"All roads led back to Goran Dragic," said Suns President Lon Babby said at the press conference on July 19, 2012 to re-introduce Goran Dragic.
Dragic officially signed a $30 million, 4-year free agent contract with the Phoenix Suns. And with that, our Slovenian Luke Skywalker fulfills his longtime dream of finally taking the reigns from
Yoda Steve Nash as the Suns' point guard of the present and future.
To get here, Dragic had to experience an exile of sorts to learn and command the
"force" self-confidence needed to accomplish amazing feats on a consistent basis. With the Suns for the first two and a half of his four NBA years, Dragic experienced some incredible highs (26 points in a playoff game...in San Antonio...with 23 of those points coming in the 4th quarter!) as well as some depressing lows (playing so poorly in 2011 he was traded with a #1 pick for another backup PG).
But then Dragic set the NBA on fire again, this time for more than a quarter or a game at a time. He led the Rockets on a late playoff charge - at one point passing up the Suns like they were standing still (which they were) - before a late-season team-wide fade where everyone tailed off around him.
And now the Suns, in need of a #1 point guard, brought Dragic back into the fold.
"It was best for him (to go to Houston)...What's best for us is to bring him back," Babby said, looking at some notes. "There's an old saying. You have to be big enough to admit your mistakes, strong enough to profit from them and strong enough to correct them."
Hit the jump for a proper mea culpa from yours truly.
When Dragic was traded 17 months ago in a last-minute deal with Houston to acquire the reigning NBA Most Improved Player (Aaron Brooks), I was one of the few who agreed with the move. I wrote that Dragic had regressed, and that he had never shown the consistent self-confidence or command of the team to ever be the starter on a winning team when Nash inevitably left.
The second unit led by Dragic that season was in shambles. In fact, save for only a 3-month stretch in the spring of 2010, the second unit had always been in shambles under Dragic's leadership.
"My first two years in the NBA, I was a lost Euro," Dragic admitted with a chuckle at the press conference.
In his rookie season, Dragic played more than 25 minutes only twice, had more than 10 points only six times, and had more than four assists only 5 times. He could barely get the ball down the court under pressure, always turning away from the pressure which stifled the entire offense.
Yet, Dragic showed flashes of moxie. More than once, when the ball was stolen from him he would chase down the guy and steal the ball right back. And then that time when Jamaal Tinsley dribbled the ball between Goran's legs, on almost the very next play Dragic did the same right back to Tinsley. Dragic did not back down. Ever.
In year two, Dragic made dramatic improvements though he still had only 8 games with at least 25 minutes of court time.
In one of only two starts that year, he put up 16 pts, 10 assists and 4 rebounds in 40 minutes to lead the Suns to a win over an Oklahoma City team on a 9-game winning streak. In OKC. And without, by definition, the Suns best player in Steve Nash.
In a late-season game against San Antonio, Dragic led the Suns on a fourth quarter comeback against San Antonio where the Suns' second unit outscored the mighty Spurs starters to close out the win. Right there was a defining moment for that Suns team - that their bench mob could close the deal against some of the league's best. And that Dragic was the head of that snake.
And then of course there was the 2010 playoffs. When Nash struggled with his health in the opening round against Portland, Dragic's bench mob held up well in their scant minutes. Then against San Antonio, he had the magic 26-point game (23 in the 4th) in game 3. And against the Lakers, he had the famous run-ins with Sasha Vujacic and the ankle-breaking drive through traffic to help seal a home win.
But only twice in the playoffs did he get more than 20 minutes on the court, not with Steve Nash driven to play through obvious pain to carry the Suns to the NBA Finals.
Before the 2010-11 season started, I wrote an article warning that fans and media would expect too much from Dragic after the last memories of 2010. He was still Nash's backup, still destined for only 15 minutes a game. And still only an NBA baby.
Predictably, to me, Dragic struggled in 2010-11. He was one of the worst NBA players in that season - partly due to a lesser surrounding cast on the second unit, but mostly due to his own play. By February, with a new regime hoping for a playoff berth in their first season running the team, Dragic was traded to Houston for the disgruntled but reigning NBA Most Improved Player, Aaron Brooks.
I applauded this move. I saw regression in Dragic's third season and wondered if he could ever run a team consistently. I was looking past the here and now, and toward the post-Nash future. Brooks had a 68-49 record as a starter, had shown the ability to score against anyone and had done it successfully in the playoffs. I expected a lot from Nash's backup when Brooks showed up. We all know how that turned out for the Suns and Brooks.
"At first I was really sad," Dragic said. "But then I realized that was part of the business. It was the best thing to happen to me. I could play more minutes, I could demonstrate I could play in the NBA. I don't have hard feelings of any guys. That's why I come back. I like it here and I have a bright future."
If Dragic had stayed in Phoenix, we wouldn't know if he could be the long-term starter because Nash never sat out for extended periods of time. The front office would likely have signed a different point guard this offseason to compete with Dragic, and probably for a bigger contract. And Dragic may have chosen to make a new start somewhere else if that had happened.
But that's not how it went. How it went was that Dragic was "loaned" to Houston to get more minutes and a chance to prove himself. Kevin McHale loved him (and his 18 pts, 8.4 assists and 2 steals per game as a starter) and even wanted Dragic over Jeremy Lin and Kyle Lowry. But Dragic wanted to return to Phoenix.
"I don't have any hard feelings for this organization," Dragic said in the press conference. "Going to Houston was good for me, and I am really happy to be back and play for coach Alvin.
"Phoenix is my home. I have happy memories here, and I'm looking forward to give everything I got, to being strong, to battle. Thank you once again for the Phoenix organization for bringing me back home."
This time, he gets to come home to a place without Steve Nash for the first time since 2004. Fans will mourn the loss of Nash, and any point guard taking over Nash's position was bound to be put in a no-win situation.
But if you had to script it, is there any better option than the return of the Dragon from exile? Fans loved, loved, loved Goran Dragic. He represents a fun part of the Suns' history - that 2010 playoff run. And he CHOSE Phoenix over other opportunities, demonstrating his love for the organization.
"Kid, just wait for your opportunity," Dragic said Nash told him. "You're going to have one or two opportunities, and you've got to take advantage of it."
Goran Dragic is an underdog. A kid from Slovenia who couldn't shoot, pass or dribble under NBA pressure when he first arrived in 2008 after a protracted negotiation and large buyout from his Euro team.
So what's different now about Dragic that we didn't see in his first three years in the league?
"I became better at running the team," Dragic said. "I became more vocal on the court, talking a lot with players in Houston and coach Kevin."
Dragic mentioned "home" and "confidence" and "being verbal" several times in the 28-minute presser, while Babby mentioned "mistake" at least 3 times.
"Now, my fifth season in the NBA, and now I just know things. I learned from the best, Steve."
"The thing that I like about him is the intensity and the competitiveness that he plays with," Gentry said. "Becomes very important for what we are trying to do here."
Dragic - who was offered more money from Charlotte and also had heavy interest from Houston and Toronto - is looking forward to playing with Luis Scola next season, who was just claimed on amnesty waivers by the Suns a few days ago.
"Scola is a great player, a great guy. I played with him when I was 17 years old in Spain, and then in Houston, and now Phoenix. He is going to be a great help, a great leader."
It will help Dragic to play with several guys that he knows well, including Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Hakim Warrick, and maybe even Robin Lopez in addition to Scola. At the end of the press conference, Dragic stood and held up his new jersey with the number 1 on it.
"I chose No. 1 because it's a fresh start for me, it's a second time that I came back," Dragic said. "I'm a new guy now. I'm a different player, different person than when I was here. I want to have a fresh start here."
The first time Dragic played in Phoenix, it took the Suns two years to get the tilde over the 'c' in Dragic. Now it's there on day one.