Goran Dragic: All-NBA First Team Candidate

via flickr | Mo Riza

via flickr | Mo Riza

It wasn’t long ago that Goran Dragic was considered expendable. Jeff Hornacek made his intention to employ a two point guard backcourt of Dragic and summer trade prize Eric Bledsoe well-known before the season, but most league followers deemed that decision wildly optimistic and even outright naive.

The offensive advantages of playing such a lineup were endless and obvious, we knew, but the defensive shortcomings presented by those units were even more dramatic. And there was a reason Hornacek wouldn’t be the coach nor Dragic and Bledsoe the duo to change those established norms – they just weren’t good enough.

But that was many months and almost 50 wins ago. Phoenix is in the thick of perhaps the most competitive race for a playoff birth in league history. Hornacek is a leading candidate for Coach of the Year, Bledsoe has played the best basketball of his career since returning from injury, and Dragic will receive consideration for several major postseason accolades. Regardless of whether or not the Suns grab one of the West’s last two playoff seeds this week, their season is already an unmitigated success, and their future brighter than anyone anticipated last fall.

And no individual – with apologies to the brilliant Hornacek, of course – is more directly responsible for the Suns’ meteoric rise than Dragic. That’s obvious. The Dragon starred for Phoenix this season in ways no one saw coming, putting up numbers more befitting a franchise cornerstone than potential trade chip. Only four regulars in NBA history have averaged at least 20 points and six assists per 36 minutes and shot better than 50% from the field and 40% from three-point range for an entire season; as it stands now, Dragic – along with LeBron James, Larry Bird, and “Downtown” Freddie Brown – is the latest member of that exclusive club.

We won’t remember the mind-blowing statistics when looking back on his season, though. We’ll think of Dragic’s step-backs, crossovers, wrong-foots, floaters, one-handed passes, and singular breakneck pace that fueled basketball’s most exciting offense. We’ll think of his craft, athleticism, and unmatched aggression surprising us on a nightly basis, and be reminded that he led a team of supposed first-round busts and career journeymen to the brink of contention.

Narrative drives the NBA more than we care to admit. The league’s feel-good story is in Phoenix this season, and the incomparable Dragic is its unlikely protagonist. That should matter as it has in the past when it comes time for voters to submit ballots for year-end awards, and not for any honor more than All-NBA First Team.

Dragic’s main competition for one of the two guard spots on that five-man roster are three of basketball’s household names: Chris Paul, James Harden, and Steph Curry. There’s an easy case to be made for all four players, and any argument for one over the others is minute nitpicking. Paul is still the league’s preeminent floor general, Harden the heartbeat of the NBA’s most explosive offense, and Curry perhaps the most skilled offensive player in basketball. All three have led their teams to playoff births amid varying degrees of volatile circumstances, and each player is simply better than Dragic in a vacuum.

But All-NBA teams aren’t awarded to honor the best time-tested talents, and surely not to confirm preconceived notions from early October. They should be a snapshot of the season at large, a quick and easy reminder of a particular year’s most impactful and prosperous – and there’s leeway in the definition of both terms – players at each position.

The case for Dragic, then, is an easy one. Think about it: In recalling 2013-2014 a decade from now, what success stories will loom largest in our foggy memories? Kevin Durant’s first MVP season and LeBron James’s seemingly effortless dominance, to be sure, but the list gets muddied from there. Joakim Noah has rightfully received a groundswell of support for third-place MVP and All-NBA First Team consideration over the last two months as Chicago has cemented themselves as a pseudo-contender with an increasingly depleted roster. Noah’s all-encompassing influence is louder and more easily recognizable than Dragic’s, but theirs is undoubtedly similar in scope. That one is close to a lock for First Team honors and the other anything but speaks to the strength of this year’s perimeter candidates – certainly not that Noah’s importance to his team’s success dwarfs that of The Dragon’s.

But in narrowing the crowded guard field on All-NBA ballots, it’s crucial to remember the following trio of qualifiers: In the 18 games Paul missed due to injury, the Clippers went 12-6 (.667) and scored at a rate better than their league-best overall mark; Harden’s sometimes mind-numbing offensive effectiveness is frequently matched by the very opposite on the other end of the floor; and for all of Curry’s on-ball wizardry and the collection of talent surrounding him, the Warriors rank just 12th in offensive efficiency this season.

Now, there are obviously two sides to every coin. The Clippers are +8.9 points better when Paul has been on the floor this season, Houston’s defensive rating barely moves irrespective of Harden’s presence, and Golden State’s relative offensive woes have more to do with an awful bench and questionable lineup construction than any deficiency related to Curry. But in a race so close, each player’s every strength and weakness must be considered. Frankly, the case for Dragic lacks the glaring hole – and no, potentially missing out on the playoffs isn’t one of them – of Paul, Harden, or Curry’s.

And that’s even before factoring the fairytale subtext that makes the case of Dragic so compelling. He was on the trade block in January! Bledsoe missed 39 games! Some thought Phoenix would be the worst team in the Western Conference this season! He cares about recognition!

So let’s continue bucking trends and continue beating odds, or simply continue honoring those most deserving. There’s no wrong answer in deciding between Dragic, Paul, Harden, and Curry for First Team All-NBA honors, but only one choice is righter than the others, and it’s for the player so many doubted and deemed disposable before the season began.

*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.

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Jack Winter