As I watch the NBA Finals, like many basketball fans, I can’t help but think: “Wasn’t Kevin Love, really, really, really good, like, just a few years ago?”
Despite all the good-player-bad-team-guy stuff, we all know Love can play. But I almost don’t remember how he used to terrorize opposing defenses. He liked to operate out of the elbow, take the above the break 3 and he flourished when he held the ball; and all that made him the ball-launching beast he was (and is?). Love can get there at times when the Cleveland Cavaliers get going but when things get stagnant, it’s easy to forget he’s out there. Stick Russell Westbrook in the corner, too; I’m sure we’d all feel the same way.
This leads me to another player who garners a similar feeling: Goran Dragic.
The Miami Heat traded for Dragic in early 2015, hoping he’d help remedy a Heat team who was a year removed from losing a super-duper-star and missing the postseason. The Heat traded four players and two draft picks for a Third-Team All-NBA (2013-2014) point guard who cloud run and gun.
Run. And. Gun.
In the 2015–2016 NBA season, Miami’s pace was—a Dragic-unfriendly—sixth-slowest in the Association. Dragic’s 2013–2014 Phoenix Suns team was top-eight in pace that year, per NBA.com/Stats
During Dragic’s standout year with the Suns, the team’s main lineup featured a stretch-five (Channing Frye), a sharpshooter (Gerald Green), a 3-and-D swingman (P.J. Tucker) and a more traditional big man (Miles Plumlee). That lineup canned 43.5 percent of their 3s—better than any team shot from downtown this season. In 2015–2016, the Heat shot 34.7 percent from behind that arc.
The Heat hardly shoot 3s (19.1 per game) or spread the floor, they don’t play fast and, this year, it’s most ball dominant players (Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, even Hassan Whiteside) aren’t know for their delegating.
This off-season, their have been theories broached that, for the Heat to clear cap space—for Wade, Whiteside or anyone else—they might want to consider Dragic as an expendable asset, even though Dragic was a huge cog in Miami's 2015–2016 playoff run.
Well, why not?
When Miami signed a five-year, $85 million contract with Dragic, the Heat were trading for an All-NBA talent who was stunted by a redundant Suns team. Dragic even took less than max money. So why throw all that away? The Heat traded for an All-NBA talent, but they’re not using him in that capacity. If the Heat want the Dragic who accounted for 10.3 Win Shares in 2013–2014, they know what they have to do: Give Dragic the keys—and not just let him borrow them for the second half of a season. He’s too good for that. They knew that, and that’s why they traded for them.
In 2013–2014, Dragic’s Suns shuttled their way to the ninth-fastest possession average: 14.7 seconds per possession, per inpredictable.com; this year, Miami’s average possession time was a seventh-slowest 15.7 seconds per possession. To put that in perspective, the fastest player in the 2016–2017 NBA Draft Combine’s three quarter sprint (three-fourths of the court sprint) clocked in at 3.12 seconds. Add a second onto that 3.12 seconds and it would’ve been the worst time by any player who ran.
The slowness of the Heat’s offense has some to do with personnel, but some of it has to do with play style. Where we see the Heat’s pace—or lack of it—impact Dragic’s game most, is in his free-throw attempts. According to NBA.com/Stats, during his All-NBA season, Dragic took 416 free-throws; this year, with the Heat, 165. Why? Less drives to the basket, a side of effect of worse spacing.
Once upon a time, in the 2013–2014 NBA season, Dragic shot 76.5 percent (130-of-170) on driving layup attempts, per NBA.com/Stats. That is crazy. Any time a player shoots 76.5 percent from anywhere, coaching staff should be bending over backwards—or any direction, for that matter—to get that player more of those look. So the Heat gave Dragic more than Phoenix ever could, and let him lay tarmac in the driving lane so he could careen into the paint at a career rate? No, they didn’t, and looking back, I don’t think anyone expected them to. Dragic slashed for 61 less driving layups attempts than he did in his All-NBA season. He shot worse, too (64.2 percent on driving layups).
With Wade still the Mayor of South Beach, it’s hard for the Heat to give one of the offense’s reins to another player, even if Wade says he’s willing to do so. Per basketball-reference.com, Wade’s Box Plus/Minus has been on the decline following his 2011–2012 season, while his usage rate has remained the same (31.6 percent). Wade is still an All-Star level talent, but if history has told us anything, we’ll see a decline in efficient production this coming season, too. You hear it constantly: Father Time is undefeated. And not even “Father Prime” (a new Wade moniker) stands a chance.
Dragic was good-not-great this past season. And he can do that again next season. But it's not about being good-not-great for Heat general manager and president Pat Riley, it’s about contending for titles.
We know what circumstances make Dragic great. We know that having the ball less is stopping him from being the guy he was in 2013–2014; we know that lack of spacing his hindering his rim runs; and as long as Wade is there, the keys to the offense will never truly be his. So why keep a player who you won’t allow to be great, while you could free up some cap room (by moving Dragic) and try and chase someone who you will allow to?
This off-season, the Heat could be in for some more rejiggering than some might think.