HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — This is shaping up to be the Year of the Dragon in Houston. As in Goran “Dragon” Dragic, who is playing some serious ball and made life without Kyle Lowry feel a lot more reassuring.
Dragic is coming off Player of the Week honors for going nuts against Chicago, the Lakers and Sacramento, when he averaged almost 21 points, eight assists and two steals and superbly directed the Houston offense.
His ability to shine the spotlight is something Dragic never doubted about himself, as he tells Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
Somewhere between his goals and potential, Goran Dragic believed all this would happen.
With Kyle Lowry out for the past month, the 6-3 Dragic has become the Rockets’ most reliable force, among the league’s most productive point guards and soon, one of the most coveted free agents of the summer.
He doesn’t pretend to be surprised.
“I always expected this,” Dragic, 25, said. “I believed I could do it.”
His play is not just a result of getting the opportunity he could not as a backup to Steve Nash in Phoenix or Lowry with the Rockets. He said his game has matured as he has, giving him a greater sense of responsibility that has fit with his increased role.
“I would say, the first two years in the NBA, I was here alone,” Dragic said. “Maybe I was more hang out with my friends. We were having fun. Now I’m establishing my family life and just try to be a normal person.
“I know everything about myself. When I was a kid, you try to explore. I’m exploring more in my life with my girlfriend (Maja). We just moved together and this kind of stuff. On the court, you’re just playing basketball. (Since) I was 16 years old, I know what I’m capable to do. I just try to have fun, and relax and help my teammates.”
They have come to expect that from him. Rather than view Dragic as a late-season fluke or simply on a hot streak, this is the player they believe him to be.
Dragic was a solid backup to Steve Nash in Phoenix and in 2010 had his breakout in the postseason, when he scored 23 points in the fourth quarter against the Spurs in the West semifinals. Grant Hill called it the best fourth-quarter he’d ever seen in a playoff game. But the Suns shipped him to Houston for Aaron Brooks, who at the time was the reigning Most Improved Player of the Year winner and one of the better young point guards in the game. Advantage, Houston, because Dragic is producing in a starting role while Brooks … whatever happened to him, anyway?
Of course, the question now is, where does he show it from here? He’s an unrestricted free agent this summer and the Rockets gave good money to Lowry, who has two more years ($12 million) on his deal. Do the Rockets tie up millions into one position? That was an issue they nearly ran into before they moved Brooks to Phoenix.
Or do they keep one point guard and trade the other? It’s a good problem to have, especially if general manager Daryl Morey swings a deal as deftly as he did in getting Dragic (and other since-jettisoned players) plus a No. 1 pick for Brooks. Already, there’s a buzz the Blazers could make a run at Dragic to solve their point guard problem:
“It was a little bit different,” said Dragic after the Rockets knocked off the Trail Blazers, a team desperate for a point guard and with the cap room for a spending spree. “Before, they never asked me this type of questions. ‘Are you going to come to Portland?’ Still, all the doors are open. We’re going to see what is going to happen this summer. I feel great in Houston. Hopefully, I’m going to stay in Houston.”
Earlier, he did say something about “I want to be a starter.” Still, he seems very open to staying in Houston if things work out.
That might be tough. The Rockets have to want him back, but they do have Kyle Lowry locked up for two more seasons. All the excitement over Dragic since he stepped in when Lowry went out is no greater than when Lowry carried the team early in the season, including with an even more thorough beat-down of the Blazers. The Rockets run tons of point guard pick-and-roll. Good point guards will look good.
Having been given the opportunity, Dragic looks like the real deal. As a starter, he has averaged 18.2 points on 51.9 percent shooting and 44.2 percent 3-point shooting, along with 8.7 assists. More than that, he seems at his best when his best is needed (which makes him more the Slovenian Manu Ginobili than LeBron James.)
“I told the guys,” Portland interim head coach Kaleb Canales said, “I think he’s kind of playing a little bit like how Ginobili looks out there to me.”
All that Jeremy Lin backlash in February, when Daryl Morey tweeted that it was a mistake to let Lin get away, seems forgotten considering the point guards he has and the moves he made to get them. If Dragic turns out to be special, as he appears to be, and is allowed to walk, the heat would be much greater.
Dragic is a shifty and clever point guard who can get into the lane and create hell for the other team by breaking down a defense. He’s also bringing a dependable outside shot, especially from 3-point range, where he’s shooting 46 percent. He showed what he can do with big minutes and it’s unlikely the Rockets will cut them drastically, even with Lowry back in the mix.
Lowry was playing the basketball of his life before a bacterial infection benched him and gave Dragic the green light. As it does in these cases, it’ll come down to money and also what the Rockets can get for either player on the market if they decide to go that route.
For now, they’ll just use them both and create matchup problems for other teams as the playoffs approach. Sometimes, these decisions have a way of answering themselves, and for the Rockets and Dragic, the playoffs will tell.