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Goran Dragic-Eric Bledsoe Backcourt Can Work Long Term for Phoenix Suns

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Goran Dragic-Eric Bledsoe Backcourt Can Work Long Term for Phoenix Suns
Bart Young/Getty Images

As the NBA evolves into a landscape dominated by explosive athleticism and quick pace, more teams are opting to use two-point guard lineups that provide extra speed, ball-handling and facilitating. 

The Phoenix Suns are one of those teams, and their backcourt duo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe make one of the more interesting stories in the NBA.

The Suns are currently 19-12, defying all low expectations placed on them before the season began. But how much of this current success can be attributed to the pairing of Dragic and Bledsoe? Is it true that these two point guards can coexist, or are the Suns coincidentally winning games despite them? 

And perhaps most importantly, is it possible to build around a two-point guard lineup and compete for a championship? Or do the Suns have to prioritize one guard over the other and ultimately make adjustments to the roster in the future?

 

Past Precedent

Before discussing the current Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt, it is important to put the two-point guard lineup into the context of NBA history.

Two point guards have worked before, with the early '80s Los Angeles Lakers being the most notable example. Guards Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon won championships in both 1980 and 1982 for L.A. In both of those championship seasons, the two guards combined for at least 35 points, 15 assists and four steals per game. 

However, Magic Johnson isn't your typical point guard. At 6'8", he was one of the most versatile players in NBA history. Not to mention the fact that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes were also on the roster, making Magic and Nixon only the third and fourth scoring options on the team. 

But perhaps there is another team that is a more reasonable comparison to the current Suns squad. The late-'80s Detroit Pistons won the finals twice with 6'1" Isiah Thomas and 6'3" Joe Dumars in the starting lineup. Those two averaged a combined 14 assists per game (8.3 from Thomas and 5.7 from Dumars).

This is also not the first time the Suns have experimented with a two-point guard lineup. In the 1996-97 season, the Suns had one of the most talented backcourts in franchise history. There were three main point guards on the roster—aging veteran star Kevin Johnson, and two rising prospects in Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. 

With so many point guards on the depth chart, Johnson, Kidd and Nash played together very often. In fact, 22 of Kidd's 23 starts for the Suns that season (he was only acquired via trade in December) were alongside Johnson in the backcourt. 

And how did Phoenix fare in those 22 games? They went 15-7, and despite a final record of just 40-42, they were able to capture a playoff seed. That would not have been possible without such a fantastic stretch by the two-guard system led by Kidd and Johnson. 

 

They Work Together

This year, Phoenix is having another successful stretch when led by two point guards. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are clearly the team's two best players, and both are having fantastic seasons. The two are both incredible slashers and are the foundation of the offense.

First, take a look at their simple, raw stats. Though Bledsoe has gained more attention than Dragic for his emergence as a star, both are putting up nearly identical stat lines. 

Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe Stats
PPG APG SPG eFG%
Dragic 18.9 5.9 1.4 53.4%
Bledsoe 18.0 5.8 1.5 53.1%

Basketball-Reference.com

Having both Dragic and Bledsoe has created an unselfish offense that is always willing to move the ball and find the open man. The strategy behind the Phoenix offense mainly involves slashing and shooting. Dragic and Bledsoe are both capable of driving to the rim and then either finishing at the basket or kicking a pass out to the perimeter. And that is why three-point shooters such as Channing Frye, Gerald Green, Marcus Morris and P.J. Tucker have all been so successful as well.

Additionally, the Suns' transition offense cannot be overlooked. Dragic and Bledsoe combine for almost three steals per game, and whenever they pressure the ball and force a turnover, the duo can get down the court and score in just a few seconds. Those two are the main reason Phoenix leads the league in fast-break points. 

Although their basic statistics look stellar, it is important to see how the team fares when Dragic and Bledsoe play together and also when each one plays separately. To see if they can truly coexist, look at these team statistics with Dragic and Bledsoe on/off the court:

Dragic/Bledsoe On/Off Court Team Stats
Configuration Minutes Played Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Dragic + Bledsoe 436 109.1 101.4 +7.7
Only Dragic 467 116.1 105.6 +10.5
Only Bledsoe 337 102.4 109.8 -7.4

nbawowy.com

 Based on this chart, the two point guards clearly perform well together. The Suns have a net rating of +7.7 when both Dragic and Bledsoe share the backcourt.

 

They Work Separately

On the other hand, look at the huge difference in team performance when Dragic is alone and when Bledsoe is alone. Only having Dragic on the court has actually been the most successful strategy for Phoenix so far, as the team has a plus-10.5 rating in those minutes.

And the team actually struggles when Bledsoe plays without Dragic. That minus-6.3 rating is just about as bad as when neither Dragic nor Bledsoe is on the court and Ish Smith is at point guard (the Suns have a minus-11.1 rating in such cases). 

But this doesn't mean that Bledsoe's play has been detrimental to the team's success. He is only 24 years old, and this is his first season as an NBA starting point guard. It only makes sense that he will make more mistakes than Dragic, as he still has a lot to learn. But with Bledsoe's star potential, there's no doubting that he will be better as he gains experience in the next few years. 

Furthermore, that is why it would be so catastrophic if the Suns were to trade Dragic. With his age and veteran experience, Dragic clearly has a better basketball I.Q. and is more capable of leading a team than Bledsoe.

Dragic's presence on the roster is beneficial for Bledsoe in multiple ways. The 27-year-old Slovenian can serve as a veteran influence to Bledsoe, teaching him all that he has learned over the years from veterans such as Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Additionally, having two point guards means that Dragic can run the offense with ease and allow Bledsoe to rest at certain points in the game. 

It is also important to realize that at 27, Dragic is in his prime. He is not some 35-year-old veteran trying to squeeze out two or three last years of basketball before retiring. Although he will likely begin his decline within the next several years, right now he is only getting better. It would be foolish to trade such a reasonable contract away for cap flexibility and draft picks when the Suns already have a plethora of those types of assets. 

Can the Suns compete for a championship with a Bledsoe-Dragic backcourt?

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There is no reason that Phoenix cannot build around its two point guards. It is not an either/or situation, and hopefully it never will be.

Of course, to really compete for a championship the Suns will need more than just two borderline All-Star guards. They could still use a star player at one of the forward positions, and until that happens don't expect them to make a deep playoff push. 

But Dragic and Bledsoe could be the foundation of this team for years to come. We have already seen what they are capable of, and the future is bright. These two players could bring the same level of excitement over Phoenix basketball that we have not witnessed since the Nash/Amar'e Stoudemire era. 

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