Goran Dragic is looking to build on an amazing 2013-14 season, which culminated in an All-NBA third team selection, and solidify himself as one of the premiere players in the game. Despite being overwhelmingly underrated and undervalued history shows that he very well can.

People continue to doubt Goran Dragic.

As a reformed Dragic skeptic I can somewhat empathize, but last season was ample evidence to inspire my apostasy from the belief that Dragic had "hit his ceiling". I can't say with certitude that Dragic will definitely elevate his game to the next level of superstardom, but no longer will I quash the possibility.

I can admit when I'm wrong.

Some people can't... or just don't pay enough attention to realize it.

Last season Goran joined the exclusive 20/50/40 club. On the season he averaged 20.3 points per game while shooting .505 from the field and .408 from three point range. Only 12 qualified players in NBA history have accomplished the feat.

For his efforts Goran was named All-NBA third team. That means that only five other guards (Chris Paul, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Tony Parker and Damian Lillard) were in his group of peers. It's a one season sample, but Dragic was one of the six best guards in the league.

Somehow SI.com managed to bumble their way through a list that saw Dragic slip precipitously all the way to 15th. Nine guards supposedly passed him by. While there are rising players that make sense, such as Russell Westbrook, there are also obvious instances of them gifting positions based on career achievement (Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade).

They actually put unsigned teammate Eric Bledsoe ahead of Dragic, too. Perhaps my favorite part of their rationalization was that Bledsoe has "slightly more to offer a wide variety of teams playing a wide variety of styles". Let me see if I understand that. Basically, instead of predicting performance based on the team/system he will actually be playing for they are basing it off of his hypothetical value to teams he doesn't play for.

Sounds like a critique written by Rich Paul.

SI.com basically put him below every single guard in the NBA that had a scintilla of a chance of outperforming Goran next season.

Then they put him below Mike Conley.

Supposedly, Dragic's ranking (35th overall) was predicated on the fact that he didn't have "gradual improvement", meaning that last season may be anomalous. Also, that he was a product of a "system completely tailored to his strengths" and an "environment that exaggerated his improvement".

I guess the true mark of a great player is succeeding in spite of a coach trying to intentionally sabotage him by implementing a system that preys on his weaknesses. Sounds about right.

The mothership's annual NBA Putrescence Rank will be out soon with it's typical odious bias, so it seems ineluctable that Goran will get Rodney Dangerfielded again.

I'm going to be going in a different direction. While publications like these are indefatigably working on ranking players using a "fluid combination of subjective assessment and objective data", I will be basing my prediction off of something besides total bullshit.

I will preface this by acknowledging that there isn't a definite corollary between these comparisons. But hell, at least I've got something concrete.

And by concrete I mean pretty graphs (spoiler alert)!

Similarity Scores

For those of you who don't know, basketball-reference.com tracks something known as similarity scores. This metric attempts to compare the careers of players with similar quality and shape using win shares. Here is a more detailed explanation of the process.

Interestingly enough, among the top players with similar career trajectories to Goran are Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups. This is based on looking at the first six seasons of Dragic's career and comparing them to the corresponding seasons for Nash and Billups.

To be fair, Alfred "Digger" Cervi showed up on the list as well.

So there's that.

Digger never pulled off the Triple Lindy of basketball (20/50/40), though, so I'm pretty confident in my belief that Dragic won't follow in his footsteps.

Below is a graph that depicts the three guards win shares over their first six seasons.

WS

Interesting to note that each of the guards provided more wins for their respective teams in each of their first six seasons. While SI.com astutely claimed that Goran hadn't "gradually improved" over his career I would assert that's pretty much the definition of gradual improvement. Maybe the paid geniuses over there can explain to me why continuous improvement over a long period of time doesn't qualify as gradual improvement... yeah.

Another thing to note is the relative proximity of age. Billups entered the league at 21. Nash and Dragic at 22. There isn't a huge discrepancy where one of the players was three years younger during their sixth season.

Next is a look at adjusted win shares.

WS48

There is some fluctuation for Dragic here as he had a dip in his fifth season. I would claim that had a lot to do with being on a wretched team. In their fifth seasons, Nash's Mavericks won 53 games and Billups's Timberwolves won 50. Goran didn't have the luxury of playing with Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Garnett on his way to 25 wins with the Suns.

Here are some looks at individual aspects of the players' games.

scoring

This shows that Dragic is probably the best scorer of the three. He distances himself from both other players over his last three seasons. He also became the only one to average over 20 points per game last season.

The next graph reflects on whether Goran might flounder in a "standard system".

assists

Nash will go down in history as one of the truest true point guards in history, but his assist numbers were fairly pedestrian through six seasons. He didn't evolve into that player until he returned to Phoenix at the age of 30. Billups was never a prolific distributor, although he did have a four year stretch later in his career where he averaged at least 6.4 assists per season.

In this case, Goran's assist numbers likely dipped last season because he was sharing the ball handling duties and being more assertive in trying to score. He was basically taking advantage of the situation as it presented itself and maximizing his effectiveness. Quizzically enough, SI.com used this as ammunition against Dragic in their evaluation...

This last graph (congratulations to those of you who made it) looks at the efficiency at which these players scored.

ts%

Last season Gragic held his own against the uber efficient Steve Nash. That's part of what makes his 20/50/40 performance so staggering - the volume efficiency. Nash went 50/40/90 four times, but could never join Goran's group because he didn't score enough. Since a team wants its most efficient players scoring the most points, what Dragic did was good.

All three guards are very efficient overall, though they didn't get off to torrid starts their first three seasons. For their careers, though, Nash (.605), Billups (.580) and Dragic (.562) all rate out favorably. Compare that to the career averages of Chris Paul (.575) or Stephen Curry (.592), or better yet Derrick Rose (.532).

Two things to note. First, I bet you didn't visualize Billups as that efficient of a scorer. Second, with Dragic entering his prime there's at least some chance his percentage will ascend.

Besides the points illustrated above, there are other interesting parallels between these players.

Billups, despite winning Finals MVP in the 2003-04 season, didn't make an All-Star or All-NBA team until the 2005-06 season. He ended up with five All-Star appearances and three All-NBA teams in his career. I guess it just took people a while to catch on.

Nash made his first All-NBA team in the 2001-02 season. He was third team. He was 28.

Dragic made his first All-NBA team last season. He was third team. He was 28.

Nash also garnered an All-Star appearance that season, an honor that Goran somewhat controversially missed. I think at worst he was the first player out.

There were better things on the horizon for Billups and Nash past their first six seasons.

Billups won an NBA championship in his seventh year in the league. In his best individual season, 2005-06, Billups averaged 18.5 points and 8.6 assists per game at the age of 29. He managed to carve himself out a pretty nice career.

Nash firmly entrenched himself in NBA lore by winning back-to-back league MVP's at the ages of 31 and 32.

So has Goran peaked? There's plenty of evidence to the contrary. Real evidence, not the kind that's equal parts contradictory and absurd.

I read someone else mention something I was mulling over that I think may shed some light on Goran's dismissal by his detractors. Maybe it's not even so much that they're trying to denigrate his talent and game.  Maybe it's just that they ignore him.

Maybe it's because he's a Slovenian that speaks broken English. Maybe it's because he doesn't have electrifying, above the rim athleticism. Maybe it's because he plays in the quaint backdrop of tumbleweed town. Maybe it's because he couldn't propel his team into the playoffs last season.

A little bit of Dragon fire in the postseason might have raised some eyebrows.

I'm not going to try to rank him here. I've already subjected you to enough torture. Just assume that I'd have him higher than the 15th guard and 35th player overall.

Instead Goran will enter this season somewhat under the national radar again. ESPN will surely give him a pat on the head and rank him as low as fathomable. He will still be lacking the respect and notoriety he deserves.

But whether or not he covets that respect I think it will eventually come. Because I won't be surprised to see Goran build on last season's successes and finally gain some well deserved national attention. The SI's and ESPN's of the world can keep on doubting (haters gonna hate, right?), but I won't be surprised at all to see Dragic Thornton Melon their asses.

**All italicized portions of this article are meant to ridicule the hilarity of SI.com's "analysis". You guys suck.

You're welcome, Simon.

Charles Barkley Original Signed Painting

First things first, if you are somebody who has $2,750 burning a hole in your pocket, jump on this offering immediately. By the time Suns Swag posts on Friday, you'll have about 3 hours to win the auction. Shipping is on the house. This is a one of a kind Charles Barkley painting, autographed by the Round Mound of Rebound himself.  A little bit about the artist, pulled straight from the eBay page:

"Justin Tigner is a sports artist who has painted some of the most famous moments and athletes not just in the Northwest, but worldwide. He has helped fundraise thousands for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), Patty Mills' Assist Australia, The Foundation Batum, The Brian Grant Foundation, along with helping the University of Oregon Clubs generate scholarship money for student athletes at U of O."

So it sounds like he's a hoops fan, if that makes the price tag any more palatable. Now there's less than 3 hours. Go.

Stephon Marbury "MAR-BURIED" Newpaper Clipping

I'm constantly amused by anything related to Stephon Marbury. It's hard to have real "sports hate" for the guy, he's just a funny character. His time in Phoenix was interesting. Starbury played three seasons with the Suns, averaging better than 20 points and 8 assists and being named All-NBA 3rd team in 2003. This newspaper clipping recognizes the highlight of his stay in the desert, a buzzer beating three pointer to take Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2003 playoffs. It's ten bucks after shipping, although you can probably get it for as little as seven. It's laminated, and for a ten dollar bill, it's worth putting on your wall. I admit, I don't know what your time is worth though. I will however, save you a YouTube visit:

Goran Dragic Game Used Playoff Jersey

Nik from Slovenia is giving you the opportunity to own a game used piece of Phoenix Suns history. Goran Dragic wore this jersey in Game 2 of the 2010 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Obviously Phoenix did not advance to the NBA Finals in 2010, and the Lakers took Game 2 from the Suns at the Staples Center. Dragic was on the floor for 15 minutes, tallying 3 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound, and 1 steal. For about $3,500 it can be yours.

A.C. Green Autographed Book

Recently we posted an autographed Charles Barkley book on Suns Swag that was quickly snatched up by a loyal reader. Today we're giving you another opportunity to add to your Phoenix Suns bookcase. This time it's a signed copy of "Victory," by former Suns forward A.C. Green. All around good guy Green played 16 seasons with 5 teams in the Association, chiefly with the Lakers. He spent four in Phoenix, from 1993-1997. This book guarantees to give you "the principles of championship living," a claim we are not prepared to dispute. The book is signed, "To Simon," so Simon, if you're out there, this can likely be yours for about 13 bucks. Simon was the 229th most popular boys name in the United States last year, we won't hold our breath.

1973 Atlanta Hawks at Phoenix Suns Television Ad

I think this is super cool, and the best find of the week. This is a television ad from a TV Guide for a Suns vs. Atlanta Hawks matchup on October 20th, 1973. Included are the rosters for both squads. Phoenix took this one, with Dick Van Arsdale pouring in 37 for the Suns. The Hawks got 36 from Lou Hudson, and 25 from "Pistol" Pete Maravich. The full page is shipped boarded and bagged, and the seller lists the item as being in "wonderful condition." No Buy it Now option, but if the bids don't roll in, you can get it for less than 10 bucks.

SI.com came out with their 2015 Top 100 NBA players list on Monday and three Phoenix Suns made the cut. The three players to make the list are Isaiah Thomas at 90, Goran Dragic at 35 and Eric Bledsoe...

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Assuming the Suns focus on keeping Goran Dragic next summer, they might be better off locking up the Morris brothers for about the same price they have offered Eric Bledsoe.

The "Eric Bledsoe situation" has made for a strange and weird summer in the valley. I have never seen an NBA player, at least who came through Phoenix, who gave the entire league the silent treatment in the very summer he's supposed to garner his life-changing contract.

"I am confused."

--Yahoo! Sports writer Marc J. Spears on AM 910 radio last weekend, on Bledsoe situation

"He needs a max game."

--Spears, on whether Bledsoe deserves a max contract

Bledsoe has lost nearly all of his goodwill this summer in the NBA. No one knows what he would settle for, other than $84 million over 5 years. Only one team can even give him that contract - the Phoenix Suns - and they don't want to. Committing an average of $18 million per year to a guy with Bledsoe's pedigree is frivolous. Doing so without any competition would be madness.bledsoe-JC-Corobledsoe-JC-Coro-2

I have been an ardent supporter of the business side of the game, and that Bledsoe's summer actions have had no bearing on the Suns as a team because it was the offseason.

Now, we are less than two weeks from training camp and Bledsoe is positioning himself to become a real distraction. If Bledsoe decides to wait until October 1 to sign his qualifying offer ($3.73 million) to play one more season with the Suns and then become unrestricted next summer, he will be able to skip 'Media Day' on September 29 and the opening days of training camp on September 30 and October 1. Training camp itself is only 4 days long, so to miss up to 2 of those days is completely unnecessary. But that's Bledsoe prerogative.

One more year

Don't expect the Suns to trade Bledsoe in the coming days. There have been zero leaks on other teams' heavy interest in Bledsoe, and zero mentions of Bledsoe even accepting a contract offer from another team since they cannot offer the whole $84 million he wants. They all want to see how he plays this year, and then just pick him up at that dreaded "market value" next summer without giving assets back to the Suns in the process.

So Bledsoe will be a Phoenix Sun for the next season. Which isn't really a bad thing on the court. He may be a distraction now, but once the games start up his teammates will focus on the court rather than the bank account. He's shown a clear drive when playing that he never shows off the court. He's been a model - if quiet - teammate and he helped the Suns win a lot of games. Expect that to happen again. The Suns are better with Bledsoe.

But don't expect him to have a change of heart and want to stay for less than max next summer. The Suns will have a handful of players on the market, and Bledsoe will not likely be #1 on that list.

Next summer

With Bledsoe becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer, the Suns will be totally flexible next summer. Talk about a true "fungible" roster.

Only a handful of players will be under guaranteed contract for 2015-16 if Bledsoe is a free agent and no one is extended.suns-2015-16-cap-sheet

The upside is the fungibility. The downside is that there are only two true rotation players on that list of guaranteed 2015-16 contracts, and neither of them projects to be a starter in 2014-15. Sure, some of the kids may emerge but at the moment that's a bare shelf for 2015-16.

Now, let's look at the cap holds - the money reserved against the cap to retain "Bird Rights" on the free agents. The "guaranteed" number assumes the Suns will decide this fall to pick up the third year options on Archie Goodwin and Alex Len.Suns-cap-holds-2015

This is where next summer gets really interesting, crazy, tricky... whatever you want to call it. Going into the summer, nearly every major rotation player will be a free agent, leaving the Suns with just youngsters led by Isaiah Thomas and P.J. Tucker.

The Suns could renounce all of their free agents to create as much as $29 million in cap space to buy new players. But that $29 million would have to buy at least 4-5 rotation players, including a couple of stars.

Or, the Suns could keep all their own free agents, which could limit the ceiling of the team because the team still lacks a championship nucleus.

Or, the Suns could pick and choose who to keep and who to let go. The timing of those moves will be very, very tricky.

But with the cap holds figured in, the Suns cannot spend a dime in free agency on July 1 without letting someone go. That means the Suns will have to make some tough choices. If they target all of their own free agents, then they will miss out on the best free agents available from other teams (including Marc Gasol and Paul Millsap, for example).

The Suns would be straddling the fence of negotiating with their own guys AND other guys at once, while their own guys are negotiating with other teams, and then trying to work the signings and renouncements as needed. As we saw this summer with Chandler Parsons and others, incumbents don't always take kindly to not being a team's sole focus in free agency.

Another option - keep the Morrii

After the "summer of silence", it would be nice to hear some players profess their desire to stay in Phoenix. Goran Dragic has already hinted that's the case for him. He would prefer to stay, and the Suns want him to stay (though at a price commensurate with the market).

Flying under the radar is that Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris want to stay too. Though they have deep roots in the Philadelphia area, the brothers have spent the last two summers in Phoenix focused on bettering themselves.

And, as recently as March 2014 they professed a strong desire to stay together. In Phoenix.

"We're hoping that we can stay together because we play better together," Marcus said. "Hopefully, a team takes a chance on that. Hopefully, it's the Suns. We like being here. The more successful we are, the better our chances of staying are.

"We feed well off each other. The chemistry we bring is major for any team because you have two people who have lived together, played together and done everything together. We've always got that in-sync part of the game."

--Marcus to Paul Coro, of azcentral.com in March 2014

"We think about it a lot," Markieff said. "We said in the beginning that if we ever get together, we're going to stay together. We do our best to compete and show how good we are together.

"The game is more fun when I have my brother. I look forward to it every day. I look forward to getting better. I look forward to watching him get better and I know he looks forward to me improving and having good games. I'm excited when he plays good, even when I don't play good. If I see him scoring and all the small stuff to win, I'm excited and that brings me up no matter what."

--Kieff to Paul Coro, of azcentral.com in March 2014

Note that neither said they would take a pay cut to stay together. Rumor has it they said so in college, but that was before they were making the big bucks.

Hypothetical: If Kieff gets an offer of $10+ million from another team and Marcus gets an offer of $5+ million from a different team, while the Suns are offering less, why would they stay in Phoenix?

But even putting the money aside, you have to consider the roster and the future. Are Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris worth keeping for several years at, say, $14 million per year between them? What is that collective number that makes you nod your head versus shake it?

Many think the Suns will want to upgrade the power forward position next summer in order to take that next step in the playoffs, but if you're spending $14+ million per year on the Morrii, have you already put your eggs in that basket?

The rising cap

A new factor in all of this is the sure-to-rise salary cap. Rumors have already started the the TV deals will double in value in two seasons, which will make the salary cap skyrocket because the players and owners split all that money. What is a $63 million cap now could be $80 in two years, and even higher than that in four years.

The average NBA player salary could easily rise from today's $5.85 million (MLE) to as high as $9-10 million.

In that world, are two strong rotation players worth $14 million per year between them?

Extension talks

With the fiasco of the Bledsoe contract, the Suns might just want to lock up a couple of devoted rotation players right now rather than wait out the open market next summer. The Morris brothers have been in Phoenix all summer. The Suns know their dedication. They know their loyalty. The twins are not NBA stars yet, but they are good for the team and for the valley.

As you can see on the salary cap snapshot above, committing up to $14 million to the Morrii in extensions (which is likely higher than the Suns need to go) would still leave the Suns with a lot to spend next summer.

With the Morrii locked up, the Suns could recreate this summer's plan by having a mini-max salary slot open for a free agent before re-signing Dragic to a number high than his cap hold.

Let's say, for example, the Suns really want Klay Thompson to replace Eric Bledsoe. They could create the space, with a minor move, to offer Klay a deal as high as mini-max, then re-sign Goran Dragic afterward and have a lineup of Dragic, Thompson, Tucker/Warren, Morris/Morris and Plumlee/Len, with Isaiah Thomas as the supersub point guard off the bench. That's not necessarily a championship team, but I'm just illustrating swapping Bledsoe for Thompson.

The Suns will have options. But if they don't lock up the Morrii, they may have too many options (and too much risk) with only two major rotation players under contract on July 1, 2015.

Remember a year ago when many Suns fans were wringing their hands over the awful new jerseys being rolled out to the world? The whites were too bland. The orange was too orange. The sunburst "didn't go anywhere". The side stripes were nonsensical.

Maybe that was just a case of not liking new things. Maybe we're just a bunch of old dogs.

A year later, the website 'Suit and Nut' has ranked the Suns jersey kit (white, orange and purple) as the 3rd best looking jerseys in the NBA today.Suns-jerseys-3Suns-jerseys-3a

Not surprisingly, the Rockets' jerseys are dead last, while the Warriors' jerseys are #1 overall.

Celebrate, fans. The Suns are elite at something, anyway!

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