Goran Dragic needs help; Suns' lack of deals an NBA trend

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PHOENIX – Goran Dragic is by no means a finished product. Though it’s hard to judge him because defenses can easily key on him to stop the Phoenix Suns, there’s room for growth as a floor general and the talent to make the the point guard’s future bright.

Under Lindsey Hunter, Dragic’s numbers have improved dramatically. He’s recorded double-digit assists four games in a row, but on Sunday against the Spurs, he struggled to score, hitting 3-of-14 shots. Once San Antonio took away the pick-and-roll that gave him six first-quarter assists, the game changed in the Spurs’ favor.

Dragic finished with five turnovers, often trying to do a little too much.

“He’s getting better and better, he’s learning,” Hunter said. “He’s putting up unbelievable numbers, learning to mix his game. And I would never take his aggression away because that’s who he is, that makes him. I think he’ll continue to get better and better. The better he gets, the better we get.”

Lacking other scorers, the offensive burden is stuck on Dragic’s shoulders. Marcin Gortat and he have been working on the pick-and-roll game, and it showed against San Antonio. But even then, there wasn’t enough play off of that pick-and-roll. Both Dragic and Jared Dudley said after the game that the lack of second and third options hurt the Suns, just as the presence of those options helped San Antonio distribute the points across a roster mostly full of role players.

There’s also not the talent to expect better execution to change Phoenix’s offensive woes.

The Suns have averaged 92.6 points over the 16-game tenure of Hunter, which only betters season averages of Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington. According to the NBA.com Stats tool, the Suns were 24th in offensive ratings under Alvin Gentry by scoring 99.6 points per 100 possessions, but from Jan. 18 until now have fallen to dead last in the league over that span with a rating of 96.

Going back to the talent-deficient roster, Dragic leads the Suns in the total number of clutch shots made, which of course is a decently sound way to check out who can score when defenses tighten toward the end of games. The Suns point guard is only toward the end of the top-75 of NBA players in clutch ratings for the most shots made (12) in the last five minutes of games with differentials of five points or less.

Following him in clutch field goals made and in the top-100 in the league on the Suns are Shannon Brown’s 11 and P.J. Tucker’s nine. The latter is a testament to Tucker shooting high percentages, say, off offensive rebounds.

Suns’ smartly trend with others at trade deadline but roster a clutter

The trade deadline came and went without much hoopla. Hardly any, really. J.J. Redick stole the show in a trade to the Bucks where the major money piece going the other way was 30-year-old backup point guard Beno Udrih. Young prospects that had gone sour on the Milwaukee bench went to the rebuilding Orlando Magic – Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb – and no picks were involved at all.

That relatively major deal – and even the Rudy Gay trade earlier – pretty much said it all about the change in the NBA landscape following the new CBA, which CBS Sports’ Ken Berger wrote about in depth here.

The main points:

  • Teams fear the luxury tax threshold more than ever.
  • With so many teams fearing the luxury tax, it’s tougher to dump bad contracts because now every team is trying to dump bad contracts. Cleveland once was OK with getting Luke Walton’s contract dumped on them, but as the deadline approached they couldn’t even shed better utility players like Omri Casspi and Daniel Gibson.
  • Draft picks are more important than ever. Even a great role player like J.J. Redick or Jared Dudley won’t be traded in exchange for an equal contract and a pick.
  • Though max contracts will be dealt out to players that could be undeserving like Josh Smith, there is still enough salary cap space to make players such as Smith easily justified in asking for the max – call a guy like Brandon Jennings the cut-off point.

As David Aldridge points out in his column on Monday, the trade action dropped dramatically in the past few years.

“The proof of teams’ collective caution is in the pudding: according to STATS LLC, 45 players were traded in the week of the trading deadline in 2010, and 49 players were dealt in 2011. But in each of the last two years, that number has dropped to just 27 players being traded. And this year, six of those players were moved in one deal …”

So this explains why Smith and the Utah duo of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap stayed put, and it also is telling of why a player like Marcin Gortat or Dudley didn’t get shipped off in a more minor deal like the Redick one.

Phoenix was stuck in the same rut as everyone else.

Needing nothing more than to seek out assets, the Suns did their job before the trade deadline. Phoenix grabbed former No. 14 overall pick Marcus Morris in exchange for a second round pick.

Furthermore, the Suns weren’t going to use Sebastian Telfair, and they ultimately turned his contract into Hamed Haddadi’s while getting back a late pick.

The only thing that is potentially bad, and I use “potentially” with emphasis, is that despite Morris’ value as a trade piece, the Suns actually hurt their cap space in essentially dropping Luke Zeller’s contract worth less than a half-million dollars in exchange for Morris’ nearly $2 million base salary (Telfair and Haddadi’s salaries are close to even). That $1.5 million difference shouldn’t matter too much since the Suns are still a big signing from being one of those teams close to the cap, but $1.5 million was a big deal for the Warriors, who traded young players with potential in Charles Jenkins and Jeremy Tyler for a second round pick each.

That shows the flow of picks going to better teams with less cap space and the flow of young prospects going to worse teams with more cap space.

Anyhow, it’s assumed that the Suns’ shuffling was smartly in the trend of the rest of the NBA and how teams must now deal with the CBA.

And it is a prelude to this summer, where we expect a lot of action.

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