Did someone forget to tell Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic that the All-Star selection process is over?
The surprise breakout performer of the NBA's surprise playoff contender looks like he's still fighting for his spot in the midseason classic—or working double-time to show how bad his omission really was.
A second-round pick in 2008, no one bothered setting a bar for Dragic or his team this season. A full-time starter for only the second time in his six-year career, he was responsible for picking up the pieces from last season's 25-win nightmare and holding the fort until the franchise had time for a proper rebuild.
Maybe that explains why we missed all of those shattered expectations as Dragic and new backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe helped Phoenix explode out of the gate. Or how we slept on Dragic's balancing act, refusing to lose control of the ship when Bledsoe went under the knife in early January.
Well, Dragic isn't letting us sleep any longer.
Waking Up the Basketball World
By all accounts, Friday seemed like it would be a night off for the 27-year-old.
He skipped morning shootaround, was officially listed as a game-time decision and stressed the "need to be 100 percent to play," which he admitted he wasn't, via Craig Grialou of ArizonaSports.com.
A high-volume contributor throughout this season, Dragic is now raising the decibels to a level impossible to ignore. His 40-point outburst set a new personal best, something he's done three times over his last eight outings:
.@Goran_Dragic set a new career-high in PTS 3 times in Feb. 34pts (76.9% FG) on Feb.8 35pts (70.0% FG) on Feb.23 40pts (66.7% FG) on Feb.28— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) March 1, 2014
He has upped the ante since losing Bledsoe, but he was turning heads before "mini-LeBron" even went down.
Dragic brought career averages of 9.5 points and 4.2 assists into this season and then promptly averaged 18.0 and 7.2, respectively, through the end of November. Each month he's taken on a little more of the offense, actually increasing his efficiency at the same time.
If the shooting marks seem a bit jarring, that's because they are.
Finding Exclusive Company
A combination of volume and efficiency like Dragic's is only seen among the true elites.
In fact, he is one of only five players averaging at least 20 points on at least 50 percent shooting (min. 25 games), via Basketball-Reference.com. Two of the others are post players: Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin. The remaining two are sitting No. 1 and No. 1A in the MVP race: Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
Like those two MVP leaders, Dragic does more than just find his own offense. He makes players around him better, elevating the Suns from an offensive afterthought to the league's most lethal attack:
.@Suns score 110.2 PTS Per 100 Possession w/ Dragic on the floor (would rank 1st this season), just 98.9 w/ him off (would rank 27th)— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) March 1, 2014
Dragic, deservedly, finished his latest masterpiece among a shower of "MVP!" chants.
"I never thought they would cheer that for me,” Dragic said after the game, via Kevin Zimmerman of ValleyOfTheSuns.com. “I heard that when I was here for Steve (Nash)."
The numbers say those chants should be coming even more.
His on/off splits paint him as indispensable. His on-court plus-7.6 net rating is the team's highest. His off-court minus-5.6 mark is the Suns' lowest. In other words, his presence makes a difference of 13.2 points per 100 possessions for Phoenix.
That type of impact should be felt across the basketball landscape:
Hornacek: "I think everyone knows about Goran Dragic now, or they should."— Robert Baum (@Thebaumerphx) March 1, 2014
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek is right, with the latter part. All hoop fans should know Dragic at this point.
Still, it feels like there's a disservice still being done, a substantial gap between the amount of respect he deserves and what he's actually been given.
Perception Trailing Reality
In this golden era of point guards, you could ask for someone's favorite floor general and get a dozen different answers. How many people would you need to survey, though, before even one brought up "The Dragon?"
I'm not saying he's sitting atop the point guard totem pole, but he's a lot higher up than most realize.
Chris Paul still claims the point guard throne, and it seems as if Father Time will be the only one capable of kicking him out.
Stephen Curry is closest in the race. His offensive creativity, off-the-bus shooting range and drastically improved playmaking skills help separate him as the clear No. 2.
Take Curry and Paul out of the equation, and suddenly it's not so easy to keep the rankings going.
Kyrie Irving might have the most talent, but his team has been a major disappointment. John Wall has taken another step in his development, but he's still plagued by an inconsistent jump shot. Tony Parker has been efficient, but Gregg Popovich's maintenance plan has almost pushed him under 30 minutes a night. Russell Westbrook is still scraping off the rust from three knee surgeries since April.
Are any of these players clearly ahead of Dragic?
Based on what they've done this season, I don't see how the answer could be yes.
Where do you have Dragic rated among NBA PGs?
He pushed a team we all assumed would tank into a tightly contested Western Conference playoff race. He's scoring with efficiency that's typically only attached to names like James or Durant. He has a top-20 assist average (17th) despite sharing the backcourt with another point guard for half the season.
A playoff berth would be the next notch on his belt. His Suns are currently sitting 1.5 games clear of the ninth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Securing that spot would make it even harder to ignore what he's doing.
What lies beyond that? One more season of valuable production ($7.5 million) and then a major decision to make with a $7.5 million player option for 2015-16.
He's outperforming that salary by a considerable margin for now, but he is closing on his 28th birthday pretty quickly. Flying under the radar for a few seasons has made this breakout more impressive, but it also hasn't left much room left for his ceiling.
In other words, I don't see him being the one unseating CP3 from his point guard throne.
As for that deep group behind him, though, that's a membership card Dragic is already carrying.
If that isn't enough to get our respect, I don't know what would be. Not that it will matter to him.
Clearly, he doesn't need our approval to find success on his own. Still, we owe him something a lot better than what we've given him.