PHOENIX — Goran Dragic made the jump, or the leap — whatever you want to call it. He took his game to a new level this past season. The NBA’s Most Improved Player averaged 20.3 points per game in 2013-14, a six-point boost from his previous career high of 14 points per game during the 2012-13 season.
Dragic’s career has been about proving people wrong, and this year has been no different.
“That was the funnest thing in my life,” Dragic smilingly said after the season. “It was my pleasure to show the people that they were wrong. Through the whole of my career, I was going through doubts.
“People back home, went I went to NBA, (said) ‘he’s going to come back home soon, he’s not good enough.’ This season, that we’re only going to win 16 games, that we’re going to tank it and try to get better picks,” he continued, “every game when you go on the floor and you have this in the back of your mind, in your head ‘You’re going to win 15 games.’ No way. It was so much fun to prove all of the people — even the haters, they don’t like us — to prove them wrong.”
For the doubters in Slovenia who thought Dragic would not last in the States, he thanks you for the motivation. Same for those in the American media that thought the Suns were going to be a 20-win team.
Dragic’s jump toward becoming a great player is more special for the Suns fans who have been able to watch him grow over the majority of his career. It started when the team acquired “The Dragon” with a draft-day trade from the San Antonio Spurs, who drafted him with the 45th overall pick in 2008.
The first two years of his career were pretty uneventful — looking back, the passiveness in his game doesn’t seem real — until Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals, when Dragic broke out to score 23 fourth-quarter points in the Suns’ win over the San Antonio Spurs. He was also a part of the bench unit that gave the Los Angeles Lakers fits in the Western Conference Finals.
“Of course 2010 we made the conference finals,” Dragic said, “but this is the second-favorite season of my career. It was such a great vibe in here. It was the best season for myself, too, so all the credit goes to the coaches and the players. It was such an amazing journey.”
Dragic’s journey to winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award does not come without failure though.
The guard failed to take his game up a notch after his classic fourth-quarter performance in his first stint with the Suns. Phoenix shipped him to the Houston Rockets for Aaron Brooks at the 2011 trade deadline. In 2011-12 with Houston, Dragic got his first taste of extended minutes and increased his seven points per game the previous season to 11 points per game, which led to the Suns bringing him back to town during free agency in 2012.
Last year, in what was the worst season in franchise history, Dragic was a lone bright spot, putting up career-highs in just about every category. He was one of the certainties for the Suns, one of the dependable players going into the 2013-14 season. What no one realized was “The Dragon” was about to be so much more than dependable; he was going to turn into a star.
The stars started aligning for Dragic when the team hired Jeff Hornacek as its head coach on May 26, 2013. Hornacek’s experience playing a similar combo guard position with Kevin Johnson made it easy for Dragic to believe his coach — it would work out playing with fellow point guard Eric Bledsoe. That player-coach connection had a lot to do with the Suns’ success.
“That makes it even easier for us because he understands us,” Dragic said of his coach. “Sometimes, some players if they’re hurt or something, they say, ‘OK, I’m not going to play.’ For Jeff, even if I had one leg, I’d play for him. He gave me a lot. He’s not only a coach for us, he’s a friend, too. That’s what brings players and coaches closer, and then you know, you would do anything for the coaches.”
The next star to align was the July trade that sent Jared Dudley to the Los Angeles Clippers in return for Bledsoe. The young guard clicked with Dragic instantly, and the duo put up a combined 48 points on opening night in the Suns’ 104-91 win against the Portland Trail Blazers.
After that, the two guards each battled injuries through November that limited their playing time together, but once they returned to the starting lineup at the beginning of December, the team took off. The Suns went 10-3 during the month, which was punctuated with a blowout win against the Los Angeles Clippers to end December in a game that was thoroughly dominated by the Suns from start to finish.
The win did not come without consequence. Bledsoe injured his knee and would need surgery, forcing him to miss the next two months. With the season in jeopardy and the signs that Phoenix’s surprising run would come to a halt, Dragic made the leap from good to great.
In the 31 games the Suns played without Bledsoe, Dragic averaged 22.4 points and 6.4 assists per game. During an eight game stretch, the guard scored a career high three different times before topping out with a 40-point game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
“Goran though, he’s an unbelievable competitor and goes into every game wanting to win,” Bledsoe said. “Me and him both. That’s all you can ask for from two point guards.”
The two point guards provided the Suns with as dynamic of a backcourt as can be expected, and by the numbers they were one of the best duos in the game. According to 82games.com, the starting lineup of the two guards along with P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee finished fourth in the league in total +/- among five-man rotations, though they did play in the fewest amount of games together among the top five.
|Starting 5||Total +/-||Total minutes|
|Hill, George, Stephenson, West, Hibbert||274||1,468|
|Rubio, Martin, Brewer, Love, Pekovic||271||1,052|
|Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee Bogut||256||818|
|Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, Lopez||211||1,373|
|Bledsoe, Dragic, Tucker, Frye, Plumlee||117||435|
|Wall, Beal, Ariza, Nene, Gortat||103||487|
The group thrived both offensively and defensively as it allowed 94.8 points per 100 possessions. The two guards worked well with each other off of their complementary skill sets, but their communication was also very important to their success.
“We had good chemistry on the floor and played well together,” Dragic said. “We talk a lot, too. Maybe that seems a little bit weird because we’re both quiet, both shy.
“I think every day, every month, every year, we can get better. It was our first season. I think next season, hopefully he’s going to stay here,” he added.
In the 40 games Dragic and Bledsoe played together, the team went 26-14. Take one of them out of the lineup, and the Suns are a mediocre 22-20.
An important key for the 2014-15 season, assuming Bledsoe is back, is that the two can stay on the court. Bledsoe’s injury was a random incident, but Dragic’s aggressive style of play brings concern about his own ability to last through a whole season. Dragic was fourth in the NBA in total drives to the basket, averaging more than nine per game. But that high total can be traced back to his improved three-point shooting percentage. Dragic shot 40% from beyond the arch this season, up from his career average of 36%.
The more deadly Dragic became behind the arch, the more defenses ran out on his shot, which gave him more lanes to take the ball to the basket.
Another factor that has led to all of those drives is the pick-and-roll combination of Dragic and Frye. At one point near the end of February, the two were first in the league in points per possession for a pick-and-roll tandem, according to NBA.com. While Frye had a bit of success in such situations himself, Dragic ranked 10th in the league by scoring 0.98 points per possession amongst pick-and-roll ball handlers, according to Synergy Sports.
That aggressive style brought injury, including several sprained ankles to go along with hip, wrist and rib issues. And don’t forget about the times cuts to Dragic’s head required stitches.
Rest is going to be key for Dragic this summer, and he knows it.
“I’m sad we finished the season but at the same time, I need a break,” Dragic said. “I was falling apart the last couple of games, had a lot of ankle problems this season. I’m really happy there’s nothing more serious. Just minor injuries.”
The exciting thing is that Dragic has not yet reached his peak. He shot 76% from the free throw line and said he can improve his right hand and add floater’s to his repertoire. That is a lot of points Dragic left off the board that he can easily earn with an improvement here or there.
Dragic winning the Most Improved Player award feels like a stepping stone for what is to come the guard, and the Suns as a team. What his limits are, who knows?