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RealGM Interview: Goran Dragic Of The Suns

After twisting his left ankle six times last season and making the Phoenix Suns nervous, Goran Dragic is still not going to have a break this summer and disappoint his people in Slovenia as he prepares for the upcoming FIBA World Cup, the third in his career.

Dragic, a national hero of Slovenia, will be the face and the leader of a younger national team, which will compete in group D with Angola, Australia, Lithuania, Mexico and South Korea. The 28-year-old point guard is coming to the World Cup after having a career season as he averaged 20.3 points, 2.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.

RealGM caught up with Dragic in Europe to talk about the Suns’ offseason, Slovenian basketball, what is it like to play with his brother and much more.

RealGM: First of all, have you been following Suns’ offseason moves closely? How do you like your new assets?

Dragic: Of course. It is going to be a different team than last year. We lost Channing Frye, who was a big piece of our starting lineup. But they brought in new players, Isiah Thomas at the point guard, Anthony Tolliver who will play at four. I believe we will have the same structure as the last year. It is going to be an exciting season. Jeff [Hornacek] is a great coach and it is going to be his second year as a head coach. I think we will grow, we will be better and hopefully we will make the playoffs.

RealGM: What is your regular routine when you find out about new players coming to the Suns?

Dragic: All the players in the NBA, we know each other. If they play a lot, every time you have a game against them you have to prepare yourself, how you are going to defend. Basically, you know them well. But I do check rookies who come from college. I do not watch college games, therefore I have to check them out, go to YouTube and see some highlights. But of course, sometimes highlights might be tricky. At the same time, we have a great group of new guys and every new addition is welcome and hopefully we will be a better team.

RealGM: Do you stay in touch with Eric Bledsoe? Do you receive information about his situation and do you pay attention to it?

Dragic: I follow him on Twitter. I talked with Jeff couple of weeks ago and they still didn’t know if they are going to offer him a contract. We are waiting for his decision. But I think he is a big part of this team. He was great last year and we played together well. I hope he will sign for the next year.

RealGM: After you saw the Suns' moves this offseason, do you feel your team has potential to win more than 48 games next season?

Dragic: Yeah, why not? I’m always very optimistic. It is going to be hard, of course. But playing in the West is so tough. Last season we won 48 games and if we were in the East, we had been the third seed. That’s basketball. I would take fewer minutes if we make it to the playoffs. Minutes don’t matter for me as long as team is playing well. The main goal is to make it to the playoffs because two seasons ago we were losing a lot, last year we won 48 games and now we are in the different situation.

RealGM: I heard about the restrictions from the Suns for you to play five international friendly games under 25 minutes in each. What is your opinion about some of NBA GMs intentions to prohibit their players to play for their national teams?

Dragic: I understand them. They pay me a lot of money and they are scared. Last year I had many troubles with my ankles. I twisted my left ankle six times. They are a little bit nervous but at the end, it is always nice to play for the national team. Every organization has a different opinion. Me and the Suns, we made an agreement and that was great.

RealGM: Is it difficult to negotiate with an NBA team on the terms of playing for the national team?

Dragic: It is difficult because on one side you have an organization that is paying you and on the other side, you have your people. I always like to play for my people, the national team and it is tough. But I think if you sit down and you talk with them, you can make an agreement. That’s why I’m really happy and grateful for the Phoenix Suns. They allowed me to play and I think I can gain more experience here. Also I can get in better shape for the next year. 

RealGM: What is it like to play with your brother on the same team? Do you spend much time together?

Dragic: He plays in Malaga [Unicaja] and I play in the NBA, therefore I do not see him a lot. It is very nice when you play together for the same country. When we were kids, we were always close, always together. It is a special moment when we are together on the court. I wish that he could be even in the NBA if that’s possible. He is improving, he had a great year in Malaga and I’m waiting for him in the NBA.

RealGM: Last season you won the NBA Most Improved Player Award. In your opinion, what was more influential for your game, your improvement physically or mentally?

Dragic: I think I just got more chances. I was always like that. It was hard for me in Phoenix because I was behind Steve [Nash]. He’s the best point guard in the league, all the expectations and everything… Usually I got 15 minutes in the game and it is very difficult to do something in that time. I think trading me to Houston was a very good thing for me because I got more playing time. It is difficult to explain, but in those 15 minutes you usually rush to do something good because you want to prove that you can do good. But when you get more minutes, you are relaxed, you are not rushing and you’re waiting for game to come to you. I think that was the main difference.

RealGM: Talking about the Slovenian national team, how does the preparation go so far?

Dragic: So far it has been awesome. We have a very young team, a lot of young guys. It is different from the last year. Our two important players have retired, Jaka Lakovic and Bostjan Nachbar. But at the same time, I feel we have young legs. We can run, we can defend. Hopefully we will build that chemistry that we need and we will get good result at the world championship.

RealGM: It seems that Slovenia always struggles to have the best possible players on their roster. Have you ever thought what if Slovenia would have avoided all the drama?

Dragic: All the time. All the time. You’re dreaming someday to win a medal, doesn’t matter what kind, bronze, gold or silver. I think we had a great team for that but we always had some other issues. Every time we try do bring all the players, we fail. That was our biggest problem. However, every player is the owner of his body, therefore it’s up to him to decide whether he wants to play or not.

RealGM: Do you see yourself finishing career in Europe? Do you miss European basketball?

Dragic: Yeah, why not? For the second part, I wouldn’t say I miss European basketball. I’m not that kind of player anymore. This will be my seventh year in the NBA and I’m really enjoying every moment. It’s players’ league, you have one practice everyday and a lot of games. I don’t want to say that I will never comeback to Europe but probably if I have a chance, I will retire in the NBA.

Team USA's Big Problem Playing Small In World Cup

Ever since taking over as the head coach of Team USA, Mike Krzyzewski has made a philosophical commitment to playing small. The logic is simple - since the Americans have the best athletes and the most skilled players in the world, they should be playing in as much space as possible. Coach K was playing 4-out basketball before it became fashionable in the NBA, most notably in 2012, when he used a frontcourt of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.

LeBron and Carmelo were never going to play internationally in 2014, but Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George were expected to be mainstays on the roster. In a perfect world, they would have split the majority of the time at the forward positions, giving Team USA an almost unbeatable combination of size, athleticism and shooting ability. Instead, Love withdrew before training camp started, George was injured and Durant got cold feet at the last minute.

As a result, in a 95-78 win over Brazil in a scrimmage this weekend, Coach K started Kenneth Faried at power forward and brought Rudy Gay off the bench. While it’s hard to be too critical of a 17-point win over a good team, the game was closer than the score indicated. Faried and Gay are proven NBA players, but neither is likely to make an All-Star team and they don’t have the combination of skill and athleticism to blow international teams off the court.

In the modern game, power forward is the most important position on the floor. It determines your identity as a team - a traditional big man means a two-post team that wants to slow the tempo, attack the glass and play through the post, a combo forward means a four-out team that wants to speed up the game, spread the floor and slash at the rim. As a rule, bigger teams struggle with floor spacing on offense while smaller teams struggle on defense and the glass.

At the international level, where there isn’t nearly as much size as there is in the NBA, you can get away with playing smaller guys at the position. That’s the bind Team USA has traditionally put other teams in - their big men don’t have the size to exploit guys like Durant and George in the post and they don’t have the quickness to defend them on the perimeter. If they downsize and try to play with four perimeter players, they play right into Team USA’s hands.

That dynamic changes without those guys on the roster. On Saturday, the only small-ball PF’s on hand were Gay and Chandler Parsons. It’s a dramatic downgrade on both sides of the ball - they don’t have the athleticism to blitz teams on defense and they aren’t nearly as dynamic on offense. Other countries would be more than willing to have Team USA run offense through them. The talent gap is still there, but the rest of the world can match up with the Americans.

When Faried was in the game, Team USA became much more conventional. At 6’8 230, he likes to crash the offensive glass and is most effective playing in the paint. While he has received raves for his energy level and hustle in training camp, he can’t shoot and doesn’t have the skill to create a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor. In many ways, he represents the worst of both worlds at the position, since he can’t defend the pick and roll or protect the rim either.

The only reason Coach K could stick with his offensive schemes was the presence of Anthony Davis at the center position. Davis was the best player on the floor for most of the night and his ability to run the pick-and-pop and knock down the 20-foot jumper allowed Team USA to play 4-out even with Faried on the floor. While he has the size to play as a small-ball center in the international game, Davis is also the best power forward on the roster.

Given the lack of options at the forward positions, that is the adjustment that could make the most sense for Team USA. If Davis is going to play big minutes on the perimeter on offense anyway, Coach K might as well pair him with a bigger player who can protect the rim. All three of the centers still in the running to make the team - DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee - would make more sense next to Davis than Faried, Gay or Parsons.

Even before a knee injury that kept him out of the game against Brazil, Cousins was seen as a longshot to make the cut to 12 players. However, his ability to play out of the post would give the Americans a whole different dimension on offense and he can’t be any worse at defense, either on the perimeter or in the paint, than Faried. The duo of Cousins and Davis would be an absolute nightmare to defend and would give Team USA a ton of length and skill upfront.

What makes Drummond so interesting is that he is simultaneously the biggest player on the roster as well as the one reserve who would significantly improve the Americans overall athleticism. At 6’11 275, his ability to run, jump and stand at the front of the rim at would represent a huge mismatch problem for other countries. While he can’t operate outside of the paint, the shooting ability of Davis means Team USA could play Drummond and still space the floor.

Plumlee would represent a compromise choice, as he’s more athletic than Cousins and more skilled than Drummond. Of course, he isn’t nearly the player the other two are and it seems unlikely he would even be in consideration if he hadn’t played at Duke. Nevertheless, like the other two centers, he would represent a dramatic upgrade from Faried in terms of his ability to protect the rim and match up with the Gasol brothers in a game against Spain.

In the last two Olympics, Coach K has been able to get away with going small against a much bigger Spanish team, knocking them off in the gold medal game. However, the 2008 and 2012 teams had far more athleticism and skill than the 2014 version and the Spaniards stuck with them for all 40 minutes. This time around, if he moves Davis to PF and pairs him with a C, he can have the benefits of playing small while upgrading his team on both sides of the ball.

No matter what Coach K decides to do with his rotation, the Americans will be the favorites in Madrid. Not only do they have the most talent, they have a very easy draw, as the vast majority of their potential challengers will be other side of the bracket. However, a depleted talent pool means Team USA is as vulnerable as it has been in some time. If they leave points on the board in terms of building their roster, it could come back to haunt them.

A Superstar Is Not Enough Out West

Seven years after trading Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics, the Minnesota Timberwolves had to press the reset button again, sending Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a three-team trade for Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young and a future No. 1. Even though it’s as good of a deal as could reasonably be expected for a team in their position, they are still almost certain to extend their playoff drought to 11 seasons, the longest streak in the NBA. 

It’s a stunning record of futility, especially when you consider they had either Garnett or Love on their roster for the vast majority of that span. Players of that caliber don’t grow on trees, especially when you are a small-market franchise. Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick in one of the strongest drafts in recent memory and there’s no guarantee he ever becomes as good as Minnesota’s last two franchise players. The good news is he shouldn’t have to be.

The Wolves situation isn’t nearly as dire as it was seven years ago. The franchise had to start from scratch following Garnett’s departure - they won only 32 games in his final season and they didn’t retain any of the top-5 scorers from that team. Al Jefferson, the centerpiece of the deal with the Celtics, was the only real building block on hand. They would have needed to bat 1.000 on their next few lottery picks in order to avoid a long journey in the wilderness.

Love came the following season, but it was all downhill from there. They had four first-round picks in 2009, but only one - Ricky Rubio - ended up sticking and he didn’t come over from Spain for another two seasons. They drafted Wesley Johnson in 2010 and Derrick Williams in 2011 and they traded their first-round pick in 2012 for Chase Budinger. With so many misses at the top of the draft, it’s no surprise they weren’t able to build a playoff team around Love.

The Wolves won only 40 games last season, but they had a lot more talent on their roster than most below-.500 teams. They had a point differential of +2.7, better than both the 49-win Dallas Mavericks (+2.4) and 48-win Phoenix Suns (+2.6). The four remaining starters in Minnesota - Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Nik Pekovic - are hardly perfect, but they all are proven NBA veterans capable of contributing to a winning team.

Young can’t fill Love’s shoes, but he’s a good player who gives the Wolves a starting unit that can keep them competitive on a nightly basis. While that may not translate into many wins in a Western Conference that is as stacked as ever, it means Wiggins won’t be asked to do too much too soon, as opposed to Jefferson in 2008. With Martin and Brewer entrenched on the wings, Wiggins could start his career as a reserve, where he would be groomed into a bigger role.

Nor would he be the only high-upside young player coming off Minnesota’s bench next season. In his second stint with the franchise, Flip Saunders has already proven to be a better judge of talent than David Kahn and Kevin McHale. Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III have a chance to stick in the NBA while Gorgui Dieng, the No. 21 pick in 2013, and Zach LaVine, the No. 13 pick in 2014, could end up as the biggest steals in their respective drafts.

After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Dieng came on strong in the final month, posting multiple games with 17+ rebounds. At 6’11 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he has prototype size and athleticism for an interior defender as well as the ability to contribute in multiple ways on the offensive end of the floor. His per-36 minute averages last season - 13 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists and 1 steal on 50% shooting - mark him as a comer.

LaVine was one of the most polarizing players in this year’s draft, a walking embodiment of the “stats vs. scouts” debate made famous in Moneyball. He has about as thin a resume as any lottery pick in recent memory - in his only season at UCLA, he averaged 9 points and played only 24 minutes a game. Nevertheless, while he didn’t get many opportunities in college, he’s an electrifying athlete who doubles as a high-level shooter, passer and ball-handler.

Even as rookies, the combination of LaVine and Wiggins should form one of the most exciting second-unit duos in the league. They are both only 19, so there will be plenty of growing pains, but you could not ask for two better athletes to run the break and catch lobs from Rubio. Minnesota will have two different identities next season - a halfcourt team built around Pekovic and an uptempo team with Dieng protecting the rim and helping to trigger the break.

It’s a best of both worlds scenario for the Wolves, as they can grow a group of promising young players for the future without sacrificing wins in the present. LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng can all start their careers in small roles on a team full of veterans, instead of being forced to carry heavy loads on one of the worst teams in the NBA. And with those three on the roster, Minnesota is the rare rebuilding team that won’t have to sweat the results of the lottery too hard.

In a best-case scenario, Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng form the core of a playoff team in a few years time, with Saunders filling the PF spot either though the draft or dealing one of the remaining vets. If he can land someone like Kentucky freshman Karl Towns, a two-way 7’0 who can protect the rim on defense and play on the perimeter on offense, the Wolves could have a future starting five of under-26 players who can excel on both sides of the ball. 

Of course, there will be plenty of bumps and bruises along the way and there are no certainties when it comes to projecting young players. Rubio has to become a better shooter, Dieng only has a month’s worth of good games under his belt and Wiggins and LaVine have proven nothing at the NBA level. There’s a lot we don’t know about each of them and the Wolves don’t exactly have a great track record of developing prospects over the last decade.

However, after years of failed lottery picks, they finally seem to have a front office capable of finding talent in the draft, the most important asset for a rebuilding franchise in the modern NBA. If a lost decade in Minnesota has proven anything, it’s that no player, no matter how talented, can single-handedly carry a franchise into the playoffs out West. Andrew Wiggins is a good start to a rebuild, but he’s far from the only thing Wolves fans have to be excited about.

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