The Phoenix Suns are in a bit of a bind. The NBA’s trade deadline is 3 p.m. Thursday (Eastern time), so Suns general manager Ryan McDonough must quickly pursue trades that would send 2014 All-NBA guard — and potential free-agent-to-be1 — Goran Dragic to a team he’s interested in for the long haul, lest Dragic walk away in the summer without Phoenix receiving any reimbursement. (Dragic reportedly told the Suns on Tuesday that he does not plan to re-sign with the club after the season.)
How did things reach this point? Dragic was once looked to as the Suns’ franchise player.
People close to the situation told USA Today’s Sam Amick that Dragic has chafed under the three-guard system created when the Suns executed a sign-and-trade deal for Isaiah Thomas last summer. Thomas was brought to Phoenix, in part, as insurance against the departure of Eric Bledsoe, whose restricted free agency hung over the team all summer. But the Suns found themselves with three top-flight (ball-dominant) guards once the Bledsoe drama was resolved in September. Naturally, sacrifices have been required: Dragic’s usage rate this season is the lowest it’s been since 2009-10, his second year in the NBA.
The hope would be that, as a player bears less responsibility in his team’s offense, he would be freed up to perform with greater efficiency. This idea of a trade-off between usage rate and efficiency was advanced by Dean Oliver (the current Sacramento Kings director of player personnel and analytics), who called it the “skill curve” effect more than a decade ago. And it has been demonstrated empirically across the entire population of NBA players. However, the devil is always in the details, and those details are why Dragic’s wins above replacement (WAR) tally has fallen; it was 8.8 a season ago but is on pace for 3.72 this year.
Although a general trade-off might hold for the average player, changes in a player’s efficiency also depend heavily on his teammates and overall style of play. When Dragic was at his best — he ranked as the NBA’s ninth-best guard by value over replacement player (VORP) between 2011-12 and 2013-14 — he had the ball in his hands a lot, penetrating and dishing. But a full season alongside Bledsoe (the duo only suited up for 38 games together in 2013-14) and the addition of Thomas have taken a toll on Dragic’s stats. His assist percentage is 19.5 percent this season, down from 28.1 percent a season ago and a high of 35.7 percent in 2012-13; his free-throw attempt rate is down to .191 from .381 last year; his true shooting percentage is down to .573 from .604 last season.
Using the player-tracking numbers at NBA.com, we see that Dragic’s touches per 36 minutes are down to 67.3 from 80.1 last season, and his drives per 36 minutes are down to 7.8 from 9.8 a year ago. Perhaps most telling, Dragic is only creating 10.3 points per 36 minutes with his passing, down from 15.1 last season. And according to Synergy numbers, isolations and pick-and-roll plays went from composing 49.4 percent of Dragic’s offensive game a year ago to 34.2 percent this season. Although skill curve theory might predict an uptick in efficiency with such a change, the reality is that Dragic’s effectiveness has cratered on the plays that were once his bread-and-butter. In 2013-14, he ranked in Synergy’s 91st percentile on pick-and-rolls and isolations; this season he ranks in the 43rd percentile.
In retrospect, there were signs that Dragic would need to adapt his playing style even if Thomas hadn’t joined the fold. Looking at his numbers with and without Bledsoe last season, Dragic’s usage rate, assist percentage, shooting efficiency and fouls drawn per possession were significantly higher when he wasn’t sharing the floor — and the ball — with Bledsoe. It was possible that some degree of regression in Dragic’s numbers was inevitable.
(And for what it’s worth, Thomas is still working out his place in the Suns’ puzzle. His offensive box plus/minus and assist percentage are down from a year ago, although he’s retained his shooting efficiency and even improved his foul-drawing numbers.)
An overlooked aspect of NBA perimeter play is whether a player can function with the ball in his hands or, conversely, whether he can adapt to contribute without constant touches. Most players’ skills are better suited to one category or the other, and a player will naturally be less effective when asked to play outside that role. Something to watch this week will be whether Dragic’s possible trade destinations would allow him to play on-ball the way the Suns did before this season, when he was at peak production.