Heat Check

He became a leader and had a career season. Now, Goran Dragic finally feels at home with Heat

Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragic drives to the basket for a layup in a season-ending win over the Washington Wizards on April 12, 2017.
Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragic drives to the basket for a layup in a season-ending win over the Washington Wizards on April 12, 2017. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Few people took the end of the Heat’s season harder than Goran Dragic.

Not only did he cry last Wednesday when Miami was eliminated from postseason contention, but he said he took it as personally as when his beloved Slovenian national team was eliminated from the European Cup four years ago on its home court. Those bitter feelings all came rushing back again over the weekend, Dragic said, when he turned on his TV and tuned into the NBA playoffs.

“It takes a couple days, two, three days,” Dragic said Monday of what it is like to get over the sting of the end of a season like the one Miami just had when it turned an 11-30 start into a 41-41 season but finished one break shy of reaching the postseason.

“It was painful especially because we worked so hard and this group is so close that you wanted to make some noise in the playoffs.

“But I think now, [that pain] it’s over. It’s been a few days and you cannot drag this on so long. At the end of the day, you can’t change the past. I’m looking forward and trying to make plans for this summer on how to get better for next season.”

If Dragic, who turns 31 on May 6, can find a way to do that, he’ll have another career season for the Heat. The one he just completed was a mirror image of the one which landed him the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award and All-NBA Third Team honors back in Phoenix.

Just compare the numbers:

This season, Dragic averaged 20.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals and shot 47.6 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from three-point range.

In 2013-2014, Dragic averaged 20.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 steals and shot 50.5 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three-point range.

Statistically, there were only four other players in the league this season to average at least 20 points, 5.5 assists and shoot 40 percent or better from three-point range: three are All-Stars in Kyle Lowry (22.4 ppg, 7.0 apg, 41.2 percent from three), Stephen Curry (25.3 ppg, 6.6 apg, 41.1 percent from three) and Kyrie Irving (25.2 ppg, 5.8 apg, 40.1 percent from three) and the other is the second-highest paid player in the league in Mike Conley (20.5 ppg, 6.3 apg, 40.7 percent from three).

“I think he’s always been a player that just wanted to impact the game with his force of nature and with his will to win,” Spoelstra said. “This was, in my mind, his best year, his career best year. Not only by the numbers, because it was his most efficient year, and he really was our most consistent driving force throughout each month. But because his leadership really grew out of necessity this year, and he was so uncomfortable doing it.”

Captain Udonis Haslem was the driving force and locker room leader all season for the Heat. But Haslem himself said it wasn’t until Dragic and others in the locker room also began holding teammates accountable that the Heat began to turn its season around.

“It started turning when I came back from my scratched retina [in early January] after I missed a couple games,” center Hassan Whiteside said last Wednesday. “I could feel a different team when I came back and joined them on the West Coast. [After the Detroit loss at home on Jan. 1] we all sat down and looked each other in the face. It was one of the few times I heard Goran yell at everybody and start it off. After that, we all went home and looked in the mirror. Nobody was going to save us. We knew we had to play every game like it was our last.”

Said Spoelstra of Dragic: “He saw that this group needed it, and he became more vocal. He not only led by example, but with his voice, held guys accountable, did things that I don’t think he ever imagined he would ever be required to do.

“To see that kind of growth and to see his personal gratification, because he knows that he knows that he’s a much different player now than how he used to be, has been great to see.”

Dragic never imagined he was going to have to be that kind of guy – not when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were around. But with Wade bolting for Chicago last summer and Bosh never fully recovering from the blood clots in his system the opportunity to need to become a vocal on-court leader arose.

“I think a lot of that came with this group because everybody likes each other,” Dragic said. “We understand that it’s nothing personal. That sometimes you need to say something that is better for the team. Maybe in the past, you had some players who you try to talk with them, but they react differently. I didn’t feel comfortable with that. With this team, everybody is so pure, thinking about only one goal. That makes this team better and I think that helped me personally to grow as a player and then to talk to them.”

Becoming a vocal leader isn’t the only way Dragic has grown, Spoelstra said. He’s also done it on the defensive end – an area he was never known for when he played in Phoenix.

“He’s a guy that we’ve put on 1 through 3,” Spoelstra said. “Rarely is there a situation where we’re like, Ok, we’re not putting on him for X, Y, or Z reason. No, you’ve got to guard your match up, or hey, you’ve got to guard bigger, or hey, you’ve got to switch on to a four. He embraced our defensive culture, he’s become a more-than-reliable two-way player. He’s not somebody you’re trying to hide because of his toughness, his length, and his willingness to compete, his willingness to buy into a system. That’s been cool to see.”

Now, Dragic, who is due to make $17 million in 2017-18 (a baragin compared to those other four guards mentioned above), is looking forward to turning his play up another notch next season. With three years left on his Heat contract and trade rumors behind him, it finally feels like his future is set.

“This place feels like home now,” said Dragic, who will return to his native Slovenia at the end of April before returning to South Florida in September. “I don’t have any other distractions outside the court. I’m just thinking about basketball. Of course, [last] summer was really important for me. I really worked [hard] on my game, especially on my body and I tried to be in the best shape of my life. I think I accomplished that.

“It’s like a puzzle. Now, I’m trying to put healthy habits, eating healthy, and putting a good workout plan together. I’m going to play for my national team this summer and at the same time be smart. I’m not going to work too much and I’m going to try to come back fresher and be ready to play.”