Goran Dragić is getting acclimated to life in Chicago, which can be a bit of a culture shock for a 15-year NBA veteran who spent most of his NBA career in Phoenix, Miami and Houston.
“Every city is different, and I’ve had luck for most of my career to be in warm places,” the Bulls guard said before a recent game. “So this is one of the big differences this season, being in Chicago.”
Dragić hasn’t seen the real Chicago yet.
The temperature outside the United Center was in the 60s when we spoke, and there had yet to be frost on the ground. The unseasonably warm weather was providing false hope that the dreaded Chicago winter was overrated — until center Nikola Vučević assured him it was only a mirage.
“So far it has been amazing, but everyone has been telling me it’s going to get worse,” Dragić said with a grin. “I like the city. It has a big Serbian community, so it’s like being home a little bit. I still need to explore a little bit, but ‘Vooch’ and Marko (Simonović) are here, and they’re going to show me around a little.
“So far, so good. We’ll see about winter. I still have to buy a jacket.”
“Not yet,” he said.
So far, so good also has been the reaction of Bulls fans to the start of Dragić’s season on the West Side. The 36-year-old Slovenian has helped fill the void at point guard created by Lonzo Ball’s injury, shooting 46.7% from 3-point range, making some eye-popping assists and generally solidifying the Bulls bench, which has turned from a weakness to a strength.
A tough early-season schedule finally eased up a bit this week with three off days before the Bulls return to action Sunday, taking on the Denver Nuggets at the United Center.
The signing of Dragić to a one-year, $2.9 million deal in July didn’t move the needle much in Chicago. Dragić did his homework and liked what he heard. He knew Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas from his stint in Houston, where Karnisovas was the Rockets director of scouting and was friends with Ivica “Duke” Dukan, the special assistant to Karnisovas and the Bulls director of international scouting. Dragić then spoke with former Bulls forward Toni Kukoč, who told him nothing but good things about the organization.
Dragić played only 21 games last year in Toronto and Brooklyn and figured to play a minor role for a Bulls team that returned most of its starters and top bench players. That changed with Ball’s setback from a left knee injury and an uncertain timetable for his return, sending Ayo Dosunmu into a starting role.
Still, Dragić averaged only 17 minutes of playing time in the first 10 games after playing for Slovenia in EuroBasket 2022 in September and not having much time to rest before the start of Bulls camp.
“I’m good,” he said. “I think that helps me prepare for this season. I’ve been in a good mental state and a good physical state. I know this season is long but I feel the coaching and medical staff already have the plan in place for me.”
So no load management for the 36-year old?
“When I need it we’ll use it,” he said. “But so far it’s not an option.”
Coach Billy Donovan has turned to Dragić more often the last three games, andv he has averaged 24 minutes and shot 53.3% (16-for-30). Dragić, Alex Caruso and Javonte Green have provided a much-needed spark off the bench for a team that frequently has started cold.
The Bulls still need of some consistency, especially late in games. DeMar DeRozan last season almost single-handedly won close games down the stretch, earning the title “King of the Fourth” for his ability to take over games, including back-to-back buzzer-beaters against the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards.
The 2021-22 Bulls had a 25-16 “clutch record,” defined as games in which the scoring margin is five points or less with five or fewer minutes remaining. That 61% win percentage ranked fourth in the league behind the Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and Wizards. But this seaon they’re 0-6 in that category, the only team in the league without a win.
Dragić feels it’s starting to come together with more practice time and a chance to get comfortable with each other.
“It’s really easy to fit in here,” he said. “We still need to work on some stuff on the floor, try to get on the same page. It’s getting easier everyday. We’ve had a lot of games back-to-back and four games in six nights, and we didn’t have a lot of practice to develop that chemistry, so you try to develop that in a game.
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“Now we have eight days and only two games, so we’re going to be able to work a little bit and jell.”
Dragić’s playmaking skills have been one of the more enjoyable aspects of the young season. Whether it’s a no-look pass to Vučević in the corner, a lob to Andre Drummond for a dunk or a behind-the-back pass to Zach LaVine, Dragić has displayed some showmanship in the tradition of NBA legend Pete Maravich. One thing we’ve learned about Dragić is to expect the unexpected.
“He was next level,” Dragić said of Maravich. “I just try to read the game. Sometimes the easy pass is not there, so you have to pass it behind the back, and it’s just a reading situation.
“I always try to do something for the public, for the fans, as long as it’s not a turnover.”
It’s too early in the season to make any real statement about the Bulls, who could be 8-5 with a few more clutch shots at the end of games. But they’re confident they can compete in the East despite their so-so start, and when Ball returns the bench will be even deeper.
Maybe they’ll start heating up as the days grow shorter and colder.
By then Dragić should have that jacket.