Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic captured the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award on Wednesday, a well deserved ode to his breakout season that made the Suns the most surprising team in basketball this year. Although they fell just short of the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference, Dragic was the main reason they were not where everyone expected them to be, and that was wallowing in the cellar competing for the top pick in the draft. Dragic averaged a stellar 20.3 points and 5.9 assists for the 48-win Suns.
Dragic won the award by beating out Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers and Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. “The Dragon” reeled in 65 first-place votes. Dragic was a career backup until Phoenix reacquired him in 2010-11 and he ascended into the starter’s role last season. It wasn’t until this year that his production took off. His 20 points and six assists a night came on a highly efficient 50 percent shooting as well as a career high 41 percent from three-point range, huge leaps up from his career norms. Dragic also kept his turnovers down under three a game. Dragic was the first guard to reach those percentages and still average 20 points since 1992.
From a statistics standpoint, Dragic was amongst the elite this past year. He was snubbed in All-Star voting in the loaded Western Conference, but he teamed with fellow breakout star Eric Bledsoe to form one of the league’s most incredible backcourts. Behind first-year coach Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix also got career years from Markieff and Marcus Morris, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker. No one could have blinked an eye if the Most Improved Player Award went to either Bledsoe, Green or Markieff Morris, but Dragic was the driving force behind this team. Time after time he drove to the rim and delivered outrageous acrobatic finishes in traffic. He took and hit gigantic shots down the stretch and oftentimes refused to let Phoenix roll over and die. That aspect is what solidified him as the most improved player.
Lance Stephenson put together a fantastic year and led the NBA with five triple-doubles for the top-seeded Pacers. Anthony Davis established himself as a true franchise player and made his first career All-Star appearance for the Pelicans, but neither had a big impact on the win column. The Suns were the worst team in the west last season and nearly doubled their win total from 25 wins to 48. Much of that can be attributed to the contagious play of Dragic.
Phoenix started the season hot behind the dynamic play of Bledsoe, but the shooting guard eventually went down for an extended period of time with a knee injury, and many believed that would be the end for the Suns. They had their nice start and got some fans’ attention, but would fade into the abyss with so many good teams in the west. Dragic did not allow that to happen, as he was arguably the best guard in all of basketball for two months. His performance peaked in February when he averaged 23.5 points on an astounding 56 percent shooting, including a lights-out 49 percent from three. He had noteworthy performances like a career-high 34 points and ten assists in a win against the Warriors, throwing in 13 during the game’s final seven minutes to erase any possibility of defeat. Over the three weeks after that game, Dragic would go onto break his career high in points two more times, netting 35 and then 40 points.
Dragic’s emergence has drastically altered the trajectory of the Suns’ franchise. Two years ago, Phoenix drafted Kendall Marshall in the first round with hopes he would spearhead a change and blossom into the team’s next franchise point guard after Stephon Marbury and Steve Nash. Little did they know that Dragic would be that guy. Instead of looking forward to landing Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker at the top of the draft, Phoenix is now loaded with picks and young talent and has no reason to worry about getting a new franchise point guard.
Commentary by Justin Hussong