After an historically great year in Phoenix, Suns guard Goran Dragic finds himself surrounded by an even deeper back court this season as the Suns fight for the playoffs.
Dragic was one of only four players in NBA history to average 20 points and 5 assists per game while shooting better than 50% overall and better than 40% on three pointers. The others were Larry Bird, LeBron James and... his current head coach Jeff Hornacek during his best year as a Phoenix Sun.
Dragic didn't make the All-Star team last season because he rose so quickly from mediocrity that the national audience didn't quite warm to him fast enough. His exclusion could partially be blamed on lack of TV exposure, but he wasn't chosen among the reserves (votes by coaches) either due to the pure depth at guard in the West.
Coach Hornacek has seen a little - maybe a lot - of himself in Dragic since he rejoined the Suns as head coach last summer. One of the first moves of the organization was to acquire an elite guard to share the back court with Goran, much like the Suns acquired Kevin Johnson in 1988 to share the court with Hornacek.
Now the coach must help Dragic, who is not a ball hog, keep his place among the league's elite while the offensive options around him improve seemingly every month that goes by. In Wednesday's preseason opener and last Saturday's scrimmage, Dragic barely scored while Thomas, Bledsoe and Green dominated the stat sheet.
Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green all averaged more than 15 points per game last season. Unless the Suns plan to score 120 points a game, Dragic will have a hard time repeating his 2013-14 season in raw numbers.
But that's nothing new to Hornacek.
"When I was in the league, it seemed like every team had 3-4 All Stars," he said.
Hornacek spent his entire career playing elite talent around him. In his own historic season, he was flanked by Kevin Johnson (19.7 points, 10.7 assists), Dan Majerle (17.3 points, 3.3 assists, 5.9 rebounds) on the wing, plus the aging Tom Chambers (16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds) and young Tim Perry (12.3 points, 6.9 rebounds) in the front court.
With Utah, he was in a lineup with future Hall of Famers John Stockton (14.7 points, 12.3 assists in 1994-95) and Karl Malone (26.7 points, 10.6 rebounds) as they reached two NBA Finals together.
Both Utah and Phoenix, during their heydays, were considered less talented than the league's elite, yet won more games than they were supposed to win. Between Phoenix and Utah (not counting the hiccup year in Philadelphia), Hornacek made the playoffs 13 times, including five Western Conference Finals berths and two NBA Finals appearances.
Hornacek was never the most athletic player on his team, or the most nationally loved. But he thrived on teams by finding his niche as one of their hardest workers and surest shooter. He was also an elite secondary playmaker (4+ assist per game in each of his first 14 seasons) and underrated team defender.
Dragic has a chance to mold himself into Hornacek 2.0, if not even with a slightly higher ceiling. Suns fans can only hope that includes him wearing a Suns uniform for the rest of his career. Hornacek was traded by the Suns in 1992 to acquire Charles Barkley - a trade that propelled the Suns to the NBA Finals.
Ironically, it was Hornacek who first suggested they acquire Barkley - a malcontent in Philly - as their missing piece to win a title. No wonder Dragic didn't lobby hard for Kevin Love this summer.
Dragic must find his comfort level in the back court rotation. And there's no better coach than Jeff Hornacek to help him do just that.
In the bonus
"I was a little bit jealous," Dragic said with a chuckle of brother Zoran getting the biggest roar of the night from a crowd that was less than half full. "It was great."
Zoran Dragic entered the preseason game on Wednesday night with only 2 minutes left, and received a spontaneous roar from the crowd no matched by any other player on the night.
But coach Hornacek doesn't care. He wants to see production from his regular season guys, and he wasn't seeing it most of the time against poor competition.
"You still want to win the game," Hornacek said the rookies of not playing much. "You want to establish a winning mentality. We're not out there just playing some pick up game."
The Suns starters did not play well as a unit, resulting in the Suns playing from behind for the first 16 minutes of the game, and then losing their lead again in the third quarter before a big run by the second unit put the game away.
"Heck, every game you step on the court you should think it's a big game," Hornacek said with a scowl after the Suns barely beat Flamengo. "That's probably what drove me nuts. I saw it this morning at shootaround. They weren't ready to go. Luckily we have a deep team."
Now the Suns begin to face NBA competition. If the Flamengo game is any indication, the coaching staff is more interested in the chemistry and production of the regular rotation players than he is showcasing rookies unless it's a blowout one direction or another.