From trading away guards Shabazz Napier and Zoran Dragic last summer to dealing Mario Chalmers and Brian Roberts this season to losing Beno Udrih and Tyler Johnson to season-ending injuries, the Miami Heat has relied on one thing more than any tax relief or unprecedented injury: the dependency on Goran Dragic.
All this occurred after the Heat signed Dragic to the massive 5-year, $85 million dollar deal he received in July, a contract that has looked troubling for the majority of the season after a brief 27-game sample last year. With every guard scratched off, the Heat showed how much they trusted Dragic and how much they needed him. Now with only one other point guard on the team, rookie Josh Richardson, Dragic has answered the call and enhanced his play.
Already off to a fast start, the 6-foot-3 guard is averaging 19.2 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds on 48.4 percent shooting in the 10 games after the All-Star break, a far better arrangement than his showing the first half of the season. Before the break, the eight-year pro was averaging 12.2 points and 5.3 assists a game, his lowest numbers in almost five years.
The dramatic improvement in play can be allotted to an array of things, from Chris Bosh's absence to the team's much faster pace, but Dragic's leadership in maneuvering the boosted change should not go unseen. The guard who accepted deferring to Dwyane Wade and Bosh for the first half of the season, despite the discomfort, has fostered a momentum shift in Miami.
While Hassan Whiteside was putting up ridiculous triple-doubles and the team's two All-Stars were running the show, the Heat never eclipsed consistency throughout the first 53 games of the season. With Dragic recently putting up his best numbers in a Heat uniform and running the game from the get-go, the Heat have expanded their level of play as the Dragic dominance-to-wins correlation has shown immense dividends.
From orchestrating a successful, up-tempo offense -- that's scoring more points (108.1) than the L.A. Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs -- to finding a powerful connection with Whiteside, the Dragon is subtly taking this Heat team to new depths.
Winners of eight of their last 11 games, the Heat prior to Wednesday night's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks had cruised to a season-best 11 games over .500 and rode their largest winning streak (5) since LeBron James left South Beach, all accomplished without their highest-paid player. Now, with less than 20 games left in the season and the third seed up for grabs the Heat must continue to lean on Dragic's play.
In the 10 games following the All-Star break, Dragic accumulated three double-doubles after having none this season. The quicker offense, sparked by the speedster, has the Heat playing faster than Russell Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder and getting more shots than they did all season. The team has scored below 100 just once in the last 11 games. The 29-year-old has also increased his points per game every month of the season as he's averaging 18.0 points per game (in March) after putting up 10.8 per contest in all of November.
From the beginning of games, the Heat are playing to their strengths and utilizing their weapons, led by Dragic's intelligence on the court. It's not only Dragic who's thriving but Luol Deng and Whiteside. The former Chicago Bulls All-Star has scored in double-figures in his last 13 appearances and he averaged 15.4 points and 8.4 rebounds through five games this month while finding cohesion with Dragic. Whiteside, who's found a groove off the bench, has also found a groove with the starting point guard. After seeming incompatible before the break, the two have developed chemistry, even connecting late in games for lobs and in pick-and-rolls.
When the combo guard arrived in Miami last season, Heat fans anticipated the comeback of The Dragon, a nickname Steve Nash gave the former 2013 All-NBA third-team guard. For about a year, that play was nowhere to be found on that level, in fact it seemed like it never happened. In just 10 games, Dragic has reminded everyone what he's capable of and, with the right system, can lead the Heat to compete with any team in the league.
For a over a year, it didn't feel right to call the $85-million point guard, averaging a tiny 12.2 points and 5.3 assists a game, The Dragon. But after some inspired play, in the face of season-ending injuries and multiple trades, the 29-year-old should have fans screaming the nickname.
The Dragon is back.