Perhaps no free agent has done more to lift his stock down the stretch than Rockets point guard Goran Dragic. In 19 games since stepping into the starter's job for Kyle Lowry, who's battling a bacterial infection, Dragic has put up 18.7 PPG and 8.5 APG, well above the marks of 7.1 PPG and 3.0 APG he had produced up to that point. Dragic had only started 15 games total in four NBA seasons prior to Lowry's illness, so it's the first time the native of Slovenia has really had a chance to run an NBA team. Now that other teams have seen what he can do, Dragic stands to get a significant raise on his $2.1MM salary this season when he enters unrestricted free agency in the summer.
Dragic could be the second best point guard behind Deron Williams on the unrestricted market, depending on how highly GMs value aging Steve Nash, whom Dragic used to back up in Phoenix. Dragic credits his development in large part to Nash's influence, while Nash speaks highly of Dragic's game as well. It's a stretch to say Dragic is playing up to the level of the two-time MVP, but it's clear he learned much from his role as understudy. He played a key role in Phoenix's run to the conference finals in 2010, posting a 17.2 PER in 14.8 minutes a game during the postseason, a level of efficiency he never quite matched in the rest of his time with the Suns. That's changed in Houston, where his PER is 18.0 this year. The bugaboo for Dragic has always been turnovers. He's averaged 3.3 giveaways per 36 minutes for his career, and has continued to turn the ball over at nearly that rate despite his otherwise dazzling play since becoming a starter. While his assist numbers make it nearly a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio during his hot stretch of late, GMs will likely still call his ballhandling into question.
Dragic is a product of the Spurs international scouting. San Antonio drafted him in the second round in 2008 before shipping him to Phoenix for a pick that became DeJuan Blair. Whether he'll be on the move again this summer depends on whether the Rockets are willing to abandon their commitment to Kyle Lowry, whom they were reluctant to trade before the deadline this year. That's an iffy proposition at best, especially considering Lowry's reasonable contract numbers of $5.75MM for next season and $6.21MM for 2013/14. Still, it's not as if Lowry is entrenched as Houston's starter at point guard, having held the job only a year and a half. Lowry is better on the boards, but Dragic has put up better points and assists numbers as a starter, so it may come down to what the Rockets value at the position, as well as Dragic's ability to keep up his torrid play. Lowry recently returned to action and has looked none the worse for wear, so he may soon retake his spot in the lineup. If Dragic stays in front of Lowry during the playoffs, or if Kevin McHale elects to go small and starts both Dragic and Lowry, that may be an indication the Rockets will look to bring him back next year. The Rockets will likely have to choose one or the other, as Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle wrote this week, if they're to continue their pursuit of a superstar.
If the Rockets do want him back, they'll have plenty of competition. He could be an option for teams who miss out on Williams, and he might be a fit for the Blazers, who have plenty of cap room and haven't traditionally signed high-profile free agents like Williams. Regardless of what the Suns do with Steve Nash, they could be inclined to try to bring Dragic back, since he knows coach Alvin Gentry's system. If they retain Nash, though, I wouldn't expect Dragic to want a reunion. Despite their fondness for one another, it's clear that the time has come for Dragic to run a team of his own.