Goran Dragic, 27, has been no stranger to doubters throughout his career. This is the player ESPN's John Hollinger once referred to as "arguably the worst player in the league," whose four-year, $34 million contract from the Suns in the summer of 2012 was routinely ridiculed, and who was assumed to be out the door once the Suns added Eric Bledsoe this summer.
And apparently, those underestimating Dragic ever since the Spurs took him in the second round of the 2008 draft aren't limited to America's borders, either.
"Every player has this kind of points in his career," Dragic told me as we chatted courtside at Madison Square Garden on Monday morning, prior to a Knicks-Suns tilt that night. "My first point when I went to the NBA, people back home, journalists, they were saying what I'm doing, that I'm gonna come quickly back. I have this in my mind, back of my head, every time I practice. I try to prove them wrong."
That's precisely what Dragic has done once again this year. And the way he's done so has been counterintuitive. Sharing a backcourt with Bledsoe, his production has actually gone up this year. And his Suns, who entered Monday night's game 21-15, are a surprise playoff team as of now, four full games ahead of Hollinger's Memphis Grizzlies.
But with Bledsoe sidelined for weeks following knee surgery for a torn meniscus, Dragic will have to make a further evolution: He's going to need to be the player who carries the offensive load for the Suns, both scoring and distributing.
"Well, it's got to change a little bit," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said Monday at shootaround. "We do need him to be a little more of a facilitator, now that Eric's not there. Just because we don't have a lot of guys on the team who can create anything ... between the two of them, things would be broken down, and one of them would make a play. So each of them would have six assists per game, or whatever. But now that we don't have Eric, we don't have anyone to take those other six, really."
It's important to understand just how fully these Suns are built around Dragic and Bledsoe. Each averages more than 13 shots per game. Only Gerald Green averages more than 10. Measured by Hollinger's own stat, Player Efficiency Rating, Dragic is best on the team, at 20.7, with Bledsoe at 20.1 Only Markieff Morris, at 17.3, is above 16 among all other Suns players.
So taking the Suns through the next few weeks alone -- the belief is that Bledsoe will return this season -- would seem like an impossible task for Dragic, had he not already taken his game to another level this season with Bledsoe around.
His breakout 2011-12 with the Rockets, the season backing up Kyle Lowry that earned him his free agent deal with the Suns, was ultimately even less effective that his initial season in Phoenix last year. His assist percentage went up, his turnover percentage went down. And this season, though the assist percentage is down a bit (a natural consequence of splitting point guard duties), it's a still-robust 28.7 percent, while his turnovers are down even further.
Better still, his shooting accuracy has improved considerably, thanks in part to three-pointers, at 37.6 percent after 31.9 percent last year. But the bigger move toward efficiency came around the hoop, where he's improved from 49.7 percent to 52.6 percent, and more vital, is getting to the basket more, 46.4 percent of his opportunities coming in the paint this year. Last year, he took only 41.3 percent of his shots in the paint.
How much of that penetration is part of Dragic's overall improvement, and how much can be attributed to the presence of Bledsoe, will become apparent in the next few weeks. Dragic sees it as a bit of both. He feels greater confidence in his game than ever before, with a full season as a starting point guard in the league; he also had a summer filled with moments designed to humble the critics from his home country, representing Slovenia at the European championships, leading his country in scoring.
"If he penetrates from the right side, they can kick to me, I can penetrate, so it's much easier," Dragic said. "Last year, I was the only guy who could handle the ball. So every game, the defense was paying more attention to me."
That didn't stop him on Monday night, when he scored 20 points in the first half alone against the Knicks, combining some dribble penetration with the ability to step back behind a pick and calmly sink threes.
But Hornacek has a real minute management problem on his hands over the next few weeks, trying to stay in the Western Conference playoff race while leaning on Dragic to do so much. He's already averaging nearly 35 minutes per game, but the game against the Knicks was a great example: by the end of the third, he'd already logged 31 minutes, in the fifth game of a five-game road trip.
Leandro Barbosa was signed for point guard depth, but if the Suns want to replicate their success, they're hoping to play Barbosa and Dragic together, in two point-guard sets, as they did in the second quarter Monday night, and again in the fourth. That's not the same thing as finding some rest for Dragic.
Hornacek, who averaged 38 minutes per game his final year in Phoenix back in 1991-92, knows he'll need to keep Dragic where he's been to make sure he stays this effective.
"You know, it's hard, because I feel these guys should be able to play," Hornacek said. "Our practices at this point in the season are not bad. I think the NBA games today, there are so many timeouts," Hornacek added, smiling as he realized he sounded like a much older person than the 50-year-old first year coach actually is. "You know, they should be okay. On long trips like this, we try to be careful a little bit. But, he's not playing 40 a game. I think he's 34 or so, and that's probably a good number."
In a few weeks, Bledsoe should return, and the Suns will have some more time to figure out if they want to build around the pair of Dragic and Bledsoe for the future. Bledsoe will be a restricted free agent after the season, so the Suns can certainly keep him. And Dragic is signed through at least 2014-15, with his fourth year a player option. Still, they can keep Dragic as well, especially given the amount of talent on rookie contracts they'll can add to the team over the next two years, with six picks in the next two drafts.
The Suns actually had a team a good bit like this one, back in 1991-92. And Hornacek was a member of that backcourt, along with Kevin Johnson. While Johnson is remembered as the point guard, Hornacek was up over five assists per game in each of his final five seasons with the Suns. So Hornacek believes the Suns can build around a point-guard tandem like Dragic and Bledsoe, since as he put it, he's been in precisely that position.
"Well, you know, when they hired me, they hadn't traded for Eric yet," Hornacek said. "So, you want to be an up-tempo team, that was kind of the discussion, how we go about it is another story. And then the opportunity came up to trade for Eric came up, and [Suns GM] Ryan [McDonough] said, do you think it would work? And I said yeah, I think so. It did when Kevin and I played together... it's always beneficial to have guys who can pass the ball and make plays."
Still, Hornacek acknowledged that those Suns had a pretty good reason to break up their passing duo, and the same thing could happen with Dragic and Bledsoe.
"When they made the trade for [Charles] Barkley, I thought it was a good trade for Phoenix," Hornacek said, chuckling, a fair evaluation by the centerpiece of what the Sixers got in return. The trade, a very good shooting guard in Hornacek and two spare parts in Tim Perry and Andre Lang for the in-prime Hall of Famer Barkley, was incomprehensible at the time, and equally so in retrospect. "But those opportunities don't come up very often. We like the way the two guys play together. It was four years, getting to the Western Conference finals, but never getting over the hump. But they forced it, when they gave [Phoenix] that opportunity. Maybe if it wasn't Barkley, we'd have played more years together."
It's fun to think about what Johnson and Hornacek might have done together. It may be that Suns fans get to see a version of that in Bledsoe and Dragic.
In the meantime, it's all on Dragic, and he found a second wind midway through the fourth quarter. In one sequence, he went to his right, getting to the basket and drawing a foul on Raymond Felton, then canned the free throw. The following offensive possession, Dragic went to his left, and his quickness got him to the basket for another basket before the Knicks even sent over a help defender. The second basket game the Suns the lead, and took Dragic to 28 points on the night. This was nothing new, though: Dragic has four 30-point games this season already.
Dragic missed a three badly down the stretch, however, and by overtime, playing well beyond 40 minutes, looked understandably fatigued. He played 48 minutes, but the Suns came up just short.
There's no shame in Goran Dragic, on a night he played heroically, not quite lifting his team to victory all by himself. But it's certainly a measure of how far he's come that his employer thinks he's their best chance to win right now. And how he'll fit into this generation of Suns guards will be one of the most interesting subplots in the league.