If It’s Going to Happen, Goran Dragic Has To Be In the Middle of It

When Goran Dragic asked to be traded from the Phoenix Suns in February of 2015, he was facing free agency in a few months, normally a time of great optimism. But his Phoenix experience had stalled as there were too many guards (Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas). Dragic wasn’t sure where he wanted to go next but he was clear he wanted out of Phoenix where he felt undervalued.  He missed himself and yearned for the Dragic he remembered to return.

For the Heat, the Dragic trade was a no brainer since it gave them the inside track to sign him that summer. They needed a point guard and Dragic fit the bill. Pat Riley gave Dragic a five year deal worth $85 million when he still had Dwyane Wade on the team. Riles was basically cosigning a script where Dragic was going to be the starting point guard. At the time of the Dragic signing, the Heat still had Chris Bosh’s contract on the books so Pat Riley was carefuly threading the needle with Dragic’s salary knowing Wade still had to be paid.

When they were a tag team, Dragic often deferred to Wade and in many ways Dragic was repeating the same scenario he had in Phoenix with Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas that made him so miserable.  Dragic played as if he was always looking over his shoulder at Wade. It’s not a coincidence that when Wade left in 2016 Dragic had a career year: 20.3 points, 40% from three, 5.8 assists, 19.8 PER.  His usage rate spiked from 21.9% to 27.1%. Erik Spoelstra and company were all in on Dragic, even as the Heat missed out on the playoffs on the last day. They still had great optimism.

They still do.

The Heat are the surprise team in the East only because they don’t have an All-Star and their alpha dog look at me player, Dion Waiters, is done for the year. That leaves the offense in the hands of Goran Dragic. So far, so good. The Heat are a fourth seed and the way the Cavs are floundering the Heat may have a chance to jump up to a three seed, this while being surrounded in the east by All-Stars like John Wall and LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan. The Heat win games the old, old, old school way. Toughness, defense and Goran Dragic.

He was Eastern Conference Player of the Week. It was his second such honor this season, his fourth overall. Dragic followed in LeBron James footsteps. He was the last Heat player to win Player of the Week. For the particular week of January 8-14, Dragic averaged 23 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists and the Heat were undefeated. The Heat just recently had their seven game winning streak broken in Chicago. More importantly, Dragic is performing with feast or famine scorer Dion Waiters watching on the bench. Lacking selfishness, Dragic will concede his game to someone else. But when he has to give more, he just does.

The Slovenian was drafted by the Spurs in 2008 as a second rounder. In a non-Spurs move they let a European player get away. They traded Dragic to the Suns who saw him as the heir to Steve Nash. Dragic was quick, could play pick and role, had a nice jumpshot but his defense was going to keep him from being a top tier point guard. He had some great moments with the Suns, particularly when he played the Spurs in the playoffs and he was unstoppable in a 23 point fourth quarter, hitting all five threes he took. The Suns won that series but would lose to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

Dragic was traded to the Rockets and he won Western Conference Player of the Week but he was a sub for Kyle Lowry. He signed a free agent deal with the Suns in 2012. When Jeff Hornacek was hired as coach he had this “brilliant” idea of a three guard set with Dragic, IT, and Bledsoe. The only problem was Dragic was the one who was camped out at the three point line waiting to get the ball. His career had been as a playmaker. He tried to make it work but it was too frustrating and he asked to be traded.

Miami is the first time Dragic has control of his destiny. He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. A ten year veteran, he understands the expectation for his position. He has this year and next year and then a player option for $19 million. He has stability and is being trusted to run the Miami Heat team of undervalued players who give effort, trust each other and buy into the Eric Spoelstra program.

Dragic has a big opportunity in front of him, maintaining a top-4seed. The chances of being an All-Star are a longshot. There is John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal, DeMar DeRozan, Victor Oladipo in front of him at the guard spot. But at 31, the All-Star isn’t the thing. It’s the playoffs. It’s getting out the first round and Dragic leading this tough Heat group to a place no one ever imagined six months ago, the Eastern Conference Finals.

Goran Dragic never was that Steve Nash heir. But this may be better in the end. Being Goran Dragic. Without apologies.