Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Pat Riley must decide if Miami Heat backcourt can thrive

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, right, talks with guard Goran Dragic (7) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Miami.
Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, right, talks with guard Goran Dragic (7) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Miami. AP

There must be a story behind how DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry connected on the court to make the Toronto Raptors duo the consensus best backcourt in the East, as evidenced by each’s inclusion on the All-Star team.

“Honestly, I have no idea,” DeRozan said. “I don’t know how we did that, how we became so close, everything. But I think that’s the beauty of it, because it was never thought out. Everything happened. Next thing you know, we’re looking up, and we’re like, damn, we came a long way. We didn’t plan this.”

So maybe, if given more time, it will someday be that simple and beautiful for the Heat’s Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic. Maybe, rather than the frustrated sleeper who tosses and turns and thrashes into a weary, bleary morning, each will clear his mind, rest his head, shut his eyes and drift sweetly into the Heat’s dream scenario. That it just happens. That their pairing stops feeling so forced, and that they become at least the sum of their respective skills, rather than sometimes seeming to subtract from what the other offers.

Or maybe, prior to the Thursday trade deadline and Friday’s resumption of the Heat season, Pat Riley has seen enough to believe otherwise. That might explain why, according to league sources, the Heat, while not actively shopping Dragic, hasn’t cut off all trade conversation about him either.

Remember, Wade isn’t going anywhere. He’ll be a free agent, but has made it known he intends to avoid last summer’s uncertainty and acrimony and quickly sign a multi-year deal. The Heat, stung by last summer’s criticism and assured by Wade’s increased availability, will almost surely oblige. Dragic, unlike Wade, is a tradeable asset without sentimental strings, with a reasonable contract for the inflated new NBA economy. So, even as he has already ceded more of his game, he’s the one at risk.

I considered their collaboration a concern before the season but figured they would eventually press forward, steaming away any wrinkles. But now, through 43 games, they are statistically stuck in place. The Heat has scored 2,198 points and allowed 2,199 with both playing, which equates to 0.0 net points per possession.

It’s not awful, better than Wade with any of the other four starters, and not that far behind DeRozan and Lowry (plus-1.9 points per 100 possessions). But it’s nowhere near San Antonio’s Tony Parker and Danny Green (plus-11.7) or Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (plus-21.7) either, and that can’t all be explained by other teammates; Curry and Thompson clearly fit better than Curry did with the ball-stopping Monta Ellis.

The key, former Suns point guard Kevin Johnson, said, is to be “complementary,” as he was with Jeff Hornacek or Dan Majerle, both of whom “preferred to spot up,” but “when I needed a break, I could give them the ball and let them handle it, and I’d be able to get a breather. It was just that right simpatico that it all just works together. When you don’t have skills that complement each other, it’s not to say you can’t win, it’s just harder to hit that sweet spot.”

He always knew where Hornacek or Majerle would be.

“You can’t teach that,” Johnson said. “To me, is what elevates teams and relationships in the backcourt.”

Chauncey Billups had that with Richard Hamilton in Detroit in the mid-2000s.

“My weaknesses had to be his strengths,” said Billups, now an ESPN analyst. “I wasn’t like a fast, high-energy, high-motor guy. He was. He could get a little crazy sometimes. I was even-keeled. I had him on that. It just has to mesh. And it’s not easy. Sometimes, time solves that. Sometimes, it doesn’t. You’ve got to kind of be a little lucky.”

Lowry and DeRozan are evidence of time’s power. They have some overlapping attributes but, in their fourth season together, they’ve found the right mix.

“Kyle is more of an outside guy, a three-point guy, and DeMar is more inside,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “And DeMar has really improved his pick-and-roll game, where he can find Kyle spaced out on the weak side. So their strong points and skill sets really complement each other. And then they’re best buddies, and that helps too.”

Wade and Dragic like each other, but they’re not always together like the Raptors are.

It might not matter if they were. It’s a basketball thing.

“It’s just a different match,” Billups said. “I think Dragic is best when he’s kind of controlling the ball. He’s coming downhill, he’s playing fast. He can put you on your heels. That’s not Dwyane’s game anymore. He’s a halfcourt player. He can get out in transition and do work. But he [usually] needs a halfcourt set, he needs to get the ball, see what’s going on, probe a little bit and then go to work. I don’t think those games particularly mesh well. I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

The question for Riley is whether he sees hope.

Or has seen enough.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

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