subtraction, plus addition” or maybe “addition by intermission,” since that effectively is what losing – and then regaining – Danny Granger appears to have meant to them.
Since Granger began his 2013-14 regular season on the Friday before Christmas, 25 games into Indiana’s schedule, the team’s second unit has been transformed, particularly in the second quarter. Here is a chart showing the Pacers’ drop in production from the first quarter to the second, basically when the starting lineup yields to substitutions (h/t to Tim Donahue):
Now here are the same categories with Granger coming off the bench the past half dozen games. Get a load of the turnaround in Net Rating from a minus-10.3 (with rounding) to a plus-17.3:
Granger, thus far, has come off the bench in all six appearances and, while working with about 22 minutes nightly, has logged more minutes (49) in the second quarter than any other, nearly 40 percent of his total.
Coach Frank Vogel and teammates raved about the veteran forward’s impact after just one game, the 33-point blowout of Houston in which Granger made only one of his seven field-goal attempts. But Vogel liked Granger’s size and presence on defense, he drew opponents’ attention at the other end and generally allowed what already had been a well-oiled machine to purr even more smoothly.
Granger himself – 8.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, 33.3 percent shooting (and 7 of 20 from the arc) – isn’t where he wants to be yet. As he told the Indianapolis Star last week: “Just [getting] some consistency, that’s the hardest thing about any NBA season. Even when you’re healthy, it’s maintaining a consistent level of play throughout the whole season. You always have ups and downs, guys go through slumps, guys get hot. I’d just like to see a level of consistency.”
No surprise that’s still missing. Granger was gone a long time, essentially from the end of the Pacers’ 2012 playoff run until two weeks ago. He tried rest and rehab for his bum left knee, played five frustrating games last season, then shut it down for surgery and a fresh start. This fall, a calf strain pushed his return back another two months.
Meanwhile, an odd thing was happening with the Pacers. While there were certain nights on which they missed their one-time All-Star forward, his shooting range and his familiarity in late-game situations, they didn’t sag overall. Indiana went 45-31 in the games Granger missed last season, then pushed all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Miami. Paul George‘s game took a giant step up to All-Star stature. Lance Stephenson emerged, developing from mercurial bench guy to irrepressible starter at shooting guard.
Even as recently as November, as folks projected Granger’s return, there was too much talk about restoring him to his “rightful” spot in the starting lineup and not nearly enough about the ain’t-broke, don’t-fix evolution of the Pacers in their current permutation.
There was, there is, no need to serve Granger’s ego by overhauling the rotation. Vogel can adjust game by game, dialing up more Granger and less someone else based on matchups and scoreboard.
“I think our starting unit is where it’s going to be,” George said after Granger’s debut two weeks ago, “and I think our bench unit – if the playoffs were to start [now], I think this is what our rotations would be. … I’m loving what I see.”
None of this happens, perhaps, without Granger getting – and largely, staying – hurt. If he had been in and out of the lineup last season, even in sub-par form, maybe George doesn’t embrace the responsibilities thrust on him by Vogel and the task at hand. Maybe Stephenson chafes in reserve or tries to do too much when he does get court time. Maybe bosses Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh don’t upgrade the bench quite as much, getting Luis Scola and C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. And so on.
But by experiencing and more-than-surviving a large enough taste of life without Granger – 76 games last season, 25 more this season – the Pacers were able to redefine, realign and reinvent themselves. Granger, who will turn 31 in April, has nothing to prove individually at this point – other than how smartly he can blend his talents into what Indiana already has rolling. None of his teammates has to apologize for their minutes or enhanced roles.
The Pacers are different but better than they were before Granger’s injuries, a rarity of the sort teams such as the Lakers (Kobe Bryant) and the Bulls (Derrick Rose) can only dream. All thanks to addition by intermission.