Another day, another former NBA All-Star stepped away from his team and further into limbo. On Nov. 28, the Toronto Raptors announced point guard Goran Dragić is leaving the club for personal reasons. Dragić has played little since going to Toronto in the sign-and-trade deal that sent franchise icon Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat. The latest move will further ignite rumors of Dragić being on his way to play with countryman Luka Dončić with the Dallas Mavericks.
Dragić, 35, doesn’t fit the timeline of the retooling Raptors. Toronto won an NBA title in 2019 but is rebuilding on the fly around Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, both 27. Rookie Scottie Barnes is averaging 35 minutes a game, while 23-year-old Gary Trent Jr. and 22-year-old Precious Achiuwa — also part of the return from the Heat for Lowry — are regularly starting.
A Goran Dragić-Dallas Mavericks pairing makes sense
Besides the sentimentality of bringing in Goran Dragić to play with young Slovenian superstar Dončić, adding Dragić to the Dallas Mavericks would give Dallas something it desperately needs.
Dragić is the exalted veteran of Slovenian basketball. Playing with 18-year-old Dončić for the national team at the 2017 EuroBasket championship, Dragić was the MVP of the first medal-winning squad in the nation’s history. Slovenia shocked the field with a 20-point win over Spain in the semifinals before beating Serbia for the gold medal.
Naturally, there would be a fit for Dragić and Dončić in the Big D. But adding the veteran point guard from the Raptors could be more than a feel-good story for Slovenia. It could be a difference-maker in Dallas as well.
The Dallas Mavericks need another playmaker
For the Dallas Mavericks, Dončić is the engine. He leads the team in scoring, assists, and rebounding. The Mavs are 10–8 but lost all three games Dončić missed with an ankle injury. While Dončić gets 8.1 dimes per game, Jalen Brunson averages 5.3. No one else on the club averaged more than 2.5.
But here’s where the numbers get strange. Dallas gets outscored by 8.5 points per 100 possessions with Dončić on the floor. They are a plus-8.9 when he’s off. Part of the reason is that the ball moves better, oddly enough, without Luka. Dallas has an assist percentage of 56.2% in 530 minutes with Dončić on the court. That figure soars to 61.9% when he’s off.
If that seems counter-intuitive, you forget about human nature. The offense runs through Dončić when he’s on the court. He scores the points, makes the passes, sets up the shooters, does all those things. When he’s off, players revert to playing basketball by feel. If a guy’s open, pass it. Don’t force everything to go through Dončić because he’s not out here right now.
Dončić is a ball-dominant player. Coach Jason Kidd was similarly styled, though nowhere near as gifted as Dončić as a scorer.
A veteran like Goran Dragić can help Dallas through this problem. Dragić is a veteran playmaker. If he’s on the court with Dončić, he allows the youngster to move without the ball, get into some screening actions, and generally gets the ball moving more freely than if Luka has to run the whole production.
When Dragić plays in non-Dončić minutes, Dallas has a true point guard to keep the offense from getting out of sync. That’s not knocking Brunson’s playmaking ability. But Dragić handling the ball makes Brunson a more significant threat.
Getting Goran Dragić out of Toronto is complicated by numbers
The thing keeping Goran Dragić stuck with the Raptors is money. Toronto is happy to pay him not to be around the team, though their statement announcing the arrangement was nothing but complimentary. He’s got a $19.4 million cap figure this season, and Toronto has little wiggle room, with a little more than $250,000 separating it from the luxury tax apron. Waiving Dragic’s contract limits the Raptors’ flexibility to make roster moves without going into the tax.
The Dallas Mavericks are over the salary cap but have $18.1 million remaining under the tax apron. The season is roughly at the quarter mark, so Dallas could fit the remainder of Dragić’s salary onto their sheet and avoid the tax.
However, they can’t just trade a top-55 protected second-round pick for Dragić. Because the Mavericks are over the salary cap, they would need to send roughly $14.6 million back to the Raptors to make a trade work.
A more likely scenario is Toronto reaching an agreement with Dragić to buy out the remainder of his contract, but with that agreement coming later. The cap implications are less damaging the longer the Raptors wait.
Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks should have an opportunity to add a second Slovenian to the roster in Goran Dragić. But that opportunity isn’t coming yet.