The Goran Dragic Decision

There has been a severe uptick in trade talks involving the Suns since just before the All-Star break. Goran Dragic is apparently attracting a lot of interest from the Rockets, Knicks, and Lakers looking to acquire Dragic before the deadline passes this Thursday on February 19th. Houston is the only team that would benefit on the court this season from Dragic’s presence while he would be used to start the free agency rebuild for New York or Los Angeles.

Dragic’s numbers have seen a slight but steady decrease these past season but there’s not much to read into here and no reason to panic. Dragic just hasn’t adjusted to roster changes as smoothly as the Suns hoped he would. The Suns acquired Bledsoe in a trade before last season from the Clippers who was then inserted into the starting line-up to share ball-handling and play making responsibilities with Dragic. This offseason Phoenix acquired Isaiah Thomas in a sign-and-trade with Sacramento, another starting-caliber PG who more often than not shares time with at least one of Dragic and Bledsoe, if not both.

Despite the decrease in numbers, Dragic is still an excellent piece and would be a great asset for any team. Of the three PGs, Dragic is clearly the best playmaker, although he trails Bledsoe in assists per game and is only marginally better than Thomas in the same category. The reason for Dragic’s decrease in assists per game is two-fold: the Suns offensive style and the players he shares time with. The Suns are not a pass heavy team. They are 30th in the in percent of field goals assisted (at 52%) per NBA.com, and it shows. Two years ago, sans Bledsoe and Thomas, this number was at 60% for 11th best in the league. Last year it dropped to 49%, good enough for last place. In any number of stretches the Suns have players like PJ Tucker and Gerald Green taking too many shots outside of the offensive flow, throwing up contested threes or contested midrange jumpers, and over-dribbling. Bledsoe’s usage rate is high and he stalls the offense often by going one-on-one with his defender, settling for a long step-back two or getting into the paint. Thomas, the Suns player with the highest usage rate among the three PGs, plays similar to Bledsoe although often settles for more threes. But Dragic dribbles and moves with a purpose and he has the best understanding of spacing among PHX guards. He’s quick to give up the ball and he utilizes the pick-and-roll with a primary focus to find the screener, in contrast to Thomas’ and Bledsoe’s more shoot/drive first approach. He is excellent at moving without the ball and evening out the floor. But, unfortunately for Dragic and the Suns, sharing time with two ball dominant and shot heavy guards isn’t going to trend toward more assists.

The Suns are put into a difficult position here with Dragic. He has a player option next season worth $7.5M and has almost no incentive to not to hit free agency this summer. The cap isn’t going to increase dramatically until 2016, but there’s no reason for Dragic to leave an extra $8M-$10M on the table next season just for a $12M-$13M increase in salary two-years from now. And with three strong bidders already public about their pursuit of him and more likely to come out of the weeds, his price is just going to go up. Financially, the Suns can afford him, even if he opts out. PHX has about $52M committed in salaries next season not counting Dragic’s $7.5M option. But competing with teams like the Lakers and Knicks willing to spend like crazy for a playoff squad/Finals contender, keeping him won’t be easy.

So there are two options for PHX. One approach is to keep him and hope he either doesn’t opt out or re-signs with you. The other approach is to trade him now. The thought process here would be: He’s going to opt out and leave anyway and his value will never be higher while PHX still has his rights. Plus, even an average return is better than no return at all and OKC is just going to take PHX’s playoff spot this year anyway. This season goes downhill (although depending on the return, maybe not) but at least the Suns get into what looks to be a good draft lottery to help shore up their front court. Let’s assume PHX trades Dragic and either gets back only picks or expiring contracts they can renounce. If this happens, they’ll have about $15M to play around with in free agency. That’s enough money to take a run at Wesley Matthews, Greg Monroe, or Draymond Green. That plus a lottery pick is not a bad start to a minor reconstruction.

For NY and LA fans, there’s a big benefit to getting Dragic now in a trade as opposed to free agency. Trading for Dragic now doesn’t help your season. Well it does, but only marginally. What it does do is give you more options this offseason and a better use of your cap space. If you sign Dragic this summer, you’ll be using a big chunk of cap space that could be used for a bigger name (Kevin Love, Kawhi Leonard, DeAndre Jordan, LEBRON JAMES (just kidding, Cleveland)). Ignoring cap holds other than Dragic’s ($11.25M), the Knicks have about $49M committed in salaries this summer and the Lakers have about $48M (not including options). If you trade for Dragic now, you get his Bird rights which means the Lakers or Knicks could use cap space to sign one or two other huge names and use the Bird Exception to sign Dragic. They’d need patience from Dragic and luck with timing, but this strategy is doable. Both the Lakers and Knicks keep their draft picks this year and both should be top 5, making that kind of two-year turnaround ridiculous (and probably unlikely, but still). Houston would also benefit from this approach. The difference for the Rockets is that they won’t really have cap space this offseason so getting Dragic now only makes it easier to keep him if/when he opts out. Missing out on Dragic this season makes it unlikely that he’ll end up in a Rockets uniform at all.

The tough part of this equation for all teams is that they don’t have a lot to give Phoenix in a trade. The Lakers have a lot of first round picks locked up in the coming years but could offer Jordan Hill’s expiring contract ($9M now with a $9M team option next season) and second round picks, helping the Suns front court now and giving them some draft consideration. Houston could probably put together the best package together picks-wise (as they’re likely willing to give up more), sending the 2015 first round pick NOP owes them to PHX with a 2015 and 2016 second round pick, adding Jason Terry and Clint Capela to make the salaries work. I’d also have the Rockets take Plumlee, who has been just atrocious, here if I were the Suns. The Knicks are in the worst spot and would probably need a third team to make a trade work for salary purposes since their players are not desirable but could send a 2016 first rounder (subject to DEN’s swap rights) or a 2017 first rounder with a collection of second rounders as well.

Marc Stein of ESPN reported on Saturday that the Suns are not looking to move Dragic and instead are looking for suitors for Isaiah Thomas in order to restore their roster balance from last season. From a basketball standpoint this makes sense. The lineups with all three-point guards are not generally effective and the lack of chemistry hurts more than their individual talents help. And playing two ball dominant point guards in your lineup group is difficult to manage offensively, not to mention the difficulty of matching Thomas up defensively.The big risk here is losing Thomas in a trade now and letting Dragic walk this summer, which is entirely possible. From a salary cap standpoint it’s harder to swallow. Thomas’ contract is fantastic. His stats last year were nearly identical to Kyrie Irving’s, although Thomas posted a higher PER and true shooting percentage with a lower usage rate. And keeping Dragic is going to cost a lot of money, whereas Thomas is locked in for about $20M over the next three years on a decreasing salary. That’s a far better situation for Phoenix’s cap sheet, not to mention Bledsoe and Thomas haven’t logged a ton of minutes together this season, so it is possible they could make that lineup work.

If it’s me, I move Dragic now. It more than likely kills your current season, but you have two high quality guards in Bledsoe and Thomas on good salaries moving forward and they’re only going to look better with time. Coaches can get creative with their lineups and stagger minutes to keep players happy and create better results on the court. Phoenix’s cap sheet is fine and with no Dragic they can make a run at a great free agent for $12M-15M and still have plenty of space to make a huge move when the cap skyrockets in 2016. But of course, I don’t know how Dragic feels about Phoenix or how tied he is to the franchise so the best move is anyone’s guess.

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