Rocket-boosting Dragic trade haunting Suns
An imperfect storm of circumstance has dumped Goran Dragic in the direct path of a Phoenix Suns team attempting to paddle all the way to the NBA playoffs.
Dragic has become the unexpected leader of the Houston Rockets and the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week. The bitter irony will not be lost on Suns fans when these teams meet Friday night in Houston.
Two years ago, Dragic, who was drafted by the Suns in 2008, was looking very much like the heir apparent to point guard Steve Nash. The lefty from Slovenia had seized the minutes bestowed upon him by coach Alvin Gentry and had converted them into tangible numbers. His best evidence for a blistering Suns future was a 23-point fourth quarter in Game 3 of the 2010 playoffs against the Spurs, which allowed Phoenix to push San Antonio into an 0-3 series hole.
But instead of building upon that whirlwind glory, Dragic now digs in as the potential recipient of a 2012 free-agent bonanza from whatever point-guard-seeking franchise is willing to write the biggest check.
"He's probably made himself a lot of money in the last month," one NBA personnel executive said. "But we'll have to see if the bidders become prisoners of the moment or not."
Let's rewind to the summer of 2010. Dragic was 24 years old and zipping around the court for the Slovenian national team at the FIBA World Championships in Turkey. He averaged a modest 11.4 points and four assists during a 5-2 run that included losses to the United States and the host Turks.
With most of his offseason occupied by national-team requirements, Dragic had little time to work on aspects of his game that needed subtle upgrades. He shot a solid 39 percent from 3-point range during his previous season in Phoenix, but insufficient focus led to a mediocre 74 percent effort at the free-throw line.
His game also could have used an upgrade on going right, as well as greater emphasis on the change-of-speed lane attacks that allowed the slowly aging Nash to bisect opposing defenses without mercy.
But that didn't happen. Personal improvement had been sacrificed for the greater good of the Slovenian national team.
With Amar'e Stoudemire off to New York and some expensive emergency hires arriving in his wake, Dragic attempted to lead a new group of Suns second-unit teammates. The first few games of the 2010-11 campaign weren't exactly disasters for The Dragon, but as the season progressed, his performance began to look almost pedestrian. Through 48 games, Dragic was averaging 7.4 points and 3.1 assists while shooting 42 percent overall and a chilly 28 percent from deep.
The second unit was vexing a Suns team that was struggling to keep pace with the last dogs in the Western Conference playoff pack. Seeking some offensive gusto during the moments when Nash was resting, a revamped Suns front office that didn't draft Dragic traded him to Houston in exchange for zippy Aaron Brooks. Along with Dragic, Phoenix was obliged to surrender a first-round pick.
Brooks, unable to parlay a Most Improved Player award and top ranking in made 3-pointers into a satisfactory financial upgrade from the Rockets, pouted his way out of Houston. And he had some impressive scoring salvos in Phoenix, finishing with averages of 9.6 points and 4.2 assists in 25 games.
Brooks went into the pre-lockout offseason as a restricted free agent. During the lockout, he signed to play in China.
Dragic, meanwhile, went into the lockout as the solid-performing backup to Rockets starter Kyle Lowry, considered one of the rising, underrated point guards in the Western Conference. This continued after the lockout but was resoundingly altered when a bacterial infection sidelined Lowry on March 10.
An extended offseason of individual work was about to pay off like an over-ripe Vegas slot machine.
With Dragic in the starting lineup and top scorer Kevin Martin also in street clothes, the Rockets eventually clawed their way to an 11-6 record with Dragic running the offense. In those first 17 starts, he averaged 18.2 points, 8.7 assists, and only three turnovers. Dragic made 51.9 percent of his shots, including 44.2 percent from 3-point distance.
In contrast, Lowry had given a successful Houston team 15.9 points, 7.2 assists and 3.2 turnovers as starter while shooting 42 percent overall and 39 percent from beyond the arc.
Rockets fans now are debating which point guard should claim the starting role moving forward. They study plus-minus numbers, tricky-to-quantify defensive metrics and the caliber of available teammates in assessing win-loss records. To many, Dragic's opportunistic rise seems very much like an off-Broadway version of Linsanity. Jeremy Lin, it should be noted, was a numbers-crunch castaway in Houston and a numbers-producing phenom for a meteoric moment in New York.
Lowry, the guy they both were sitting behind, is under contract for two more seasons (at around $12 million total), while Dragic's recent star turn may be pricing him out of town.
In recent days, Dragic has told reporters "all the doors are open" in regard to future employment. He has stated his desire to remain in Houston but also assures anyone listening that he wants to be a starter.
"Who wouldn't?" the personnel executive said. "But he picked a great time to do what he's doing. You look at the productivity, and it's there. But you really have to be careful with these things. The Rockets really don't have a first option on offense with Martin down. And even with him out there, they may have less quote-unquote stars who need the ball than some team Dragic could sign with.
"With Houston's needs, Dragic has great freedom. But that can skew the numbers. People are using Lin as an example, and that's pretty accurate. With their two big stars not playing, (the Knicks) had nothing to lose by giving Lin the ball and allowing him to make all the plays. When everyone returned, things changed. Just like Lin, Dragic had to have enough ability to make those plays, but justifying — at least statistically — how much he's going to get paid really depends on who he's going to be playing with. He's good. I won't talk numbers, but will he be worth what someone pays him? That's why guys like me don't always sleep great."
So Houston's Year of the Dragon continues while the Suns have gotten nothing out of the deal this season as Brooks spent the early months of 2012 playing in China. Thanks to that lockout-avoidance tactic, the Suns eventually ended up with crusty Sebastian Telfair looking very much like a reasonable option as a stunt double for Nash.
By not bringing Brooks back for an April cameo, the Suns will move into the free-agent derby with the former Oregon Duck as a restricted free agent. Where he and they go from there depends on several events, not the least of which, of course, is the free-agent courtship of Nash.
In addition to his recent off-hand response to an inquiry about playing for the Miami Heat, Nash reportedly is coveted by the Portland Trail Blazers and New York Knicks.
Those teams also might be interested in Dragic. For now, he is much more concerned with battling his former mentor in the chase for playoff work.