TrueHoop: Goran Dragic

Nobody wants to be 'Most Improved'

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
10:49
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The Most Improved Player often goes to non-famous players, but according to Amin Elhassan, the award also never goes to the right player.

video

How Suns get upgrade over Steve Nash

October, 27, 2012
10/27/12
12:35
PM ET
By Jose DeLeon, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Goran Dragic (left) is back in Phoenix to replace Steve Nash (right). What does Dragic bring to the table that the two-time MVP didn't?
This is the second installment of a series called “Missed or Not Missed?”. The concept is simple -- we take a look at a few Western Conference teams and determine if the players they’ve lost will be missed or if the player they brought in will make them forget that loss.

The Phoenix Suns couldn’t compete with the elite teams in the West and traded Steve Nash to the Los Angeles Lakers. In comes Goran Dragic for a second stint and he becomes one of Phoenix’s focal points. Will the Suns be better off with a younger point guard running the show?

Pick & roll master
Few have Nash’s stellar ability to hit the roll man on pick-and-roll plays. He led the league last year with the most passes to the roll man (375) and his teammates made him look good as they ranked first in points per play (1.18) and field-goal percentage (60.3).

Dragic was one of 15 players with at least 160 such plays and is a formidable pick-and-roll player, but his teammates ranked eighth in field-goal percentage and ninth in points per play on the pick-and-roll.

Younger, fresher legs
Dragic, who is 12 years younger than Nash, is a great jump shot defender. There were 121 players last year who were involved in at least 130 plays where they defended a jump shot. Of those 121, Dragic held his opponents to the fourth-lowest field-goal percentage (30.8) and the sixth-fewest points per play (.81).

Nash, on the other hand, allowed his opponents to shoot nearly 40 percent on jump shots and allowed an average of more than a point per play.

Friday Bullets

July, 27, 2012
7/27/12
1:39
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

Flop of the Night: Corey Brewer

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
12:41
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
HoopIdea wants to #StopTheFlop. To spotlight the biggest fakers, we present Flop of the Night. You can help us separate the pretenders from the defenders -- details below:

Corey Brewer has apparently been training with the Cobra Kai. Midway through the fourth quarter of the Nuggets' crucial game against the Houston Rockets, the lanky wing found himself open for a big 3-pointer. That's when Brewer decided that instead of his usual shooting motion, he needed to "SWEEP THE LEG!"
Corey Brewer
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty
Corey Brewer's normal shooting motion.

Luckily, this is the NBA, not a junior karate competition, so no one was hurt, or even endangered. But check the video evidence: As Rockets guard Goran Dragic sails past him, Brewer awkwardly extends his right leg and draws three free throws.

Here's how (I imagine) the conversation between Nuggets Coach George Karl and Corey Brewer went before the game.

Karl: Corey, I want you to score when you shoot from 3.

Brewer: But Coach, I can make a 3-pointer...

Karl: I don't want you to make the shot, I want you to score!

Brewer: But I'll be a flopper!

Karl: I said ... score. Sweep the leg.

---

When you see an egregious flop that deserves proper recognition, send us a link to the video so we can consider it for Flop of the Night. Here's how to make your submission:
  • Alert HoopIdea to super flops with the Twitter hashtag #FlopOfTheNight (follow us on Twitter here).
  • Use the #FlopOfTheNight hashtag in Daily Dime Live.
  • E-mail us at hoopidea@gmail.com

Killer lineup: The Rockets' grenade

April, 13, 2012
4/13/12
10:10
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive



Houston Rockets
Goran Dragic | Courtney Lee | Chandler Parsons | Luis Scola | Samuel Dalembert
Minutes Played: 157
Offensive Rating: 112.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 96.4 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
Very well, thank you.

The biggest challenge is finding court time together now that Kyle Lowry has returned to action after suffering a bacterial infection. Now that Lowry is back, this unit hasn't seen any time together over the past couple of games, even though it's largely responsible for Houston's success during Lowry's prolonged absence.

It's important to offer a disclaimer on Lowry. He's a unique talent at the point, an incredibly efficient fireplug who has led the Rockets in adjusted plus-minus over the past two seasons. His presence at the top of the floor has often saved the Rockets' defense from calamity, and the success of any lineup sans Lowry should in no way be regarded as a denigration of his skills.

Goran Dragic is a different sort, a whirling dervish of a point guard whose hunger to pressure the defense is perfectly suited to the Rockets' offensive imperatives.

Dragic is always on the attack, and most of the action in the half court plays off his dribble penetration. Here's where Dragic is so dangerous: Trap him and he's likely to create a 4-on-3 game. And once he gets free off the dribble, he'll instantly identify where the help is coming from. Houston invites or, at the very least, tempts the defenses with high screens from Dalembert. This drags Dalembert's defender up top, usually in the right slot. If, rather than blitzing, teams feel compelled to fight over these screens, Dragic's quickness can leave defenders trailing him, biting his ankles as he zips through the lane.

Once Dragic finds daylight, teams often help off Dalembert, but if that big defender steps up, Dragic will guide Dalembert to the rim with a bounce pass for the easy flush. If the defense leaves Chandler Parsons open, he will lift to a spot on the perimeter, where Dragic will find him with a kickout for an open shot. Parsons isn't a knockdown shooter, at least not yet, but give him a wide open look from beyond the arc, and the Rockets can live with that.

In addition, much of the secondary action off Dragic's initial attack is designed to get Luis Scola open along the baseline for a midrange jumper, often via a two-man game with Courtney Lee, an underrated shooter and creator who doesn't make a lot of mistakes and can do a little bit of everything. Scola will also see his fair share of entry passes off the mid-post right from the outset.

Don't you dare help off Scola along the baseline! Dragic will find him, even in traffic. Much of the offense is focused on setting Scola up just off the right block and putting the defense in a position where it has to make an impossible choice. Dragic will drive right, forcing Scola's man to slide over to collapse on a driving Dragic. When that happens, Scola is left open for an uncontested baseline jumper on the right side, a shot Scola has nearly perfected.

And that's the thing about playing with a speed demon who has a tight handle. You can be an obscure second-rounder, or unathletic, or a not terribly skilled center. In many ways, Scola is the closest thing this lineup has to a complete player. As long as you can read the action and move to a spot on the floor where you know you can do some damage, the offense will profit, because Dragic will make the defense pay.

How it works defensively
Comme ci, comme ša.

Houston runs more of an ad-hoc defense than a systematic one, and for the personnel in this unit, that's not a terrible thing. Coverages on pick-and-rolls, whether they occur up top, at an angle or on the side, tend to be situational. This unit will gamble as a group (e.g., aggressively double bigs from the top side). They trap most side pick-and-rolls, knowing they can entrust Dalembert to provide a strong last line of resistance at the rim if the defenders get split.

Dragic isn't big, but he seems to take high picks personally and will try to fight mightily over every last one. This is a good thing, because Scola needs time to get back into a play, and can afford to wait around all night for his guard to bust through a screen. This defensive unit isn't always ferocious at the point of attack on high ball-screens, but the three guys behind the action know where to be when action is initiated. Each is smart and aware. The wings know when to collapse and when to protect the perimeter and let Dalembert do his thing. As a side note, did you know Dalembert occasionally likes to eat goat before a game when he needs a little boost? Says it gives him strength.

Even though this quintet doesn't have any overwhelming strengths as a unit (aside from Dalembert's shot-blocking), it performs almost every defensive task as a marginally above-average level relative to the rest of the league. They protect the glass and avoid fouling. Opponents shoot well, but not exceptionally. Most shots are contested because the rotations are prompt and this group makes a point to chase shooters off the arc.

Parsons has a lot of versatility as an isolation defender, and any 6-foot-9 forward who can match up against perimeter scorers comes in extremely handy. He uses his lateral movements to wall off the paint against even the most lethal wings in the league, and concerns himself with guarding the space in front of his man as he does bodying up. His height affords him the luxury of rarely falling for a ball fake and, off the ball, he'll lock onto his assignment. The Rockets will often cross-match Parsons and Lee, if the opponent's 2-guard is the most dynamic threat on the floor. This will occasionally leave Lee vulnerable to bigger guys who are hungry to post him up.

In many respects, the defense operates under the same general premise of the offense. Apart from Dalembert, everyone knows his role, which isn't all that explicit. That role is simply to not make mistakes and to be mindful of where the defense might be exposed. If you can't address it one-on-one, make sure you know where Dalembert is stationed.

It doesn't matter if it bends, just so long as it doesn't break.

Lakers, Rockets win in unusual manner

February, 10, 2012
2/10/12
2:32
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
A snapshot look at an abbreviated NBA schedule on Thursday:

Lakers win, but it wasn’t easy
The Los Angeles Lakers won one the hard way in Boston.

The Lakers went 1-for-15 (6.7 percent) from 3-point range in their overtime win over the Boston Celtics. The last time they shot worse than that and won on the road was on December 16, 1999 (won at Atlanta, 95-88, despite going 0-5).

The Lakers have won four straight games in Boston, the last three by one point, and the last two coming in overtime.

Kobe Bryant snapped a streak of three straight games in which he shot under 40 percent from the field (he was 11-for-24 in this one) and scored 27 points.

Kevin Garnett, who was 19-for-27 from the field in his last 2 games, was 6-for-23 in this one. As noted in the Daily Dime, the 17 misses were his most in a game since December, 2004.

Feat of the Night
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry scored 36 points while going 13-17 (77 percent) from the field.

A check of Basketball-Reference.com shows that the last Warriors player to shoot that well and score that many points was center Rony Seikaly on December 30, 1994. Seikaly totaled 38 points on 12-14 (86 percent) from the field in a loss at the Mavericks.

Also of note: Steve Nash had his 12th game this season of at least 10 points and 10 assists. At age 38, leads the NBA in 10/10 games, with one more than 21-year-old Ricky Rubio and 27-year-old Deron Williams.

Streakbusters
Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan had their streaks of 14 and 13 consecutive All-Star selections come to an end when they were not picked to the All-Star team on Thursday.

The Golden State Warriors extended their streak of consecutive seasons without an All-Star selection to 14. Their last All-Star representative was Latrell Sprewell in 1996-1997.

Plus-Minus Note of the Night
The Houston Rockets won again with their bench in a 96-89 win over the Phoenix Suns.
Goran Dragic
Dragic

Each of the five Rockets starters had a plus-minus of -13 or worse. But all five subs that head coach Kevin McHale used finished with a +17 or better.

Reserve point guard Goran Dragic was a +27 against his former team, the best plus-minus tally of his 232-game career. He finished with 11 points and tied a career high with 11 assists.

This was the second straight big game for the Rockets bench, which scored a season-high 66 points in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.

Let 'em walk

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
3:38
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
The unknown factors in the Chris Paul trade saga remain a mystery. Smart people are still asking the right questions, but we still don't know what governed the decision to veto a three-way trade between the Hornets, Lakers and Rockets, then sign off on a package from the Clippers.

We don't know to what extent that first deal was agreed upon by front office principals in New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles. We don't know whether the subsequent rejection of that trade for "basketball reasons" was just that -- a statement about the contents of the package, or whether the league had ulterior motives like throwing a bone to a segment of owners or listening to the wishes of a potential buyer.

What few have asked is why the Hornets felt the dire need to trade Chris Paul in the first place, a question Mavericks owner Mark Cuban addressed over the weekend in an interview with TMZ:
[W]e went through a long lockout, and one of the things we were trying to gain was that small-market teams could have confidence they could keep their star players ... There would be enough financial incentives for them to stay with the incumbent team. And within two weeks of the new collective bargaining agreement, the smallest-market team, which is owned by the NBA, threw up their hands and said, ‘We can’t keep our star player.’ So it’s not about Chris Paul. It’s more about the fact that the NBA kind of gave up on the CBA before giving it a chance. And to me, that made them kind of hypocritical -- or very hypocritical -- which didn’t sit too well with me...

... We had a lockout. What was the purpose of the lockout? One of the goals of the lockout was to have more parity. With free agency, players are always allowed to choose wherever they want to go, but they have to make a decision. Do they want to stay with their existing teams and make the most money, or leave on their own terms to wherever they want to go with cap room and take less money? My personal belief is 90 percent of the time players are going to take the greater money, which meant that Chris Paul could've, would've -- or any star player could've, would've -- wanted to stay in the smaller market. And you’ve got other teams that are making that conscious decision to stick it out like Orlando is doing. But of all the teams not sticking it out, you would think the team owned by the NBA and run by the commissioner would be the first to stick it out, and they weren’t. And to me, it’s hypocritical, and threw a lot of us under the bus.

Cuban argues that a team owned by the NBA should've been faithful to the spirit of a collective bargaining agreement that makes superstars choose between destination and treasure. Had Chris Paul opted out of the final year of his contract with New Orleans and chosen the Lakers, then so be it. Paul would've had to settle for only $75.8 million over four seasons rather than the $100.2 million over five seasons he could've earned only with the Hornets.

Critics of Cuban's argument would say that an unwillingness to trade Paul could mean the Hornets would be stuck with nothing in return.

But is nothing really so bad?

Wasn't the initial proposal -- which would've netted the Hornets Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom and Goran Dragic -- rejected because it would've made the Hornets too competitive? The Hornets would've been consigned to the NBA's middle class, not competitive enough to win anything meaningful, but not bad enough to secure a future superstar with a high draft pick. While treading water, the Hornets would be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, even if those contracts are of relatively fair value, which they are.

In contrast, the Clippers delivered a likely Top 10 pick, along with an expiring deal for an All-Star center, a prolific young scorer and a forward prospect. Nevermind that the center won't be around next season, the scorer might not want to stick around and the prospect may or may not amount to anything. In fact, for teams in rebuilding mode, success presents serious problems. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote last week at HoopSpeak, why pay to be competitive if you can tank for less?
Much of the appeal in this Clippers-Hornets trade is derived from how it makes the Hornets immediately, well, bad ... Obviously, Eric Gordon is a key get, but few observers believe he’ll take New Orleans to next year’s playoffs. And that’s the point. The Hornets will receive a high lottery selection to pair with Minnesota’s 2011 draft pick. A gutted team plus lotto hope makes for a more enticing situation than the playoff contention troika of Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, and Kevin Martin.

By shepherding this particular trade through, the commissioner is tacitly–maybe even overtly–singing a grand, bellowing ode to the glories of tanking. And he is quite correct, because ping pong balls determine so much.

This is why Orlando shouldn't worry too much about getting nothing in return for Howard -- and why New Orleans should flip Eric Gordon as soon as possible, lest he help them win 28 games and finish with the No. 9 or 10 pick.

Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri deserves praise for engineering a strong deal when Carmelo Anthony declared he wanted out of Denver, but pull back for a second and consider what the future looks like for the Nuggets. Those nice assets accumulated in Anthony trade should, along with Nene, sentence the Nuggets to respectability. The team will be fun, likeable and utterly irrelevant on May 25, if not sooner. While the dregs of the league scout all the coveted incoming big men at the top of the draft board, Denver will troll the middle ranks of the first round.

It will be years before we can fairly judge whether the Nuggets would've been better off letting Anthony leave "for nothing," but if your goal is June basketball in Denver at the earliest possible moment, Top 5 picks and swaths of cap space for the foreseeable future might be preferable to Danilo Gallinari and a highly-compensated Nene, who is approaching 30. Nuggets fans won't have to cover their eyes, but they can probably forget about seeing tickets with holograms on them anytime soon.

When we learned last week of a Howard trade proposal that had Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace, Jordan Farmar and a pick to Orlando, the early takeaway was that Orlando was getting the shaft. But the problem for Orlando wasn't that the deal was bad -- it's that it wasn't bad enough! The NBA is governed by a system that reserves its greatest rewards for abject failure, but tells teams striving to put a competitive product on the floor that it's wasting its time.

Think about the Houston Rockets for a second. While they had $40 million of annual salary tied up in two injured superstars, they continued to make wily deals, like offloading Rafer Alston for the Grizzlies' backup point guard, and stealing an Argentinian power forward from the Spurs for Vassilis Spanoulis. Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola have allowed the Rockets to remain competitive on a nightly basis -- and forever relegated to the middle of the first round of the NBA draft, where superstars are a once in a generation occurrence.

What do you do if you're the Rockets or the Hawks and have the talent in place to hang around the 45-win mark for the foreseeable future? Are you deluding yourself in a system with screwy disincentives and maddening inefficiencies? Are you better off conducting a fire sale and putting a sign at the arena gate apologizing for the mess while you remodel?

Mark Cuban is half right-half wrong. If the Hornets and/or the NBA made a mistake by dealing away Chris Paul, it isn't because they betrayed any tacit promise they owed to small-market owners (You want a promise? Get it in the form of a hard cap). It's because they acquired a player who has the potential to win basketball games and cost them lots of money next summer, two things that will work in opposition to getting atop the NBA draft board.

Orlando now finds itself in a similar situation with Howard. The two most desirable outcomes for the Magic are (1) figuring out how to retain Howard for the long term (2) putting themselves in the same position they were when they drafted Howard in 2004 -- 40 games under .500.

Offering him the most years at the most money is the only way to achieve No. 1. "Getting nothing in return for Howard" is the easiest way to get to No. 2.

But trading Howard for productive players is the sure-fire way to thwart both plans.

Upon review, the Sun is a star

May, 26, 2010
5/26/10
3:31
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Goran Dragic
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
This season has wholly reversed Goran Dragic's reputation as a wasted 2008 pick.

I was lucky enough to have a great seat for Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in Phoenix, which inspired, believe it or not, a poem honoring a backup point guard.

In the late hours of the war room,
Griffin working phones
,
A payment to the Alamo,
The Suns would be your home.

Handle, shooting, poise …
There was no rookie magic,
We quickly picked it all apart,
Your last name looks like “Tragic.”

A fraud, a waste, a bust,
Even Suns fans did that talkin’.
What insult could cut deeper
Than calling a Slovenian “Slovakian?”

But now we’re in the playoffs.
It’s two-thousand and ten.
The Spurs brushed you aside that June,
This May -- you did it to them.

Muscle for a rebound.
Fight like hell through screens,
They drafted you for defense.
Somewhere Steve Kerr beams.

Tenacious on the dribble,
Defenders spun around.
It’s new: The Suns can build a lead
While Nash is lying down.

3s, assists and free throws.
Once more to the lane!
If the Suns can shock the world
Goran Dragic is the name.

The second unit gets it done for the Suns

May, 26, 2010
5/26/10
4:45
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Trying to glean too much from individual, single-game plus-minus stats can be a treacherous exercise in small sample size theater. But it's hard to look at the box score from Game 4 of the Lakers-Suns series and not conclude that the Phoenix bench was lethal. In a nine-point game, the five members of the second unit put up these integers:

  • Goran Dragic: +22
  • Leandro Barbosa: +17
  • Jared Dudley: +16
  • Louis Amundson: +17
  • Channing Frye: +10

As a measure of contrast, none of Phoenix's starters finished in the plus column.

The Suns are unusual in that Alvin Gentry doesn't install a traditional rotation. At the 12:00 mark of the second and fourth quarters, these five guys take the floor as a single unit. On Tuesday night, they dazzled. Dragic probed the Lakers' defense. Barbosa was decisive with his trigger. Dudley was his usual bundle of energy and heady intuition on both ends of the floor. Amudnson did yeoman's work up top screening for his guards (and snuck behind the Lakers' bigs for a couple buckets of his own). And Channing Frye? After enduring one of the most brutal stretches we've seen in recent years from a sharpshooter, Frye broke out of his slump with a vengeance.

Individual attributes aside, it's the collective spirit of this unit that propels them. A sampling of their work in Game 4:

The energy fueling Phoenix's offensive juggernaut

May, 14, 2010
5/14/10
1:36
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
The Phoenix Suns' pick-and-roll:

You know it's coming, but there's only so much you can do about it.

That pick-and-roll attack is the primary reason Phoenix was the NBA's most efficient offense this season. How good were the Suns with the ball in 2009-10? The gap between their top-ranked offense and Orlando's second-ranked squad was greater than the distance between Orlando and #10 Dallas. Incredibly, the Suns have become even more efficient in the postseason, where they're averaging 113.2 points per 100 possessions.

Virtually every team in the league incorporates the pick-and-roll and practices defending it tirelessly. So what's the open secret that allows the Suns to bludgeon teams on a nightly basis?

And then there were 12. Eurobasket 2009 begins its second phase and The Painted Area has it all sorted out for you:

Pau Gasol
Can Pau Gasol lift Spain out of its first-round funk? 
(Photo by Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

Thursday was an off day so teams could transition from the opening round to the qualifying round (second round). Starting Friday in the Polish cities of Bydogoszcz & Lodz, teams play three games in their group with a day off between games. The top four teams from each group qualify for the quarters starting on Sept. 17th.


Israel, Latvia, Britain, & Bulgaria have been eliminated leaving 12 teams divided into two groups (Group E & F). Group E appears to be a little weaker, while Group F is packed with quality teams. You will have two pretty good teams not make the quarters out of Group F, while you will see a quarterfinal slot awarded to one of the three weaker qualifying round entries (Germ, Russ, Macedonia) in Group E. No off days in Group F.

Group E: (Playing in Bydogoszcz)
1) Greece (2-0)
2) France (2-0)
3) Croatia (1-1)
4) Germany (1-1)
5) Macedonia (0-2)
6) Russia (0-2)

GREECE:
Should have no trouble moving onto the quarterfinals. Greece's change from a methodical defensive-minded brand of basketball to a more free-wheeling offensive team looks successful, so far. Greece's offense has looked exacting with constant movement and spacing. Greece has outscored their opponents by a combined 66 points and lead the tourney with 58 percent from the floor. The Croatia game where they won by 8 points, wasn't not quite as close as the score should indicate.
schedule: Fri., vs. Germ./Sun., vs. Russ./Tues., vs. France

FRANCE:
Though, they went 3-0 in Group B, they weren't all that impressive. Group B was easily the weakest, and Les Bleus only beat Russia & Germany by five pts each. As usual, the half-court offense has gone thru major lulls. And obviously, this team can't hit from outside. Still having trouble shooting -- 14-for-53 (26 percent) behind the arc and 45-for-81 (56 percent) at the free throw line. France is the worst deep-shooting team left in the field. We've beaten this into the ground, but still holds true -- pack the painted area all game vs. France. France counteracted their ragged offense like they always do -- with great defense and rebounding.
schedule: Fri., vs. Mace./Sun., vs. Croat./Tues., vs. Greece

CROATIA:
Nice contributions from their big PG combo, Roko Ukic and Zoran Planinic. Both have done a good job getting into the lane to create scoring opportunities. Nikola Vujcic had been the leader of the deep, veteran frontline scoring in double figures in each game. Expect them to secure a spot in the quarters with wins over Russia & Germany. France game is a toss-up.
schedule: Fri., vs. Russ./Sun., vs. France./Tues., vs. Germ

GERMANY:
Not surprisingly the Germans have found it difficult to score with no Dirk. No one who is a reliable No. 1 option, and the Germans shot 38 percent from the floor in the opening round. Jan Jagla has brought his usual activity, but when he's your leading scorer you're in trouble. Only reason they're still playing has been the horrible free throw shooting of their Group B opponents. France, Russia and Latvia combined to shoot 65-for-120 (54 percent) from the free throw line vs. Germany. Germany is in better shape for a quarterfinal berth than Russia or Macedonia because they get to carry over a win into the second round. Don't see them beating Greece or Croatia, have a chance vs. Macedonia. A win vs. Macedonia would be huge for their playoff chances.
schedule: Fri., vs. Greece/Sun., vs. Mace./Tues., vs. Croat.

(FYR) MACEDONIA:
Macedonia has a legit shot at the quarters because they should be favored to beat Germany, and are closely matched with Russia. Wouldn't be shocked if they pushed France. Gotten strong play from their frontline of Jeremiah Massey, Todor Gecevski and Pero Antic. Vrbica Stefanov has also been his usual steady floor genera selfl.
schedule: Fri., vs. France./Sun., vs. Germ./Tues., vs. Russ.

RUSSIA:
Offense has not been quite as putrid as I thought it would. Kelly McCarty's athleticism has been a nice addition on both ends of the floor after the loss of Andrei Kirilenko and Viktor Khryapa. Gotten solid play from their PG combo of Sergey Bykov and Anton Ponkrashov. Will be tough to get victories against Greece and Croatia. Really can't afford a loss to Macedonia.
schedule: Fri., vs. Croat./Sun., vs. Greece/Tues., vs. Mace.

GROUP F: (Playing in Lodz)
1) Turkey (2-0)
2) Slovenia (1-1)
3) Serbia (1-1)
4) Spain (1-1)
5) Poland (1-1)
6) Lithuania (0-2)

TURKEY:
Turkey has looked like a totally different team than the one that stunk up the '07 Euro. The Turkish offense that couldn't get out of its own way two years ago, has been smoking this year. Most importantly, they are converting shots around Hedo Turkoglu. Turkey has a point differential of +54 and is shooting 54 percent overall, 42 percent from 3. Their NBA pair of forwards have not disappointed. Hedo and Ersan Ilyasova have shown their mismatch ability creating offensive opportunities all over the floor. Ilyasova has led the Turks with 17 points per game on 58 percent & seven rebounds per game, while Hedo has added 13 points per game. Hedo has teamed with Kerem Tunceri and Ender Arslan to bring some type of order to their PG position. The PG play has left a lot to be desired the last few years, but nothing to complain about this year. Arslan has been hitting runners off ball screens & burying his open shots (8-for-11 on 3-pointers.).
schedule: Sat., vs. Spain./Mon., vs. Serb./Wed., vs. Slov.

SLOVENIA:
Were some questions how all their talent would mesh, and so far, so good. Looked sharp vs. Serbia, and pushed Spain to OT with Matjaz Smodis only playing five minutes. The strong defense from their '07 run seems to have transferred over. No surprise the offense has looked crisp with the collection of shooters this team can put on the floor at once. Slovenia is shooting 51 percent overall, 36 percent from deep. PG Jaka Lavovic (14 points per game) has led the way buried jumpers off of screens -- Jaka is 9-for-19 from 3-pointers. Boci Nachbar has been ballin' as well with 12 points per game on 54 percent and 5.7 rebounds per game. Erazem Lorbek has been a nice option on the blocks with his sharp footwork -- 13 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game. Phoenix Sun Goran Dragic has been a defensive pest once again--gave Rubio & Spain issues -- and even adding a little scoring to the mix with 11 points per game. They can take it up a notch if Smodis can go heavier minutes in the next round. Supposedly, his back is feeling better.
schedule: Sat., vs. Lith./Mon., vs. Pol./Wed., vs. Tu
rk.

SERBIA:
Have gotten nice contributions up and down their deep, young roster. 10 players average at least 14 mins/game. Stunned Spain with an impressive defensive effort. Nenad Krstic (12 points per game & four rebounds per game) has been a solid option on the blocks and protecting the rim. Guards Milenko Tepic and Milos Teodosic have run the offense efficiently and stayed away from forcing the action. Need to get their shooting back on track after a poor display in the first round -- 24 percent from 3.
schedule: Sat., vs. Pol./Mon., vs. Turk./Wed., vs. Lith.

SPAIN:
Not sure what's going on with this team. Serbia totally whupped them, Britain gave them a huge scare, and Slovenia roared back to push them to OT. Maybe they're too many players to keep happy with playing time. Maybe it's the coaching change (Spain's third change in as many years). Maybe they're disinterested. Whatever the reason, it's hard to figure because this team rarely, if ever, goes-through-the-motions. Should get props for controlling Slovenia for most of the game, but questions resurfaced when they let Slovenia comeback in the fourth to force OT. Expect them to get in a groove in the next round. But I thought they would destroy Britain, but that didn't happen.
schedule: Sat., vs. Turk./Mon., vs. Lith./Wed., vs. Pol.

POLAND:
Our sleeper pick has performed admirably in front of the home crowd. The frontline has been killing it. Marcin Gortat has been an interior force and also turned himself into an offensive juggernaut the last week. Gortat is averaging 17 points per game (fifth-best) on 67 percent (fourth-best) and 11 rebounds per game (second-best). We highlighted some of Gortat's newfound offensive skills. PF Maciej Lampe has been an inside-out terror scoring 18 points (third-best) & grabbing seven rebounds per game. Gortat and Lampe are leading the tourney in blocks as well. The offense has functioned very well shooting 50 percent from the floor and 38 percent from 3-point. land. Don't have an easy road to the quarters with Serbia, Slovenia and Spain on the upcoming schedule.
schedule: Sat., vs. Serb./Mon., vs. Slov./Wed., vs. Spain

LITHUANIA:
We knew there would be struggles without their two legendary playmakers, Saras Jasikevicius and Ramunas Siskauskas. The shot selection has been spotty, which is a rarity with the normal precision offense we expect from this national team. Their patchwork backcourt has been predictably lackluster. Deep frontline has been solid, but they could play better as well. Burly big Marijonas Petravicius (16 points per game on 71 percent shooting) has been a nice interior presence drawing fouls, finishing around the basket, and pushing people around. Linas Kleiza has been a little uneven and can't find his deep touch (0-for-7 on 3s) The normally sweet-shooting Lithuanians have been off from deep -- 32 percent from 3. Lithuania's quarterfinal chances are dicey with a 0-2 record and having to face brutal gauntlet of the top three of Group C.
schedule: Sat., vs. Slov./Mon., vs. Spain./Wed., vs. Serb.

If you listen to Suns executives like Steve Kerr and David Griffin tell it, Slovenian point guard Goran Dragic is one hell of a point guard.

The 6-4 Dragic is so good, they say, that they might have taken him with the 15th pick of the first round.

And now, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic, Goran Dragic will be in a Suns uniform this season, after lengthy negotiations to free him of his European contract.

While the Suns are not exactly a tight-fisted team -- payrolls have been high -- Phoenix has made several dubious cost-cutting measures in recent years. The team could have had the likes of Luol Deng, Rajon Rondo, Rudy Fernandez, and Sergio Rodriguez but sold or traded away the picks, to the profound frustration of fans in a hurry to see the team win a championship while Steve Nash is still one of the NBA's elite point guards.

But in the case of Dragic, the team has paid and paid and paid.Goran Dragic

They reportedly paid a half-million dollars to move up three spots in the second round to head off the Detroit Pistons, who were also said to be interested. Phoenix reportedly paid another half-million dollars to help buy him out of his European contract.

On top of that, speculation is that the Suns may have awarded Dragic one of the longest and richest contracts in the history of second-round picks. And, thanks to the luxury tax, the Suns will pay all of that money twice -- once to Dragic, and again to the NBA.

All of which makes you think: Dragic had better be good.

On that front, the Suns' brass has a lot of conviction. I love that. Identify the players you like and then -- everyone else's views be damned -- go get them.

Did you watch that behind-the-scenes video of the Suns war room on draft night? Griffin and Kerr either did an amazing job acting, or they really went into this draft with eyes for the two players they got: Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic.

He has been touted as Steve Nash's eventual successor.

But what if Steve Kerr and company are simply wrong?

They have more information than anyone. But based on the available evidence, there are some worrying signs.

ESPN's John Hollinger a method of using statistics to project European players' statistics into NBA numbers.

On that front, Dragic does not impress.

"His translated Euroleague stats from last year," says Hollinger, "are terrible."

"It's off a small sample (358 minutes), but it projects to 10.1 points and 5.6 assists per 40 minutes, 44.0% shooting, and a 8.38 PER."

An average NBA player has a PER of 15. In fairness, PER does not capture defense beyond blocks, steals, and rebounds. And defense is Dragic's calling card.

Nevertheless, put it all together, and what is Hollinger's assessment? "Yikes," he says. "Hardly seems worth all that trouble."

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress has analyzed Dragic's play on the court, and he too wonders what all the fuss is about. Givony wonders if the money European are offering NBA-level players, and the fear that Dragic might never make it to the U.S., caused the Suns to panic a little. Givony e-mails:

It doesn't make a great deal of sense to me personally. I think Dragic is a solid prospect who could develop into a nice rotation player in two to three years, but the way people are talking, you would think he's going to be making a run for Rookie of the Year honors.

Right now Dragic is pretty much going to help you in one area only: defense. He is great at putting pressure on the ball, getting in the passing lanes, and getting his team extra possessions. He's going to struggle running an offense, though, and unlike a lot of combo guards these days, he's not going to make up for that with his perimeter shooting nor his ability to create his own shot.

I actually think Dragic would have been better suited staying in Europe for another season -- there were a lot of minutes to be had playing with Tau in both the Euroleague and ACB, and he probably needed that bridge between the NBA after the fairly underwhelming season he had with Olimpija last season.

The track record of players coming straight out of the Adriatic League and finding any kind of success in the NBA, especially immediate, is pretty much nil historically. (Nenad Krstic, Sasha Pavlovic, Vladimir Radmanovic are the only three I can think of out of a long line of failures). Now try to think of successful European point guards in the NBA ... outside of Tony Parker and Jose Calderon, it's slim pickings. That's why we're always going to approach these type of prospects with cautious expectations.

But I understand Phoenix's perspective. They've been severely overworking Steve Nash during the regular season in recent years, and considering that he's turning 35 this season, they can't afford to play him 34-35 minutes per game for 82-100+ games at the pace they play at. So they need a good backup. Problem is Dragic isn't ready for that in my mind. I'm not even sure how different he is compared to D.J. Strawberry actually.

The very same D.J. Strawberry, that is, who looked good in summer league as the athletic, tenacious guy who hounds scorers on the perimeter but is offensively challenged. How many of those can one team use?

Which all leads to an interesting question for Suns fans: Where is all this headed?

The team clearly did not click right off the bat with Shaquille O'Neal at the end of last season. Perhaps time together, a chip on the shoulder, and a new coach in Terry Porter will be good for some more wins.

But roster-wise, there haven't been any earth-shattering changes. The newcomers are Matt Barnes (who had fallen out of the rotation in Golden State), Lopez, and Dragic. There ought to be development from Strawberry and Alando Tucker.

The lion's share of the minutes, however, will still be consumed by Nash, O'Neal, Amare Stoudemire, Raja Bell, Leandro Barbosa, Grant Hill, and Boris Diaw. Increasingly, that is seeming like it is not enough to win the tough West.

On the other hand, with lofty expectations for Dragic, the puzzling trade for O'Neal, and a new style of play under Porter, the Suns may have succeeded in doing the impossible: Somehow they got more interesting over the summer when they lost Mike D'Antoni, who coaches the most entertaining style of play in the NBA.

(Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

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