The Suns stuck with Goran Dragic at the beginning of the 2013/14 season, when Marc Stein of ESPN.com wrote that there was a “growing expectation” around the league that Phoenix would try to unload Dragic in a move similar to their acquisition of a first-round pick for Marcin Gortat. Holding on to Dragic then proved wise, as he had a career year and nearly lifted the team into the playoffs in spite of the prolonged absence of Eric Bledsoe, who was supposed to supplant Dragic as the team’s No. 1 point guard. The Suns instead used them alongside each other when Bledsoe was healthy, and it worked well enough for GM Ryan McDonough and his staff to make a radical bet on the long-term feasibility of a roster heavy on point guards.
McDonough began the offseason with the selection of Tyler Ennis, a point guard from Syracuse who drew top-ten buzz last season, at No. 18 overall in the draft. He ended it with a five-year, $70MM commitment to Bledsoe. In between, he made a pair of moves that serve as mixed signals about Dragic’s long-term future in Phoenix. McDonough and the Suns signed-and-traded for Isaiah Thomas, giving him a four-year deal worth slightly more than $27MM. They also signed Zoran Dragic, Goran’s brother, to a pact with two seasons of fully guaranteed salary. The Pacers and Kings were seemingly Phoenix’s strongest competitors among the several who gave chase for Zoran, but the 25-year-old shooting guard isn’t regarded as a future NBA star, and he’s made it off the bench for a total of 12 minutes all season. Goran insists that he didn’t push the Suns to sign his brother, but it’s clear that Goran was the impetus for the move, even if only unwittingly so. Zoran’s presence on the roster seems an enticement for Goran to re-sign when the All-NBA Third Teamer turns down his $7.5MM player option for next season, as he plans to do.
Still, Thomas is quite possibly the third starting-caliber point guard on the roster behind Goran Dragic and Bledsoe, and Ennis looms as a potential fourth. That, put together with Dragic’s looming free agency, apparently convinced the Suns to become willing to trade Dragic earlier this season. Yet another report indicated that McDonough and company would be more willing to part with Thomas or Bledsoe than Dragic. The Suns, it seems, continue to confound.
Dragic surprised last season enough to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, but his numbers are off this year. Still, his 16.3 points per game this season would be a career high if not for last season’s 20.3 PPG. His assists are somewhat predictably down to 4.0 per game, and a career-low 4.4 per 36 minutes, as he contends for control of the ball with Bledsoe, Thomas and others. His PER has dipped to 16.7, his lowest mark since he became a full-time starter, and another advanced metric, ESPN’s real plus-minus, shows him with a negative rating and at No. 29 among the league’s shooting guards, the position at which Dragic has seen the most time this season. The Suns are nonetheless 4.0 points per 100 possessions better with Dragic on the floor this season versus when he sits, according to NBA.com.
The conflicting numbers hint that Phoenix might not be the most fertile ground for his game, given the backcourt crowding, and surely Dragic and agent Rade Filipovich know that he could be putting up better numbers elsewhere. Dragic reportedly intends to take a broad look at free agency and isn’t committing himself to the Suns, so Phoenix will have to sell him on the idea of returning when they pitch the long-term deal they’ve apparently been planning for him. McDonough has said he’ll take care of Dragic when the time comes, but Dragic has seemingly hinted that he’s not so willing to tether himself to the Suns for the long term. Still, a source recently told Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype that Dragic feels more comfortable in Phoenix this year than he did last year, and that he’s nonetheless confident that he’ll see strong offers in free agency this summer.
The Rockets and Lakers have already been linked to Dragic as potential free agent suitors, and reports since then have suggested that those teams would also like to trade for him. The Lakers have a glaring hole at point guard, where only 2014 second-round pick Jordan Clarkson is signed past this season, but Sean Deveney of The Sporting News wrote this week that the team lacks the assets necessary to swing a deal for Dragic. The Lakers already owe the Suns their first-round pick this year as long as it’s not in the top five, and unless the team was willing to part with Julius Randle, L.A’s lottery pick from this past year, it’s tough to see how the Lakers could wind up with Dragic by the deadline.
The Rockets’ cupboard is more well-stocked, but they’ve come up short in previous attempts to trade for Dragic this season, as Jeff Zillgitt and Sam Amick of USA Today wrote earlier this year. Houston’s front office is familiar with Dragic from his year and a half with the team in between his stints in Phoenix. Yet unless the Suns are deeply concerned that they’ll lose him to Houston in free agency, it seems logical that McDonough would have reservations about trading him to another Western Conference playoff contender without receiving strong value in return. Houston has a pair of former first-round picks at power forward in Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, the position Josh Smith also occupies. The Rockets could toss in Kostas Papanikolaou and a few minimum-salaried players for salary-matching purposes to send one of them off to Phoenix, should the Suns have interest. However, the loss of Dwight Howard for at least a month complicates any move involving Houston’s frontcourt.
There are no guarantees that Dragic will play for any team beyond the end of the season, so it’s possible his status as a rental lowers his trade value. Surely any team that comes close to trading for him will try to gather intel about whether he’d like to re-sign with them this summer, even though they wouldn’t be able to speak with him directly before a trade became official. Much is unknown regarding Dragic and Phoenix’s experiment with multiple point guards, and Phoenix is just a game in front of New Orleans and a game and a half up on Oklahoma City for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. The deadline will be a key pivot point in the short term and long term for McDonough, and what he does with Dragic between now and February 19th will say plenty about where the team heads next.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.