Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic has not tasted the NBA playoffs since 2010, but he's developed his game and now leads a winning team while flirting with career high scoring nearly every game.
Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic, one half of the "Slash Brothers" back court along with Eric Bledsoe, also known around these parts as DragonBlade, has flirted with his NBA career high several times this season but never exceeded it.
Back in 2010, as the backup point guard to Steve Nash on the Suns, Dragic went off for 32 points in a January game against the Utah Jazz, making 6 of 7 three pointers along the way. In the playoffs, he poured in 26 against the Spurs in what is still the most celebrated game of his career.
Over the next three seasons, he only exceeded 26 points twice - both last year - and tied his career high (32) once against tonight's opponent, Golden State, last April.
Last season, his first as a full starter with the ball in his hands on every play, Dragic reached his career high in scoring at 14.7 points per game. He was very consistent, with 50 of his 77 games resulting in 10-19 points and an even distribution of under-10 and over-20 games.
But this year is different. This year, with Eric Bledsoe taking some of the attention on offense and running point half the time, Dragic has approached games with a different mindset.
He's become a real scoring threat, pouring in a career high 19 points per game in his first 19 games. Before Christmas, he's already had more games (4) over 26 points than he had all of last season (2) in 77 games.
"If I'm going to be open, I have to take the shot," Dragic said after scoring 29 against the Kings on Friday night, including dropping 4 of 5 wide open three point attempts.
Dragic has grown from low-minutes backup point guard to fulltime scorer (19.0) and distributor (6.2) in a span of 2.5 seasons. But is Goran Dragic suddenly becoming a selfish player, thinking only of his own shots at the expense of the team?
Four times in the past three weeks, Dragic has flirted with exceeding his career high in scoring (32) but come up just short. In at least two of those games, Dragic entered the fourth quarter within easy striking distance of that career high, but barely took a shot as he led the team to victory.
Friday night was a case in point. Dragic entered the fourth with 29 points, but didn't score again as the Suns won handily against the Kings.
"I don't care," he said about the career high. "We were winning. Miles [Plumlee] was going, Gerald [Green] was going, E [Eric Bledsoe] was going, everybody was going. So it's fine. The most important thing is winning."
After experiencing his best individual season last year amid a terrible environment and the most losing he's seen in the NBA (25-57 record), Dragic knows what's important.
Dragic took only one shot all quarter - a wide open three that went halfway down before spinning out - as the Suns stretched the lead and took control of the game behind four massive dunks by Plumlee and several pretty shots and passes from Eric Bledsoe.
While he's scoring nearly 5 points per game better than his career high, Dragic is also assisting at the second-highest rate of his career as well, collecting 6.2 assists per game.
"If somebody else is in a better position to shoot the ball, I'll pass it to them," he said with a shrug. "It doesn't matter [about scoring]."
Dragic and his back court mate Eric Bledsoe share nearly identical stat lines this season, scoring and assisting at a high rate each game, lately earning the nickname "The Slash Brothers".
The offense clearly runs through these two. No one else on the team scores even 13 points per game, or creates more than 2 assists.
But just like Dragic, Eric Bledsoe cares nothing for individual statistics. Bledsoe did reach a new career high in scoring on Friday night, with 28 points against Sacramento.
"At the end of the day, I don't care about career highs or assists," Bledsoe said. "Whatever it takes to win the game, that's what I'm going to do. I just try to play off them."
When asked later who's block of DeMarcus Cousins was better between his and Miles Plumlee's, both of which spurred the crowd into raucous cheering, Bledsoe did not hesitate with his answer.
"Definitely Miles," he said. "Mine went out of bounds. His led to a transition bucket."
Whether you want to call them DragonBlade or Slash Brothers, the Suns trot out one of the best back courts in the NBA this season and all they want to do is win games. Career highs just come along the way.
"Can a man change his stars?"
"Yes William. If he believe enough, a man can do anything!"
In an NBA season there are 82 games, which amounts to a marathon. We have all heard the different analogies for what the grind of 82 games can look like so I will spare you here. One thing you can do is break the season up into four quadrants to analyze the play of any given team.
Obviously 82 does not divide out well into four quadrants, but any breakdown of 20-22 games works well.
For this first quarter breakdown we are going to look at the first 22 games of the NBA season, yes we are that far in, to see where the Phoenix Suns standing is in the NBA, how they are doing statistically, and a review of the players individually.
This team features nine new players, a completely new coaching staff, and a revamped front office. There was a lot of room for disaster with all the new faces. The double-edged sword that is a lack of an identity can go in any of two directions. Transcendentally bad (last year) or remarkably, unexpectedly good. For the Suns this year, they are the latter.
So, after 12 minutes (or 22 games) how are the Suns doing?
It has been referenced at ad nauseam by everyone in the NBA at this point, but the Suns were predicted to be either 29th or 30th in the league this year vying for the best position in the lottery. They decided to change their stars though.
Lets just run through the NBA Power Rankings as of about 3-5 days ago:
SB Nation 11th
Right now the Suns are tied for 8th in the NBA at 13-9 (59.1%) and riding a three game winning streak at the present time. They have traded punches with the best teams in the NBA and came out on top a few times. This may not be a Championship Team, but they are competing with everyone.
If 25 games is a measuring stick to a team as most people in the NBA feel is a quality sample size, then the Suns will be no worse than 13-12 at that point -- an above .500 team.
Last season the Suns were 7-15 (31.8%) after the first quarter and already looked at as one of the worst teams in the league. See, they decided to change their stars. Going back to the quote at the very top from A Knight's Tale a team can easily change their stars and fortunes. All they have to do is believe (as the Suns do) and put in the work (as the Suns have) to go from a bottom feeder to one of the early surprises in this young season.
Right now the Suns are somewhere in the middle of the pack in the NBA. Clearly they are more offensive dependent than defensive, but not to the point where they cannot get some stops. This team is 10th in the NBA (13.3) in combined steals and blocks, force 15.3 turnovers per game (7th in the league), and have shown great rotations at the three point line giving up the lowest percentage (38.8%) in the league.
The defensive potential is there, but as you will see below the team struggles to control the glass (11.7 offensive rebounds to opponents) and stop the bleeding in the paint.
Then there are the fouls. The Suns foul a lot. Right now they are 23rd in fouls per game at 20.6, but those fouls lead to the 9th most free-throw makes by opponents per game.
On the defensive end the team is defending the ball and the initial shot (11th in field goal defense and first in three-point defense), but not the glass or the paint. Most of the points and fouls come in the paint off of second chance attempts. This team is rotating tremendously better than last year. They are paying attention to the details and pieces fit better on the court compared to last season.
One thing that stood out on here besides the quality defense is the poor assist-to-turnover ratio. Right now the team is 27th in the NBA (1.18:1) at 1.18 assist to every one turnover. Something to watch as the season progresses.
So far this season the team has won with energy and fast-breaks. They are a young team that can get out and run, score, and are at their best in the open court. With the duo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, two of the better finishers at the rim at any position, they present unique challenges for defenses in transition.
Both are capable of handling, creating, and scoring in transition.
At this point the Suns are the No. 1 fast-break team in the NBA scoring 20.0 points per game in the open court, nearly three full points than any other team.
On the other side of things the Suns biggest Achilles Heel this year has been in the paint. They are not a great rebounding team nor particularly efficient at stopping opponents from scoring in any way shape or form inside. They are 28th in the NBA in opponents points in the paint and 30th in opponents second chance points. That is third from last and last in two categories that could become season killers if not corrected soon.
The team has talented guard rebounders, but the front-court as constructed will never be known for their rebounding prowess.
Out of the teams 102.4 points per game the team is scoring 35.6% of those points come in transition or at the free-throw line. The teams bread and butter. For their opponents, of the 100.2 points scored against the Suns nightly 66.0% of the points given up come from points in the paint or at the free-throw line. The teams Achilles Heel.
Back to the shooting.
This season the Suns have a True Shooting percentage of 55.9%, up 4.7% from last season and in the top third of the league. They are have an 52.3%, up 4.6% from last year. Again, top third this year compared to bottom third last year. The team is just shooting the ball more efficiently, more strategically, and more in their zones of comfort.
On the offensive end they are the 7th rated team (105.8) and move the ball with the 13th highest pace (96.58) in the league. They are more fluid offensively now with two play-makers as well as more shooters to spread the floor.
Defensively they are the 17th rated team with a net rating of +2.8 on the season, one of only 14 total teams with that distinction. The advanced stats do not love the Suns, but they rank, again, in the middle of the pack or so in the NBA after peeling back the numbers that make people think. General Manager Ryan McDonough is heavy into the advanced statistics beefing up that department this year.
Last season the Suns were a net negative. No matter the category or context. Advanced or generic.
A lot of this was covered throughout the review here, but to touch on some other elements of basketball as well as the eye test. After watching 38-41 games live last year and the sample size of 10 home games this year there are some wrinkles that the team is displaying different than last season.
Do you remember last year? If you do not remember here is a quick recap... The team's leading scorer averaged 14.7 points per game and they won 25 games.
This year there are two players averaging 19+ points per game and are more than halfway to that win total already. Here are a few other differences that are noticeable.
One, these guys seem to like to play with each other. That is a factor that cannot be ignored. Last season the team had strange age gaps with Jermaine O'Neal and Luis Scola as well as Michael Beasley and clicks. This year there is genuine chemistry, more of a familiarity in terms of age and life experience. They also have the common factor of being underused or underogs early in their careers before landing in Phoenix.
Two, they are shooting better. Last year the team had four players shoot 45% or better from the field. This year there are six of those shooters. More importantly five of the eight rotation players (20+ minutes a night) are shooting 35% or better from three. Jared Dudley was the only player like that last season.
Third and final point, they have a collectively better overall plus/minus. This year six of the eight rotation players have a positive plus/minus. Last year as a collective team no player had a positive plus/minus.
From a simple eye test perspective, no stats, just watching basketball this is a much more fluid team. Eric Bledsoe has great chemistry with Miles Plumlee. The Morrii are playing efficiently together for the first time in the NBA. Gerald Green is shooting the ball very well and P.J. Tucker is evolving his game. The one element that is more unfinished than anything else is the play of Goran Dragic and Bledsoe together.
They exploded for 57 points combined the other night, but they have not played enough together to get a feel for their ceiling.
Both of them play an attacking, slashing, aggressive style that requires the ball. Dragic has improved more than Bledsoe so far off the ball learning how to space the floor and be a weapon, but there is so much potential there with those two going forward.
Eric Bledsoe -- First Quarter Best Player
There has been a quiet reserved feel from Bledsoe early this season off the court. Early in the season that was the case on the court, but that has changed a lot. On the court Bledsoe has been a tough player on both ends of the floor making plays in a variety of ways as a scorer, distributor, and defender. He has teamed well with Dragic (more on him below) in the backcourt to put pressure on teams with the way he slashes to the rim and consistently makes his set three-point shot. More than likely there is a big payday at the end of the season for Bledsoe, but if the Suns can bring him back without breaking the bank this is a dangerous backcourt.
Goran Dragic -- First Quarter Most Important Player
When Dragic had Steve Nash as the primary play-maker, he was at his best. Dragic is an NAB starting quality point guard, but had zero help last year in terms of play-making, scoring, and putting pressure on opposing teams backcourts. This year with Bledsoe next to him he is +4.2 points per game this year while still producing as a distributor and defender. The magic of having other NBA play-makers on the court with you... He is shooting the ball at a ridiculously efficient clip (same for Bledsoe) and the offense will allow for more of the same as the season progresses.
P.J. Tucker -- First Quarter Mr. Do It All
Very few players do as many things as Tucker does on the court night-in-and-night-out. He defends the best opposing wing, rebounds the ball, makes a three, gets every loose ball, hustles, and never complains about the amount of shots he gets. Mr. Do It All is also the teams glue and makes a case for being the teams energy.
Channing Frye -- First Quarter Team Heart
There is no doubt that the story of Frye coming back from heart illness was a big pick-me-up for the Suns before the season and into the early part of the season. He has also been valuable on the court despite hitting a wall with his shot for a stretch Frye has become a reliable threat from three and a leader for the young front-court. While he is still playing himself into shape there is no question the value of Frye from an early half-court set to get a shot up or a trailer three in transition to swing momentum. All heart.
Miles Plumlee -- First Quarter "Wait, he is that good?"
Before the season General Manager Ryan McDonough spoke to me about Plumlee. He said he was the best player in the Orlando Summer League and really liked his potential as an athlete, defender, and rebounder. All of that could have been lip service, that is if Plumlee did not exceed his career totals in two games. After the first week Plumlee has cooled off, but if cooled off means 10 points 8 rebounds and 2 blocks a game then the Suns have a bargain at starting center.
Markieff Morris -- First Quarter Most Improved Player
Here are the numbers: +4.6 PPG +1.3 RPG +0.5 APG +10% FG and most important, -0.8 3PT FG attempts per game. He is playing very well from 15 feet in and is not lingering around on the perimeter extended as much as he has done so in the past. Maybe not the 6th man of the Year in a landslide, but the fact is Markieff is in the conversation with his play as of late.
Marcus Morris -- First Quarter Atta' Boy!
Somewhere Lance Blanks is sitting back, drinking a glass of wine, and smiling as his Morrii Project is coming to fruition. Or, he is still hiding from the people that remember the Michael Beasley and Kendall Marshall debacles. Oh, and Lindsey Hunter. More on Marcus though, he is doign a much better job playing in his lane, doing the things that he does best, and limiting the out of control "I am Carmelo Anthony" moments to a mute. Atta' Boy!
Gerald Green -- First Quarter Heat Check
Green's first shot is a heat check, his second shot is a heat check, and so on and so on.... Basically Green is always on fire so he comes into games, whether as a starter or a reserve, and fires away from three. The best part about that is he is hitting most of them and the coaching staff wants him to keep shooting the ball. Right now Green is in a position where he is battling the Morrii and Tucker for time on the court. The team is very deep with quality NBA talent.
Archie Goodwin -- First Quarter Rookie of the Team
So far this season Goodwin is on pace to be one of the better No. 29 overall picks in the past ten years. That is the grading scale for Goodwin this year by the way, not him versus his class, but him versus the general production of a player drafted that late. He is gaining some confidence and learning alongside the veteran guards. Nothing but good things so far from Goodwin.
Ish Smith -- First Quarter Co-Best Smile/Teammate Award
Smith gets limited minutes off of the bench this year with the dynamic point guards in-front of him on the roster. He has been a great teammate, is always happy to greet his teammates off the bench, and is just a positive dude on the roster. Always a good conversation before or after games and has the perspective in life.
Dionte Christmas -- First Quarter Co-Best Smile/Teammate Award
Last year Wesley Johnson nailed this down for four quarters, but man Smith and Christmas might duke it out all year for this. Christmas has a great smile. There I said it. He also is the go-to player for Coach Hornacek when the team is lacking energy and the main rotation players need motivation to get back on track.
Alex Len -- First Quarter Take Your Time, Dude
Nobody is rushing Len. When he was on the court he showed the flashes of being a quality big man on the glass, on the offensive end, and the overall skill-set of someone who might be able to start after adding a year or two of muscle to his frame. Len is practicing, learning the system, and working on his strength training. Even though he is not playing, Len is a major focus of the coaching staff. Kid also rocks a nice suit on game day and a gold chain at practice.
Viacheslav Kravtsov -- First Quarter Mr. Insurance Policy
This season Kravtsov has played 30 minutes total, a team low, but he is used strategically to counter teams with big burly centers and to motivate others when they are not playing up to par. Also, he brings the pain.
The Suns have won four straight games, and the play of P.J. Tucker has been a big factor in that success.
A year-and-a-half ago, P.J. Tucker was just looking for a job in the NBA. He blew his first chance as a second round pick by Toronto in 2006, and spent the next five years playing overseas.
Last summer, Tucker got a second chance as the Suns invited him to Summer League. He impressed the Suns brass with his hustle, and made the team despite not lighting up Las Vegas statistically. Most of us figured he was a bottom of the bench guy who wouldn't be much of a factor. Most of us were wrong, as not only was he part of the rotation, he actually earned his way into the starting line-up and was one of the bright spots in an otherwise nightmarish season.
Tucker's aggressive style of defense and relentless hustle on the boards made him a valuable part of the rotation despite his offensive limitations. Tucker wasn't content with just getting back into the NBA, however, and put the work in this summer to improve his game.
He's started all 22 games this year, and is up from 24 minutes to 31 minutes per game this season. He's putting up 9.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game in addition to being the Suns' best wing defender. Most importantly, and perhaps most surprisingly for those that watched him play last year, he's shooting 47.4 percent from the 3-point line.
Tucker is coming off a tremendous four-game stretch, in which he showcased all the things he does well. He opened the Suns' four-game winning streak by scoring 18 points on 8-13 shooting to go with his six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Oh, he also completely shut down Houston's star shooting guard James Harden, who finished with 14 points on 3-17 shooting and five turnovers.
Next, he put up a double-double against the Toronto Raptors with 18 points and 13 rebounds. Against the Los Angeles Lakers, Tucker struggled offensively but still managed to contribute with 11 rebounds, including a clutch offensive rebound late that basically sealed the game. Finally, he nearly put up another double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds in the Suns' first win in three tries against the Sacramento Kings.
Let's take a look at how Tucker has been so effective.
This first play is a really simple one from early in the Houston game, showcasing Tucker's technique and strength on the offensive glass.
In the above picture, Miles Plumlee is posting up on the right block while Tucker is on the baseline on the other side of the lane.
Plumlee goes up with the hook shot, and right away Tucker begins fighting for position. Originally he was sealed along the baseline, but he slides in front of his man and begins pushing him back.
Tucker simply overpowers his man, pushing him far enough back to give himself space to jump up and secure the board. He goes back up with it and gets fouled.
This next play shows off a couple of the things he is best at as defense leads to offense.
Tucker is playing tight defense on Harden as Dwight Howard has the ball out on the perimeter. Dwight is looking to hand off to Harden, but Tucker can see it coming with his peripheral vision.
Tucker stays right with Harden as he goes to take the hand-off, and punches it loose when Howard exposes the ball.
Then takes it in for a nice reverse layup as Harden flies past him.
Finishing at the rim in transition is one of Tucker's strengths. He had another play very similar to this one in the Toronto game where he stole the ball and took it all the way for two points.
This final play from the Houston game shows off Tucker's aggressive style of defense, which is what he is most known for.
Here, Harden is bringing the ball down in semi-transition, and Tucker is waiting for him.
Harden keeps coming at him, but Tucker stays in front of him and Harden leaves his feet.
Tucker didn't give him any room to get off a shot, and he had to kick it out to the perimeter,
Harden goes out to either set a screen or take a hand-off, and Tucker jumps on the Rocket with the ball to trap him on the sideline.
Harden gets the ball back, and Tucker recovers and gets back in front of him.
Tucker jumps out and gets right in Harden's face. He prevents Harden from driving middle and instead pushes him to the outside.
Harden gets past Tucker, but Tucker sticks with the play to make sure Harden can't get back to the middle while Markieff Morris slides over to protect the rim. Harden leaves his feet with nowhere to go and charges into Keef. Offensive foul.
This is the kind of defense Tucker played all game against Harden, and the defense he plays against everyone he faces. He made Harden work all game long just to get open, and was a big reason why Harden settled for 10 3-pointers (all of them misses).
This next play from the Toronto game shows the area he has most improved this season: as a shooter.
The play begins as Miles Plumlee misses a free throw. Tucker reads where the ball is going, goes up and gets a hand on it, keeping the play alive.
As the ball is tipped up and around and finally secured by the Suns, Tucker relocates to his favorite spot on the court: the left corner.
He gets the ball in his sweet spot and his improved stroke pays off as he drills the three.
This season, Tucker is shooting 14-25 (56 percent from that corner). He's 10-24 from the other corner for 41.7 percent. He's only taken eight total above the break 3-pointers (making three of them). It looks like Tucker spent almost the entire summer working exclusively on that corner three shot, and it is paying off in a big way for the Suns this year.
Let's look at one more play, another offensive rebound. Suns fans should remember this one fondly as it was perhaps the clinching play in the win against the Lakers.
It is a two-possession game with a minute remaining, and Channing Frye lets loose a 3-ball. Tucker is in his favorite corner, and when he sees the ball going up he runs to the rim...
And right by one Mr. Kobe Bryant, who fails to box him out. There are three Lakers in the paint, but Tucker has pu himself in good position.
He beats all three Lakers and is the first one to touch the ball ...
Then secures it for the Suns and gets the ball out to Goran Dragic, effectively ending the game. Thanks for letting it happen Kobe.
P.J. Tucker is not an All-Star, but his contributions have been invaluable to this Suns team's surprising success. Whether you call him "The Garbage Man" as he was dubbed by Suns.com's Greg Esposito or "Padlock" as one of our own Bright Siders have named him, P.J. Tucker's strength and effort have allowed him to succeed despite not having prototypical height or athleticism. After five years playing overseas, he has proven that he belongs in the NBA and is here to stay.