With NBA play suspended, Goran Dragic talks free agency and first season as Heat reserve

Tribune Content Agency

If the NBA season is lost because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Miami Heat and many other teams will be left wondering what could have been.

With the Heat just one win from officially clinching a playoff berth, a lost season would mean a lost playoff appearance. It would also mean a lost opportunity to evaluate this roster on a postseason stage in its first year together, as Miami currently holds the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference at 41-24.

“You always have that in your thoughts — what if?” Heat guard Goran Dragic said to the Miami Herald of potentially having the NBA season cut short before the playoffs. “It would be hard to accept if we’re not going to have a chance to compete and to show that we’re a good team in the playoffs.”

Could that “what if” question keep Miami from making major changes to its roster this offseason? Could that “what if” question keep impending Heat free agents from signing elsewhere this offseason?

It’s important to note there’s still hope around the NBA that the suspended season will resume in the coming months. But if the season is lost, the unexpected and early ending could play a major role in offseason decisions across the league.

Dragic, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, is one of those who will have a decision to make. The 33-year-old is in the fifth and final year of the $85 million deal he signed with the Heat in the summer of 2015, and he has a salary of $19.2 million this season as Miami’s second-highest paid player behind only Jimmy Butler.

“Right now, if I’m honest, I’m not even thinking about free agency,” Dragic said. “I have so many different problems. My uncle is stuck here in the U.S. I’m trying to get him back to his home country, so I’m on the phone 24/7 basically with the government. It’s just a crazy situation for me and my family. I just want to be done with that, and hopefully when this virus is done then I can think about my future and free agency and everything.”

The pandemic has affected Dragic, who is from Slovenia, a little differently than most NBA players.

Slovenia has asked most citizens to return to the country, and Dragic’s parents did recently after spending time in South Florida. Dragic’s brother Zoran, the former Heat guard who now plays in Spain, is in the middle of a 20-day quarantine in a Slovenian hotel after returning from Spain. And Dragic’s uncle is stuck in South Florida because he’s from Serbia, which has closed its borders.

Dragic, who said he will remain in South Florida, is isolating himself in his Miami home with his wife, Maja, and their two children, 6-year-old Mateo and 4-year-old Viktoria.

“It’s a different experience, but I’m happy that at least I’m able to spend this time with my kids,” Dragic said. “Some families are away from each other, they cannot get back to their home country or homes. That’s something that’s really hard. But for me, yeah, we do a lot of stuff. We play different games, we have a swimming pool so they can go and swim. Just try to entertain them as much as possible. Then during the week Monday through Friday we have home schooling, so it’s a lot of work.”

Before the season was suspended, Dragic had turned into an effective and consistent weapon off Miami’s bench. In his first full season as a Heat reserve, Dragic averaged 16.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 54 games this season after playing in a career-low 36 games last season due to right knee surgery.

During a Twitter question and answer session Sunday night, Dragic playfully posed this question to Heat rookie guard Tyler Herro: “Who is the best player in NBA with a knee brace?” Herro quickly responded with Dragic’s nickname — “The Dragon.”

“I would characterize it as a full success for me,” Dragic said of his 12th NBA season, “especially after that injury. You start doubting a little bit if you can come back. Of course, this role change helped me as a basketball player and I tried to help my team. I still know I can do better, but I didn’t imagine at the beginning when I found out I was going to play off the bench that I was going to be able to accept that the way I did.

“You need to adapt and you need to accept a different role. This role coming from the bench, for sure, it’s going to extend my career. I’m going to be able to play longer. At the end of the day, this is the goal. I want to play as much as I can, many years in this great association.”

Dragic’s play this season also put him in a good position entering free agency as a skilled veteran guard who can make an impact as a starter or reserve. According to a report from Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Dragic is one of two impending Heat free agents (along with forward Derrick Jones Jr.) the Bulls have recently put “under the microscope.”

Miami should have the cap space this offseason to keep Dragic, but finding the room to sign him to a long-term contract could be challenging because the Heat wants to preserve max cap space for the summer of 2021 for a pursuit of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who can become a free agent that summer, and others in what should be a loaded free agent class.

Would Dragic sign a short-term deal with a higher salary to remain in Miami or is his preference to sign a long-term contract that provides stability at this late stage of his NBA career? That’s still to be determined.

“We like it here,” Dragic said when asked if re-signing with the Heat is his preference. “It has been fun. It’s a nice place to live, the kids are going to school here. So definitely this would be one of the options to be high on our list. Like I said, you don’t know what the future holds, how the talks are going to go and we’ll see. But I’m confident that we’re going to choose the best situation for our family.”

Dragic, who joined the Heat through a trade from the Phoenix Suns in February 2015, has not been a free agent since the summer of 2015 when he signed a five-year deal to stay in Miami.

“When you’re locked in and when you have a contract, at least you know you’re set and you’re going to have a job,” Dragic said. “Right now, I’m playing well and I know that probably I’m going to still play basketball. Somebody is going to sign me. But still, until you put that signature on the contract, it’s a little bit … I would not say I’m worried, but still you don’t know what your future holds. There’s uncertainty. But that’s part of the business. For me, the main thing this season was to show that I’m healthy and that I can still play well. I did that.”


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