Tuesday December 29th, 2015

Goran Dragic’s Miami Heat career began under a cloud.

In the moments the organization was finalizing a deal for the then-Phoenix Suns point guard, it learned Chris Bosh’s career could be in jeopardy because of blood clots found on his lungs.

After Miami stumbled to a non-playoff finish last season, excitement was renewed in the summer, when Dwyane Wade re-signed, Bosh made a full recovery, and Dragic signed a five-year deal. But all was not great for the Slovenian point guard, whose wife was dealing with complications from her pregnancy back in their home country. 

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​Dragic’s family remained overseas when the season started and his play was noticeably off its usual fast-paced, deft-finishes-at-the-rim mark, making some wonder if Miami was right to sacrifice two first-round picks to acquire him.

“It’s always tough when you switch teams,” Dragic told SI.com. “It’s different just from last season. We have so many pieces. It takes time to put them together and function as a team. I was struggling a little bit, but it’s getting better. We’re professionals, we know it takes time. I like the challenge.”

Dragic’s play has certainly resembled what the Heat hoped for as of late. Starting with a home win over the Thunder on Dec. 3, the point guard has looked more aggressive on the court. In the month of December, Dragic has increased his points per game, assist percentage and assists to turnover ratio. 

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra preached patience early in the season, when Dragic wasn’t playing up to expectations, and recently praised his point guard’s “competitive disposition.”

“His approach is the most important thing,” Spoelstra said. “He will continue to get better. I hope where our team is now isn’t where we are in the spring.”

Dragic credits his recent uptick in play to increased confidence and an comfort with the Heat’s playbook. The Heat play significantly slower than Dragic’s teams in Phoenix, but he now feels more in control in Miami, and he knows when and where to get the ball to Wade and Bosh.

Of course, for the Heat to have any hopes of stopping LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, the team will need Dragic, Wade and Bosh to work in concert.

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The Dragic-Wade pairing doesn’t appear to fit on paper. Both need the ball in their hands to be successful, and Wade neither runs nor shoots threes like Dragic’s running mates in Phoenix. But Dragic said their relationship, on and off the court, is developing positively.

“D-Wade is the main guy with this franchise,” Dragic said. “He’s going to be a Hall of Famer. I don’t even know how many All-Star games he’s been to. You can learn a lot from him. Everything is a work in progress. I’ve never played with this kind of shooting guard. He needs the ball a lot, but we know what he can do. I just need to find my spots. So far, we’ve been communicating well and playing well together.”

Wade said he was equally excited to play with Dragic once he arrived, saying from afar he immediately noticed Dragic’s finishing ability and toughness. Wade also noted the Heat play a completely different style from Dragic’s Suns teams, and the nature of Eastern conference basketball is also a little different. 

“And when you have so many individual pieces, you can’t be judged solely on the numbers,” Wade said. “We’re all still trying to figure out what he brings to our game.”

Wade’s usage rate is still very high—he’s seventh in the league, ahead of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant—but his and Dragic’s two-man net rating has improved from last season to this one, and could go higher if Dragic continues his recent stretch of play.

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For Dragic and Bosh, the connection seemed much more clear. With Bosh’s improved outside game—he currently leads the Heat in threes—the pairing was supposed to conjure memories of Dragic’s pick-and-pop game with Channing Frye, a devastating duo that wreaked havoc on NBA defenses.

But the matchup which looked perfect on paper has also been slow to develop. 

“We’re months and months away from peaking. There’s still a huge upside we can obtain,” Bosh said. “We only sprinkle in a little bit [of our two-man game] because we have so much depth and so much talent that we have to get the ball moving. [Dragic and I] can’t just say we’re going to run screen-and-roll and it’s going to work. I understand where everyone is coming from. They want to see that instant gratification, and I do too. But it takes time.”

Dragic added that his game with Bosh doesn’t resemble his with Frye. In Miami, Dragic says, more of his pick-and-rolls with Bosh are initiated from the side, usually requiring Bosh to swing the ball to find an open shot. So, what does work for Dragic?

The point guard admitted his favorite lineups feature Luol Deng at power forward, Bosh at center, and a combination of Wade, Gerald Green or Justise Winslow at the wings. And these are the lineups that could ultimately unlock the Heat’s potential.

It’s been no secret Dragic has struggled when sharing the court with two bigs. Hassan Whiteside, for all his rim-running glory, is still an inconsistent screener and reluctant passer. For a team emphasizing ball movement, Whiteside’s presence can be stifling at times. The Heat’s starting five of Dragic , Wade, Deng, Bosh and Whiteside actually has a net rating of 2.4, the worst amongst its four most-used lineups.

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On the flipside, lineups with just one big—Bosh or Whiteside—seem to fit Miami’s personnel better. Both Bosh and Wade said independently of each other how much more space those lineups give Dragic, allowing him to penetrate and speed up the pace.

Green, who also played with Dragic in Phoenix, believes the smaller lineups work better in transition as well. Dragic isn’t afraid to take on multiple defenders in the paint, but having the extra outlets on the wing improves Miami’s attack while running.

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Defensively, the Heat have actually been a better team with Whiteside off the court. Deng still brings toughness at the four, and Bosh allows the team to more aggressively attack offenses. Whiteside likes to hang closer to the rim, while Bosh is more comfortable playing on the perimeter. Though Deng has seen more time at the four than any other season in his career, it wasn’t until Josh McRoberts missed a few games Spoelstra has tapped the lineup for closing games.

It remains a delicate balance between having Bosh and Whiteside share the court or having only one on. Whiteside has played more often in the fourth quarter recently, with varied success for Miami. Multiple players on the Heat—including Wade and Bosh—said Dragic is at his best when he is aggressive with the ball. Allowing their star point guard more opportunities to handle the ball, even at the expense of Wade, could help Spoelstra stabilize an offense that flashes greatness but too often stagnates and blows leads.

Of course, Miami has little time to figure out how exactly its offense will come together. The Heat are about to embark on a loaded road-heavy schedule. The team will play only 10 home games in January and February combined, and can’t afford to drop many in a crowded East. But for an organization hell-bent on judging itself by playoff success, a couple more experiments lineup-wise could pay big dividends.

For now, Dragic’s improved play and the Heat’s continued lineup tinkering has Miami firmly within the second tier of the East. The Heat’s hopes of knocking off LeBron are still slim at best, but at the very least, they are much brighter than the day Dragic arrived.

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