Return of the Dragon: How the All-NBA Goran Dragic is Spearheading Miami’s Winning Streak

Vice Sports

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After Monday night’s win over Brooklyn, the Miami Heat have won eight games in a row. If they beat the

visiting Hawks on Wednesday, it’ll be their longest winning streak since the Big Three rattled off 27 in a row during the year in which LeBron James captured his final title in Miami. An injury-ravaged Miami had started the season 11-30 and trade rumors clouded the Caribbean air, but Miami has gone from jockeying with Boston (by way of Brooklyn) in the Markelle Fultz/Lonzo Ball Draft Lottery Sweepstakes to an outside chance at a playoff berth. They’re only 4.5 games back of Charlotte for the eighth seed, and it’s their point guard that’s led the way.

Goran Dragic currently has his highest player efficiency rating and true shooting percentage since 2014, when he was All-NBA third team selection, and he’s doing it despite the highest usage percentage of his career. Dragic is averaging 22.9 points per game during the streak, and connecting on better than 53 percent of his attempts from the field; he’s shooting 45.6 percent from downtown. His true shooting percentage in that span is 62.7, which dwarfs even that 2013-14 campaign. What’s surprising about this breakout is that it wasn’t clear until January, really, that this incarnation of Dragic still existed.

Up until this year, and in particular the last few weeks, Dragic’s 2013-14 Suns campaign felt like an odd blip of elite production in what has otherwise been a workmanlike but ordinary career. But that Suns team added a third guard that summer in Isaiah Thomas, then—bafflingly—traded Thomas and their one-time Slovenian dynamo in a deadline-day housecleaning that may rival the James Harden trade as most lopsided exchange of the last 20 years; Phoenix likely gave up two All-NBA players in those deals and brought back Brandon Knight, who is currently coming off the bench behind Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe. The deal was bad when it was made and has only looked worse since, but since Dragic was dealt to Miami and re-upped that summer, he never really found his footing. He arrived out of shape to start his first full season with the Heat, and then put up solid-but-not-sterling numbers as he worked his way back, flanking Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It was still nothing close to the levels he reached in Jeff Hornacek’s rookie season as Phoenix’s coach, when the media rightfully voted him as a top-6 guard in the whole Association.

But now, with Bosh and Wade gone, Dragic finally appears to have found that same All-NBA groove again, especially after injuries knocked out Justise Winslow for the long-term and Tyler Johnson and Hassan Whiteside in the short. Paired with Dion Waiters in the backcourt and surrounded by shooters like Luke Babbitt and Wayne Ellington, and with James Johnson making the most of his minutes off the bench and the sneaky good big man Willie Reed stepping in for the injured Whiteside, Dragic’s Heat have blitzed opponents. They have the No. 2 ranked defense in the NBA during that span, and a vastly improved offense; only Philadelphia scored fewer points per possession than the Heat until this current streak.

The offense is the biggest difference in the team’s surge, and much of that success is coming from Miami’s backcourt: Dragic and Dion are combining for over 44 points and 11 assists per game over their last eight games. Any Syracuse fans still delirious about Dion are going to like this next part: Waiters’ impossible-to-teach confidence—he almost single-handedly stopped the visiting Warriors with a game-winning three-pointer and career-high 33 points—has gone a long way towards emboldening his backcourt partner and instilled a bit of swagger in a team sorely lacking some after losing Wade to Chicago.

Perhaps it’s coincidence, perhaps not, but all of a sudden Dragic is the probing, all-court threat from Phoenix. Nobody uses their body quite as effectively as Dragic, especially when he’s driving into a forest of big men. He’ll crowd them, then push off to draw the foul and create an opening for a shot…

We could wax poetic about Miami’s defense, too, in particular the way they’ve been contesting three-pointers—opponents are shooting less than 32 percent from deep during their winning streak—but honestly it’s more fun watching Goran than it is drilling down on Spoelstra’s schemes. Aside from their new-found commitment to defending the arc, Whiteside and Reed give the team a two-fold paint presence, a must in today’s wide-open NBA where penetration is the norm. Plus, Johnson and/or Waiters can hold their own against the East’s star wings.

The NBA is a point guard league now, and right now the Heat have a very good one. What having the All-NBA Dragic back will mean moving forward is anybody’s guess; outside of the Pat Riley circle of trust, there’s no way anyone can know how this winning streak affects their long-term plans. Miami might dangle this All-NBA Dragic to hasten a rebuild, just like everyone expected when 2017 first tipped off; he’s sure done a lot to help his value. Or they could keep him, and and keep trying to make a push for the playoffs. Either way, it sure looks like the Dragon is back. Whatever happens from here, it should be fun to watch.

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