PHOENIX – As well-meaning league observers begin punching the Suns’ third consecutive ticket to the NBA draft lottery, local watchdogs continue sniffing for revival signs.
One enormously popular touchstone (appropriately so) has been identified by the Michael Beasley X-Factor Crowd. We’re also pretty fond of the Luis Scola Low-Post Option Coalition and the Wesley Johnson’s Fresh Start Alliance.
But let’s admit what should seem obvious – the first post-Steve Nash Suns squad will rise to relative heights or plummet to forecasted lows based largely on the performance of returning point guard Goran Dragic.
Dragic, who should benefit by already registering as quite popular (remember that 2010 uprising in San Antonio) with legions of for-life Nash fans, welcomes the responsibility.
“I’ll do whatever it takes,” the 26-year-old Slovian lefty said during a chat prior to Friday’s 88-72 preseason-benediction victory over the Denver Nuggets. “I’ll do whatever the coaches need for us to be successful.”
In the last dress rehearsal before the Halloween-Night home opener with Golden State, Dragic knocked in 13 points and delivered six dimes working against Suns killer Ty Lawson. Beasley, who made 8 of 11 shots in an 18-point first half, ended the night with 29 and 10 rebounds.
For the record, these practice tilts don’t mean much once the real games begin, but knocking down the Nuggets in October seems pretty welcome. In their previous three exhibition dates with coach George Karl’s crew, the Suns were 0-3, losing by an average score of 127-97. Lawson was the ringleader for most of this unofficial carnage, including a 144-106 pasting two years ago. On Friday, he produced two points and three assists in 23 minutes.
Things are different now, right?
How different – relative to the two playoff-free seasons that marked the end of the Nash Dynasty – may be up to how much Dragic can approximate last season’s home stretch in Houston.
Through the first six games in a 4-3 preseason run, The Dragon gave the Suns an average of 8.5 points (on 51-percent shooting) and 6 dimes on a rationed 20 minutes per game.
What Phoenix is seeking is something close to the 18 and 8 Goran provided for the Rockets when an illness to Kyle Lowry coaxed Dragic into a timely, pre-free-agency eruption.
So what’s the ceiling? With elite-caliber point guards zipping all over the league, does eventual All-Star even seem like a reasonable goal?
“That’s my wish,” Dragic said. “That’s what I’m capable of doing. I demonstrated that in the last 30 games in Houston.”
Posting big numbers across the analytics landscape is pretty important for a point guard in today’s NBA. And although Dragic is reluctant to claim the position as the sport’s most important (“I’ve always been a point guard, so I don’t have the experience to judge the other positions.”), he does acknowledge that it’s way up there.
“The point guard is like the right hand for the coach,” he said. “Everything starts with the point guard. You have to be the leader. You have to call all the plays, start the offense, find open teammates and stop penetration on defense.”
Yeah, it certainly seems like an extremely busy gig. With 82 games of constant movement, NBA point guard isn’t something you just show up and perform. It requires considerable mental and physical preparation. For Dragic, whose training regimen went semi-viral (if that’s even possible), the really gritty stuff begins in August.
After a month of incorporating recreational sports to keep the body percolating, Dragic heads to Los Angeles for workouts at the beach.
But instead of flinging himself into a few waves, Dragic begins each morning with two hours of sand-based resistance exercises. This series of core-strengthening planks, plank-incorporated lifts and explosive movements should, in theory, help the Suns point guard buzz at a brisk pace.
“I’ve been doing this since I was a rookie,” Dragic, whose daily two hours of on-court work co-stars Dallas Mavericks guard Darren Collison.
Well, we know he’s physically ready for the grind, and that his level of play may define where the Suns finish in the Western Conference marathon. What we’re required to wait for is how equipped his teammates are for a playoff push.
Before they smacked a Nuggets team competing without Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari, Dragic voiced some concerns about where the Suns were on the learning curve.
“We still have to work on spacing,” he said when asked about how a team with eight other offseason additions is assimilating the new Corner offense and particular elements of coach Alvin Gentry’s established system. “It’s a different structure because we have so many new players. We’re having too many players inside the 3-point line and taking away driving lanes and lanes for cutting. But it takes time.
“What we can be right away is a better defensive team. We have a lot of younger players now with speed and energy. We have no excuse for not being a good defensive team.”
The built-in national excuse for not remaining (at least) competitive is the 38-year-old guy now wearing an L.A. Lakers uniform.