Heading into the 2012-13 season, Marcin Gortat and Goran Dragic were supposed to be the focal points of the Phoenix Suns’ offense. It was assumed by many that Goran Dragic would seamlessly fill Steve Nash’s shoes, especially when it came to running the pick and roll with Gortat. Here’s a fun exercise: close your eyes and try to recall any memorable play involving the two of them. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
I find it difficult to think of a single one – a revelation that perfectly sums up Phoenix’s best laid plans for this season. Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that Gortat was injured for the last six weeks of the season. But part of it has to with the lack of chemistry between the Marcin and Goran.
As partners in pick and roll crime, Dragic and Gortat were never very successful. Their lack of success could be blamed on any number of things including Dragic’s speed, ability to get to the rim, or left handedness. Even though he studied under Nash for some time, Dragic is a very different player and Gortat never seemed to adjust to his new point guard. Now that the season is over, the only thing that’s clear about the Suns’ roster is that Dragic is someone the team will build around. He may have started slowly as he adjusted to new teammates and a full-time starter’s minutes, but he got better and better as the year went on. In fact, he was actually at his best after Gortat got hurt.
Take a look at the following stats chart. The first row is Dragic’s stats with Gortat on the floor. The second shows his production with Gortat on the bench. The third row captures Dragic’s stats after Gortat went down with injury.
The first thing that stands out is how bad Dragic was with Gortat on the bench over the first two thirds of the season. He shot under 40%, he dished out less than 10 assists per 100 possessions, and his effective field goal %, true shooting %, and points per shot were all lower. The only slight increase was the pace at which the Suns played. These stats make sense because most of the minutes Dragic played with Gortat on the bench were played alongside Phoenix’s second unit players. That means defenses could key on Dragic and make scoring harder for him. Likewise, his assist numbers dropped because he was playing alongside the less-talented members of the Suns’ roster.
But when Gortat went down, Dragic got to play without with the rest of the starters. And that was when the Dragon really spread his wings. Across the board, Dragic was at his best during this stretch of the year. His per game assists and scoring stats were markedly higher. His shooting percentages were all increased, as was his assist rate. The Suns didn’t win many games after Gortat went down, but that didn’t stop Dragic from producing at a near All-Star level for six weeks.
So what spurred Dragic to this incredible run of play? It’s easy to say his improved production was solely a result of increased opportunity as his usage and minutes both increased slightly. But his usage and possession-adjusted stats increased just like his per game stats did, so more opportunity doesn’t tell the whole story. Another factor is the Suns playing a faster pace. Dragic loves to get out in transition and while he’s not SSOL Steve Nash, he definitely showed this year that he’s more effective when running than he is when mired in the half-court.
But the biggest factor seems to be Gortat’s absence. Gortat’s preferred spot to post up is the left block. Catching there, he can drop step to the middle and shoot a right-handed jump hook or turn over his right shoulder and shoot a 5-7 foot baseline jumper. But that spot is directly in Dragic’s preferred path to the basket. Dragic is most effective when penetrating and finishing with his left, but having Gortat in that area made that difficult.
In pick and rolls with Nash, Gortat was used to setting a screen on Nash’s right. That allowed Gortat to roll down the middle and dunk with his right hand or finish off the glass with his left. When Gortat set the same screen for Dragic, it forced Goran to go to his weaker right hand which made him a less effective scorer. With Gortat on the bench and Scola, who preferred to pick and pop for a 17-foot jumper, as the screener, Dragic could get into the lane with ease because there was no teammate crowding him. Dragic’s speed and ability to get to the rim make him the ideal partner for a player like Scola. Luis prefers to stay out on the perimeter after setting the screen whereas Gortat likes to roll down Broadway to the hoop. Without a roller clogging up the lane, Dragic has the option to finish on either side of the hoop or pull up for a short jumper. Dragic and Gortat never found this balance which is why both of them struggled offensively for much of the year. Once Gortat went out however, all of Dragic’s issues seem to disappear.
More freedom in the lane is definitely what made Dragic better at the end of the season. Now the question is can Gortat learn to give Dragic that freedom and space or do the Suns need to make a change at center? Goran is seemingly the only player on the roster who is untouchable this offseason. If the Suns want him to play next season the way he ended this season, then they may have to part ways with the Polish Hammer.