Miami Heat: Goran Dragic career comes full circle - Sports Illustrated

Goran Dragic’s Heat Career Comes Full Circle

More than five years after being acquired in a trade deadline deal, Goran Dragic is finally competing on a championship-level team for the Heat.
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Goran Dragic still vividly remembers his first meeting with Pat Riley.

Then an All-NBA Third Team guard coming off a 48-win season in Phoenix, Dragic was acquired by the Heat in February 2015 as a third star to pair with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Riley, as he’s seemingly done countless times, was sitting down with Dragic in his office before hitting him with his signature move: He threw his rings on the table.

“When you have a meeting with Pat, you’re already all eyes and ears. Then he goes into his drawer and pulls out his championship rings,” Dragic says, his voice sounding like his eyes are getting wider. “He tells me to take one, and I can have it for a little while until I get my own.”

Dragic said he was too scared to leave Riley’s office with one of his rings that day. But after hearing stories from all of Riley’s different championship seasons, his motivation for the next phase of his career was crystallized.

“Hopefully this is that year.”

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler celebrates with guard Goran Dragic and forward Bam Adebayo after defeating the Milwaukee Bucks

Dragic’s Heat career has been a long, winding, and strange road. The year he was acquired, the Heat never got off the ground after Bosh’s first blood-clot scare. In 2016, Dragic and Wade—along with vets like Luol Deng and Joe Johnson—helped Miami get to the brink of the conference finals, losing Game 7 in the second round, with Bosh now sidelined for the final time due to another blood clot. The next year, the Heat started 11–30 before a 30–11 turnaround in their final 41 games, only to miss the playoffs on the last night of the regular season.

In five and a half seasons, Dragic has played a smattering of roles. He was Wade’s sidekick. Then he was one half of the 7-11 duo with Dion Waiters. Then he started ahead of Wade during the legend’s sendoff season. And this year, he came off the bench for a Heat team that exceeded expectations before the pandemic suspension and hit their stride in the postseason—with Dragic back in the starting lineup.

“We have a superstar in Jimmy [Butler], an All-Star in Bam [Adebayo], veterans who’ve been in playoff fights, and young guys who aren’t scared. It’s just the right mix of players,” Dragic says, comparing his current Miami squad to his previous ones. “It’s a great mix, and I cannot forget about Spo. He is the best coach in the league.”

Spo, of course, would be Erik Spoelstra, who had to sit down Dragic nearly a year ago in his office to tell the point guard he wanted him to come off the bench in favor of rookie Kendrick Nunn. The bench conversation was the topper to an uncertain summer for Dragic. His previous season had been interrupted by knee surgery, which he was still recovering from. His name popped up in trade rumors while he was with his family in Europe. And then when he got back to Miami, he found out the team may have been trying to reduce his role. The trust he had with Spoelstra, however, made it easier to buy in.

“It doesn’t matter what the topic is: He’s going to tell you the truth straight to your face,” Dragic says of his coach. “He’s going to be diligent. He’s going to do it with passion. It wasn’t an easy conversation, but I know if it’s coming from Spo, he’s going to be honest. You can accept it.”

Dragic’s ability to adapt for the sake of the team is perhaps the defining characteristic of his Heat tenure. He’s played with a variety of backcourt mates at different stages of their careers, on teams with a variety of goals. He was a third star. Then a leading scorer. Then a sixth man. And now, a starter on a conference finalist.

Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic shoots against Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe and guard Wesley Matthews during the first half of game two of the second round

The latest star Dragic has had to make room for is Butler, a big talent with an even bigger personality, playing on his fourth team in the last four seasons, with acrimonious exits from each of his previous stops. Not only has Butler found the perfect fit in Miami, he’s formed a friendship with Dragic, who says Jimmy is one of his closest teammates off the floor.

“If I’m honest. I don’t know, it just happened,” Dragic offers. “He loves soccer, he’s a really funny dude, he’s a character, and I’m not afraid to tease him back.”

As for what Dragic likes to get on Butler for?

“I always tease him about PSG, his soccer team,” Dragic says. “We watched the Champions League final together, and actually that time I didn’t tease him, he was in a bad mood. I thought, ‘Now is not a good time.’ With his Big Face coffee, I tell him ‘It’s too expensive. I’m not coming to your coffee shop.’ I tease him about his mustache, too. I even bought him a mustache gel, or whatever you call it. He never uses it.”

Even if Butler refuses to use the grooming products his teammates acquire for him, the Heat seem like a tight-knit group. Dragic says the whole team makes it a point not to just be isolated in their hotel rooms. Whether it’s watching soccer or finding more affordable coffee shops than Butler’s pop-up brewery, Dragic says the team does things together to help combat the mental health struggles of being stuck in the bubble, and he believes that shows up on the court.

It’s certainly working for Dragic. After averaging 16.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game during the regular season, he’s become more of a scorer in the playoffs, averaging 21.1 points a night. Though he credited both Indiana’s and Milwaukee’s defenses (“Brook Lopez is huge!”), Dragic feasted against their more conservative coverages. He pulled up for threes when guards went under screens and also found success with his floater against bigs who dropped too far back into the paint. As a result, Dragic is neck-and-neck with Butler for Miami’s scoring lead in the playoffs, while also giving Adebayo a run for his money in assists for good measure.

“It’s not my goal to be the main scorer,” Dragic insists. “It’s whatever the opponent gives. I feel comfortable with my floater and everything. I didn’t talk with Spo about being more aggressive. He trusts me to make the right play.”

After facing the No. 1 regular-season defense in Milwaukee, the conference finals won’t be any easier for Dragic and the Heat. The Celtics just finished putting Toronto’s offense in a vise-grip, and Boston plays a much more aggressive style of defense than Miami’s previous two opponents. Dragic won’t have a lanky center to take advantage of; instead, an athletic, switchy and well-coached defense awaits. And he’ll also have his hands full with Kemba Walker, who had a couple of huge scoring nights against Dragic when the two were matched up in the first round of the 2016 postseason.

Then again, nothing has been simple since Dragic landed in Miami more than five years ago. Championship expectations rose and cratered. The ball went in and out of his hands. Teammates came and went, and one even returned. If Dragic finally wants to compete for the ring he briefly held in Riley’s office, he’ll have to do what he’s always done: adapt.