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Tuesday March 15, 2011 3:40 PM

Enter The Dragon

Goran Dragic working hard to make rapid transition to Rockets' way

West Medlin

HOUSTON - Professional sports operate within a rather unique paradigm. That’s not exactly a newsflash, I know. After all, only a fortunate few are supremely talented, dedicated and diligent enough to be given an opportunity to cash in on their gift for playing a child’s game.

But while there are many perks to playing pro sports for a living, there’s certainly a cost to taking part as well. Most notably, only in the world of professional sports are employees allowed to be freely traded like commodities among organizations. I can only imagine my surprise if after going in to work one morning Jason told me that my internship had been traded to Milwaukee for a coffee maker and an autographed Glenn Robinson jersey (editor’s note: I’ll take a Jack Sikma Bucks’ throwback over a Big Dog jersey any day).

It would be challenging to promptly pick up the pieces and relocate, to say the least. My intern-abilities wouldn’t be any different in Milwaukee compared to Houston, but I suspect I’d need some time to get comfortable with my new team and co-workers before I was cranking out my best work.

This unavoidable period of transition brings to mind a section in Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball in which NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas tells him that “the secret” to hoops success really has little to do with basketball at all. The game is more than just statistical measurements; there’s a major mental element in play as well, and difficult to define characteristics such as chemistry, confidence and savvy (the “secret sauce?”) matter just as much as speed, size, and athleticism.

I spent awhile contemplating this while pondering the case of Goran Dragic who, less than a month ago, left the only NBA team for which he had ever played and headed to Houston when the Rockets acquired him at the trade deadline. New coach, new system, new teammates, new city. Taking all that – and more – into consideration, it’s not hard to appreciate how challenging it must be for players and teams to build the kind of chemistry and confidence Isiah was talking about – all while attempting to do so on the fly, no less.

“I was in Phoenix for two-and-a-half years,” says Dragic “and suddenly you need to know new people and a new city. It’s tough. But that’s just the way professional basketball is.”

That is, of course, the reality of the business. It’s something Courtney Lee, Dragic’s backcourt running mate on the second unit, knows about all too well. This is Lee’s third year in the league and he’s already been traded twice – though both times took place during the offseason, something he says is far preferable to the controlled chaos inherent within a midseason move.

“I would definitely rather be traded in the offseason so you have time to get situated and know what you’re getting in to,” says Lee. “Go to the city; visit it. Get to know the staff and the city.”

Dragic, of course, has not been permitted such luxuries. Training camp is a distant memory while practice time is limited this late in the season. Instead he and the Rockets are forced to figure out “the secret” on the fly. And while Dragic attempts to settle into his role as Houston’s backup point guard, both he and his teammates are trying to make his midseason transition as smooth as possible, all while making a final push for the playoffs.

Then, of course, there is the rarely-discussed but no less challenging issue of off-court transition as well. Dragic will live out of a Houston hotel from now until the end of the season. The native of Slovenia concedes the difficulty of dealing with this sudden whirlwind, but also expresses an immense appreciation for teammates like Chase Budinger who have helped bring him into the Rockets’ fold as quickly and painlessly as possible.

“Overnight, you have to take what you were playing for two-and-a-half years in Phoenix and then you have to change that,” says the player affectionately known as ‘The Dragon.’ “I’m lucky that all of my teammates are great.

“We have a lot of new players. Especially Bud is helping me a lot - Courtney Lee (as well). So far so good,” says Dragic. “I still need some time to learn how they function on the court, but everybody is helping me and it’s much easier.”

And Dragic’s teammates understand the importance of assimilating Dragic with his new club as soon as possible.

“The biggest thing is to just be friendly to him and to try and get him into our philosophy here,” says Budinger. “Get him into our offense as quick as possible because the transition from one team to another is like that. We’re just trying to talk to him as much as we can. Try to tell him where our sweet spots are because he’s a point guard. And just try to help him out as much as we can.”

Dragic, meanwhile, brings with him a skill set that should allow him to return the favor to his teammates on the court.

“The great thing about him is he has come in and brought consistent energy, effort, and toughness,” says Rockets Director of Player Development Brett Gunning. “A lot of guys when they join a new team want to prove they can score or do some of the pretty things. And I love the fact that he has come in with an unselfishness about him. He’s been able to come in behind Kyle [Lowry] and get us out in transition. Get to the rim. Get fouled. And get open shots.”

While Dragic has certainly shown plenty of flashes which illustrate why the Rockets traded for his services, Houston’s last two games reveal the up-and-down ride the transition process often entails. Against San Antonio, Dragic brought instant offense off the bench and snagged a pair of steals while scoring 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting in just 19 minutes. Monday night against his former Phoenix teammates, however, Dragic’s comfort level clearly wasn’t the same.

“I thought he played a little bit frantic,” said Rockets Head Coach Rick Adelman after the game. “He just has to settle down and play with his teammates. I think he tried to do too much himself.”

Such highs and lows are all part of the roller coaster ride that accompanies midseason trades. Players naturally want to put their best foot forward in an effort to help their new club and demonstrate their value In due time, however, a comfort level will be reached and a role will be clearly defined. Already, Dragic has shown enough to reveal himself to be a great fit on this Rockets’ roster. His energy, defense and playmaking could prove pivotal to Houston’s playoff hopes. What’s more, it certainly beats anything I could be writing about in Milwaukee.

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