Goran Dragić has had a handful of moments. There was the 2009-10 season in Phoenix, when he was still more object of intrigue than NBA player, backing up Steve Nash and occasionally popping off the Suns bench to drop fourteen points over twenty-some minutes. You might remember he scored twenty-six points in a second round playoff game against the Spurs that year. The next season, Phoenix flipped him to Houston, where he failed to break out, then brought him back a year-and-a-half later, where he played as well as he ever has for seventy-six games—twenty points per night on fifty percent shooting, nearly six assists—alongside Eric Bledsoe before GM Ryan McDonough saw fit to crowd the backcourt by signing Isaiah Thomas the following summer, which was a disastrous experiment that led to Dragić getting shipped to Miami, where he regressed for another season-and-change before finding his feet again last year, putting up numbers almost identical to that one terrific spell with the Suns.
The Slovenian’s entire career has been fits and starts and teams never totally figuring out how to use him. (He’s not a proper point guard, but he needs a lot of the ball to be effective. It’s a quandary.) This puzzling over Dragić has gone on for such a prolonged period of time that he’s now, somewhat jarringly, hitting the latter stages of his prime without ever having firmly established how good he really is. All the Miami Heat know for sure is that he’s important to the team’s success, and he’s thirty-one, so they’ve devised a strategic resting regimen for him this season, to make sure he’s fresh for a spring playoff push. It’s a whit strange to see Dragić get the aging star treatment, given that, going on past evidence, he’s as likely to average fifteen points per game as twenty, to shoot thirty-two percent from beyond the arc as forty. Goran Dragić’s unique legacy is that he’s maybe the best player of his generation whose production varies wildly from year-to-year. Counting on him is an unnerving proposition.
Speaking of unnerving, Dion Waiters got paid. Theories spring in various directions from that single fact—Dion is such a lunatic that it doesn’t matter what’s he making, he’ll continue to kill himself to prove a point; or Dion is so headstrong that he’ll take four years and $52 million as a mandate to do whatever he wants—but nobody would bet anything they’re truly afraid of losing on a dude whose name fittingly anagrams to Saint Weirdo being on his best behavior after he stared down oblivion (playing in China) and saw it blink. Dion was a chemistry-obliterating disaster in Cleveland, a functional if not highly valued cog in Oklahoma City, and put together a spectacularly entertaining season in Miami, but one in which he played only forty-six games and ended the year in street clothes due to an ankle that, as recently as late September, he described as still a little swollen. Dion has proven definitively that he belongs in the NBA, and perhaps he’s even an above-average starter, but there are still a lot of ways his solid-so-far South Beach tenure could break bad.
Hassan Whiteside spent most of his early and mid-twenties thwarting people’s hopes that he could become Tyson Chandler, then got his act together and became the out-of-nowhere sensation of the 2014-15 season, and he’s now one of those players you can’t discuss without tripping over your own caveats. He’s probably not as impactful as his numbers suggest, but seventeen points and fourteen rebounds per game is certainly something. He doesn’t score much outside five feet, but given how long and powerful he is, he doesn’t have to. He chases blocks with such fervor that it makes him a worse defender than he should be, but he’s more disciplined than he used to be.
At the core of this hemming and hawing about Whiteside is fundamental mistrust. He can be highly useful, but he needs to be given a narrowly defined role in order to be effective. Erik Spoelstra has done an excellent job molding Whiteside into a rim protector and pick-and-roll nightmare, but the big fella hasn’t seemed to have learned much beyond what Spoelstra has taught him. Whiteside lacks a feel for the game that’s always going to hold him back and keep him from becoming as great as he can possibly be. And that makes him a frustrating player, even if he’s also one of the league’s best centers.
This is all to say the Heat possess a highly unusual core. The season previewers are having trouble predicting what the Philadelphia 76ers will do this year because they’re built around unproven lottery talent and a star-in-the-making who could make an All-NBA team or play fifteen games. But that’s a familiar kind of hard-to-pin-down team: young, injury concerns, etc. The Heat are led by three veterans—an up-and-down pseudo-point guard, a possibly reformed knucklehead gunner, and a long-limbed freak with dubious basketball instincts—who elude categorization and can’t be counted on to do anything in particular—good or bad. (This is without mentioning Justise Winslow, an unpolished athlete coming off a labrum tear.)
There is perhaps no better argument for Pat Riley and the Miami Heat’s institutional acumen for marshalling chaos than that this mystery squad almost landed themselves a playoff spot last year. Whether they overachieve again this season is anyone’s guess, but you get impression, however illusory, that this wouldn’t work in Milwaukee or Denver, under lesser coaches and beyond the warming glow of Riley’s patriarchal swagger. In South Beach, though? There’s a real chance running back this loony bid for respectability pays off handsomely.
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