The streaking Phoenix Suns host the once-streaking Chicago Bulls on NBATV in a matchup of teams making lemonade out of lemons after losing their regular point guard early in the season.
The Bulls are what they are: defense first, offense only because they have to, and pace be damned. But that's worked for Tom Thibodeau's team since he left Boston several years ago.
Since winning their first post-Deng game over the Phoenix Suns in Chicago, the Bulls won 9 of 13 games before dropping their last two on this road trip to the Pelicans and the Kings.
A sure sign of how a defensive scheme can make any player look good, the Bulls somehow have the league's second-best defense despite giving big minutes to Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer and undersized D.J. Augustin. That says a lot about coach Thibodeau's schemes and Noah/Gibson/Butler defensive chops.
Fifth year point guard D.J. Augustin has enjoyed one of the best stretches of play in his career, putting up 20 points and 6 assists a game over the 10 games before Monday night's loss to the Sacramento Kings.
Rookie Tony Snell has gotten a lot of run as the team's third best 3-point shooter behind Augustin and Dunleavy.
While the Suns have won 8 of 10, including their last five straight, the offense has been awesome - ranking second in the league over the past 10 games in points-per-possession.
But the defense has taken a hit. Partially, that's because many of these 10 games have been blowouts leading to ragtag 4th quarters where the opponents backups rack up points to cut the lead from 20 to 10.
But overall, that's a symptom of the Suns of old coming back. The better the offense, the less you have to worry about getting stops on defense. The Suns focus on the defensive end wanes as the game goes on and the lead extends. This is great while you're actually getting the lead, but could be a bad habit hard to break once the opponents get better and the leads are more tenuous (if there at all).
Chicago represents the kind of team that's given the Suns fits all season: defense oriented, slow pace and great with rebounding. Let's see how the Suns respond.
The key matchup in this game will be the Bulls' bigs Noah, Boozer and Taj Gibson against the Suns' bigs Plumlee, Channing Frye and Markieff Morris. The Suns need every one of their guys to play big and strong. If they can keep it close on the glass and reduce the Bulls' second chance points, the Suns can win the rest of the matchups.
In the last matchup, leading rebounder Boozer didn't even play while Noah and Gibson combined for 6 more rebounds (26) than Frye, Plumlee and Morris pulled down together (20) as the Suns were outrebounded 50-41 overall.
Another interesting matchup is a walk down memory lane: D.J. Augustin was taken 9th as the third-best point guard in the 2008 draft where Goran Dragic was taken 45th. While Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook have proven their lofty draft status, no other PG has produced as much as Dragic. Augustin has bounced from team to team since his rookie deal expired after 4 years in Charlotte.
Augustin put up 13 points and 9 assists in the last matchup in Chicago, vs. Dragic's 21 points and 2 assists.
I do believe the Suns win this one. They are so confident right now, and playing at home always helps the shot drop a bit better. The Suns will need to make shots but more than anything they need to fight on the glass.
This game is on NBATV, much closer to "national" than a regular game. While NBATV is not on as many cable packages as ESPN or TNT, it's more accessible than league pass for many.
Here's hoping the Suns show the nation why they are one of the league's best teams tonight, and Dragic shows why he's an All-Star.
A look back at Goran Dragic's NBA journey and remarkable ascension to an All-Star caliber player.
Goran Dragic is not an All-Star. The 27 year-old point guard is averaging an efficient 20 points and 6 assists per game and is the undisputed leader of a vastly overachieving Phoenix Suns team, but he's no All-Star.
Dragic is one of just five guards in the NBA (with more than 500 minutes played all season) shooting over 50% from the field, but he's not an All-Star.
He has the fourth-highest win shares per 48 minutes of all the guards in the league. He's one of six guys averaging 20 points and 6 assists per game. He's improved his shooting so much that his TS% is top-5 of all backcourt players (again, with at least 500 minutes played). But no, he's not an All-Star.
The NBA can still bring Dragic to New Orleans if Adam Silver selects him to be Kobe Bryant's injury replacement. As of now, however, he is not an All-Star, as deserving as he's been.
What Goran Dragic is, however, is the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, the newest member of the current crop of elite playmakers in basketball's golden era of point guards, and he's the heart and soul of this season's Cinderella team.
When the Phoenix Suns completed a draft-day trade with the San Antonio Spurs to acquire Goran Dragic in the 2nd round of the 2008 draft (45th overall), many fans were left asking, "who?" Reigning Suns GM and President of Basketball Operations Steve Kerr expressed significant pleasure with the selection, even going so far as claiming Dragic was the second-best point guard in the draft.
The Phoenix Suns front office had utmost confidence in Dragic's abilities to fulfill the much-needed role of Steve Nash's backup, and even bought out the remainder of the 22 year old Slovenian's contract with Tau Ceramica in Spain just to get him in Phoenix as soon as possible.
However, Goran Dragic's rookie season was anything but smooth sailing. Dragic played in 55 games in the 2008-09 season, averaging just 4.5 points on 39% shooting from the field to go along with 2 assists and 1.3 turnovers per game. John Hollinger of ESPN famously referred to him as the "worst player in the league" and many people, including Suns fans, took to calling him "Goran Tragic" (conveniently ignoring, of course, the fact that Dragic is pronounced entirely differently from "tragic").
He struggled to escape new head coach Terry Porter's doghouse, and it wasn't until Porter was fired and replaced by Alvin Gentry midway through the season that Dragic began to show the flashes that had impressed Phoenix's front office: under Porter's reign, Dragic only averaged 2.9 points on 31% from the field and 1.7 assists in 26 games and under Gentry, his averages shot up to 5.9 points on 44% and 2.3 assists.
The Suns would miss the playoffs in 2009 for the first time in five years and Dragic entered the 2009-10 season with a year of experience under his belt. He and fellow draft-mate Robin Lopez showed that they were much improved from the prior year, and they became important pieces for a Suns team that far exceeded expectations en route to a 54-28 record and a #3 seed in the playoffs.
Dragic averaged 7.9 points (45% FG & 39% 3PT) and 3 assists in 18 minutes per game that season, becoming the capable backup the Suns had always needed in the Steve Nash era. Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson, and Dragic formed the league's best bench and became a huge part of the Suns' success. Dragic was quickly making a name for himself, but it wasn't until the second round of the 2010 playoffs that he became a headline.
The Phoenix Suns were leading the Spurs two games to none in the 2010 Western Conference Semifinals. Game 3 saw the Suns valiantly storm back from an 18 point deficit and the Spurs held a narrow lead at home heading into the final quarter. And this was the national stage that Goran Dragic used to emerge as a name to be reckoned with.
On May 7, 2010, Goran Dragic put on a show for the ages - the 23 year old scored 23 points in the fourth quarter and simply took over the game to lead his team to a dominant 3-0 series lead against Phoenix's nemesis in San Antonio (the team that originally drafted him). With a series of unbelievable shots and some fancy "dragonshakes," Goran Dragic destroyed the Spurs defense and shocked the NBA world. The player who struggled with confidence issues just a year before had suddenly done something no other player had in many years.
"The Dragon" was born.
With a vastly different set of teammates (in the summer of 2010, the Suns replaced Amare Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa with Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick, and Josh Childress), Goran Dragic had a tumultuous 2010-11 season in Phoenix. His numbers, especially his shooting percentages, fell across the board and at times, he resembled the nervous rookie of 2008-09. This even prompted the "Tragic" nickname to reappear at times.
After 48 games, first-year GM Lance Blanks decided to make a terribly short-sighted move by trading Dragic to the Houston Rockets for Aaron Brooks, who had also been struggling on his respective team. Not satisfied with giving up a young, talented all-around point guard simply going through a rough stretch, Blanks displayed his shrewdness by also sending a first round draft pick to Houston. Of all the poor decisions Blanks made during his tenure in Phoenix, this was easily the worst.
Goran, who was fond of Phoenix and the team that had welcomed him into the league, was "shocked" at the trade. This was his first introduction to the harsh reality of the business that is the NBA.
His play saw a nice improvement the rest of the season in Houston and he shot 47% from the field and a remarkable 52% from three in 22 games for the Rockets in 2011. Simply put, Dragic was killing it. However, it wasn't until the 2011-12 season that Goran really displayed just how much of a mistake it was for the Suns to trade him (and a first round draft pick) for Brooks, who spent all of that lockout-shortened season in China.
Dragic burst onto the scene in Houston after starting point guard Kyle Lowry became sidelined with injuries. His per-game season averages of 11.7 points on 46% FG and 5.3 assists in 26.5 minutes were solid on their own, but his stats as a starter were simply great: 18 points (49% FG and 38% 3PT) and 8.4 assists.
Moreover, Dragic began gaining a reputation as a clutch performer and quickly became a fan favorite in Houston, even prompting fans to serenade him. The Rockets narrowly missed the playoffs and Dragic became an unrestricted free agent that summer, garnering interest from several teams after a very good 28-game stretch as Houston's starting point guard.
On July 8, 2012, Goran Dragic signed a 4-year, $30 million deal to return to the Sun and replace his former mentor Steve Nash as Phoenix's point guard. In what's one of several uncanny similarities with Nash's career, Dragic found himself signing a deal with the team that welcomed him into the NBA after a stint in Texas that saw his game and confidence grow tremendously.
His deal was considered to be very favorable for the Suns when the ink was barely dry, and a year and a half later, it can be seen as an absolute bargain.
Dragic's return to Phoenix was all smiles - until the season began. The 2012-13 season was one of the worst years in Suns history - Alvin Gentry, who had been one of Dragic's staunchest supporters ever since the latter entered the league, was fired at the midway point of the season and his replacement, Lindsey Hunter, did absolutely nothing to improve team morale.
Through it all, Dragic's consistent effort and all-out play was the only constant, and despite the Suns' 25-57 record, fans can look back on that season as a year of significant importance to his career. It was his first full year as a starter and the difficulty of a such a tough season on someone as competitive as Goran can be seen as invaluable experience. Dragic enjoyed a career year in 2012-13, but truth be told, there was very little "enjoyment" seen from him on the court that year.
After such an awful season, the Suns went through an inevitable overhaul that began in the front office and coaching staff - with Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek taking the reigns as GM and Head Coach, respectively - and ended with a complete roster turnover - the 2013-14 Suns have 10 players who didn't suit up for them a year ago.
How did Goran Dragic respond to all this change? Incredibly well.
The Chinese New Year began last Friday, January 31, ringing in the Year of the Horse. However, I'm hereby dubbing 2014 the Year of The Dragon. Technically, Goran's stellar year began last summer, when he served as the leader of his national team in the Euro Basket. It then continued with a marriage to his girlfriend, a great start to the Phoenix Suns season, and the birth of his first child. Needless to say, Goran Dragic has been feeling pretty good lately.
On the court, Dragic has adapted his game to perfection after the arrival of Eric Bledsoe in the desert. The two of them had become one of the deadliest backcourts in the NBA and their play led to the Suns exceeding all expectations this season.
After Bledsoe suffered a knee injury, many expected Phoenix's dream season to come crashing back down to earth. However, Jeff Hornacek, Goran Dragic, and the rest of this Suns team had other plans. The Suns are now riding a 5 game winning streak, which includes a statement win in Indiana - where the Suns became the only team to beat the Pacers twice this season. Goran Dragic has stepped up his game immensely with Bledsoe out, winning Western Conference Player of the Week after averaging almost 27 points and 6 assists per game on 64% shooting over the last week - in just 29 minutes a game.
But let's forget about statistics and accolades for a minute. Let's just reflect at how far Goran has come in his NBA career and how much he's grown as a player. He's developed from a nervous rookie with shaky confidence to a fiery star with a killer instinct. That a player once referred to by a prominent and respected member of the media as "the worst player in the NBA" is now the leader of a playoff team is an absolute revelation.
Dragic's journey has been a testament to adaptation, determination, and growth. His steady improvement over the last couple of years has been so remarkable that it's impossible to try and figure out just how good he can be. I don't subscribe to the philosophy of placing a so-called "ceiling" on his abilities. He's 27, meaning he's nearing the age at which most NBA players enjoy the prime years of their careers. However, there's really no reason to limit just how much Dragic can continue improving. Suns fans are all too familiar with the idea of a point guard's prime being in his 30s.
If there's anything Dragic has displayed in recent times, it's that he steps up whenever he's needed and raises his game to levels most would have thought him incapable of just a year or two ago. How does he respond to losing Eric Bledsoe for an extended period? By averaging nearly 23 points and over 6 assists a game in the 2014 calendar year. How is he affected by coaches snubbing him from the All-Star game? By dropping 21 first half points on the best defense in the league in Indiana.
The consistency with which Goran has led this upstart Suns team is simply tremendous - the guy just doesn't have a "bad" game anymore, and his play has been a picture-perfect mesh with Jeff Hornacek's system and coaching style. Consider this statistic when analyzing just how much he's upped his game this season: Goran Dragic had four games of 24 points or more during the 2012-13 season. He had four games such games in the last week.
The Slovenian star has made it no secret that he'd love to be in the 2014 All-Star game. In the end, however, Goran Dragic would gladly take a playoff run over any individual accomplishment, and that competitiveness and drive to win is part of what makes him so endearing to fans. Here's what he recently had to say about his growth in the NBA:
"When I came to the league, a lot of people were saying Dragic's name was ‘Tragic.' That hurts a little bit. I always have those comments in the back of my head and try to prove to all those people that they were mistaken. I've proven to people at home and here that I can play. To hear people mentioning me for All-Star is an unbelievable feeling."
Next time you see Goran Dragic finish one of his unstoppable one-man fast-breaks, just remember that this was the guy many fans once called "Tragic."
Next time he hits a step-back jumpshot over an opposing big man, remember that this was the guy a former Suns General Manager packaged with a first round draft pick for a player who's currently Houston's third-string point guard.
And next time you watch him weave through traffic and shake a defender out of his socks with a patented "dragon-shake," remember that he loves Phoenix so much he came back to the Suns after that trade - and agreed to terms with Robert Sarver in a parking lot.
No, Goran Dragic may not be an All-Star. But he's the Phoenix Suns' superstar.
Long live The Dragon.
Special thanks to @Ed_2da_Werd for creating the feature image specifically for this article.
The Morrii - Markieff and Marcus Morris - are playing better than they have every played in the NBA. They attribute a lot of it to getting a chance to play together - a dream of theirs all along.
"He's my twin brother," Markieff Morris says of how they play so well when paired on the court. "We're a team within a team."
While Marcus has always been who he is - a big small forward who can play any wing position - his brother Markieff has suffered a bit from an identity crisis while trying to do everything at the same time. But the Suns drafted a power forward and really need that guy to show up.
This year, Markieff Morris is changing his game. He is embracing the "power" part of being a power forward more than ever before and now he has the results to show for it. But he's not taking total credit for the play of the Suns. He's embraced coming off the bench with his brother, and with the second unit as a whole.
"We are defensive minded first. Offense second," he said about the second unit that contains his twin brother. To be sure the team as a whole is a very good defensive team, and Morris has his best 'defensive rating' of his young career. Both Morris brothers are also pulling down the highest rebounds rate of their careers so far, together totaling 17 per 36 minutes.
But it's the offense that's so exciting to see.
In past seasons, Markieff Morris would float around the perimeter on offense to open up the lane for drivers, but his perimeter shot was not always reliable and, in the words of his coach, would get in the way of the rest of the offense.
"We don't want those guys floating around the free throw line," Hornacek said before Friday's game of both Morris borthers. "We have two guards - Goran and Eric - who want to penetrate. So if you sit in that area, you're basically just clogging it up."
He said it's a learning process, and that Markieff is working on staying down low. During the first two weeks of the 2013-14 season, Morris has repositioned himself much closer to the basket to be available for dumpoffs from the guards or his fellow big men.
"Those guys will penetrate, they'll dish it off to you," he said of the message to Markieff. "You'll get just as many shots on the baseline as you would standing around the free throw line. And then they will be higher percentage shots, dunks, takes to the basket where you get fouled. I think he's trying to do what we ask. Sometimes he forgets and he floats back up there, but that's a process with all these guys."
Markieff is getting more free throws as a result, to the tune of 4.2 per game and almost double last year.
"Definitely. With Mark West, we watch a lot of film and we weren't getting a lot of free throw shots. We have worked in practice and before the games doing a lot of basket moves, fouling, and we try to finish through that."
But it's not just positioning and getting free throws that has improved Markieff Morris' game. He is finishing close shots like never before. In fact, no NBA player since Dwight Howard has shot 75% or better in three consecutive games on at least 12 attempts (courtesy of Paul Coro) until Markieff Morris accomplished that feat in the past three, shooting 11-13, 10-13 and 9-12.
For the season, just six games old for Markieff who was suspended in game one for elbowing a player in preseason, is a pure revelation.
He is shooting 64.9% on field goals overall, with most of those shots within 10 feet of the rim. It's early, for sure, but his play must be celebrated because THIS Markieff Morris is outplaying his draft position for the first time ever.
"A lot of times," Morris said of his comfort level with this team. "Coach is calling plays for me to get me involved in the game on the offensive end."
Not only is Markieff scoring the ball well, he's also a very good passer.
"Yeah, I'm the best passer," he said. "Playing with Marcus in the early years we passed the ball a lot to each other and I just developed a knack for it."
Coach Hornacek calls Markieff one of the best passers on the team, and the stats prove it.
While Markieff has always gotten 1-2 assists per game, he is also second on the team with 0.8 "secondary" assists per game - kind of like hockey assists, making the pass before the pass that got the open shot. Goran Dragic is first on the team (1.0) while brother Marcus Morris is third (0.7).
Markieff Morris is also good at making scoring passes that result in free throws. These are assists that don't count in the raw stats because the shot wasn't converted. Nevertheless, Morris is second on the team in "free throw assists" per game, with 0.6 a night.
"I love it," Tucker said of how the Morris twins are playing. "The twins have accepted coming off the bench, playing together. With Ish coming off the bench with them, the way he pushes the ball you're going to get looks. The team scores, he gets it right back on them and they don't even know the ball is coming. That whole [bench] lineup is tough."
Markieff Morris has been named the Western Conference Player of the Week. From the press release by the Suns.
Morris helped the Suns to a 3-1 week, which included wins over the Denver Nuggets and a home-and-away sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans. The third-year forward tied for seventh in the Western Conference in scoring (22.8 ppg), 14th in the Conference in rebounding (8.0 rpg), eighth in the Conference in steals (2.0 spg) and led the league in field goal percentage (.698). Morris closed the week with three straight outings in which he connected on .750 or better from the field (11-of-13, .846 on Nov. 6; 10-of-13, .769 on Nov. 8; 9-of-12, .750 on Nov. 10). At 5-2, the Suns are off to their best start since the 2009-10 season.
A Phoenix Suns team projected to win the fewest games in the West now has claimed two of the 12 POW honors given out by the NBA this season, including All-Star snub Goran Dragic.
In twelve weeks of play, the Phoenix Suns can now boast of having the best players in the entire Western Conference during two of them. No wonder the Suns are 29-18 and sitting strongly in playoff position.
Markieff Morris won the POW Award in early November by putting up 22 points, 8 rebounds and 2 steals over three games off the bench. Markieff has followed up that honor with a career best season - 12.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, including 10 20-point outings and 6 double-doubles in 46 games without a single start.
In December, it was coach Jeff Hornacek winning Coach of the Month in the West, for the Suns 10-3 record against tough competition.
Now, teammate Goran Dragic is the conference's best player during the last week of January.
Dragic helped Phoenix to a 4-0 week, which included three road wins to complete a sweep of a four-game road trip as the Suns have tied a season-long with their current five-game winning streak. The sixth-year guard averaged 26.8 points on 63.9 percent shooting from the field and 69.2 percent shooting from three-point territory, in addition to posting 6.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds while playing just 29.2 minutes for the week.
Dragic tied a career-long streak with four straight games with 20-plus points, matching his streak from the previous time he won Player of the Week with Houston in 2012.
Unbelievable numbers from Dragic, really. He has stepped up his game in a way never done before.
"It's very difficult to be that guy that scores every single night," coach Hornacek said of Dragic. "Teams scout you, teams focus on you. You have to get in that mindset. The only way to be that guy that scores 20 points every single night is to feel like a guy who score on anybody. That's confidence, and obviously you have to have the ability. He's got that."
That's two Players of the Week and a Coach of the Month for the upstart Suns.
Let's keep this train rolling!