With Kyle Lowry going down with bacterial infection that could prevent him from playing for the rest of the season, Goran Dragic has been thrust into the starting lineup. As Dragic has done every time he has been called into starting duty, he has produced at a tremendous level, leading some to believe that he should inherit the position permanently.
There is no doubt that Dragic has performed exceptionally well in recent weeks, carrying the team on his back for stretches, but should he be above Lowry in the organizational depth chart, especially with his contract up in July? That's where the debate lies.
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A Simple Comparison
As others have considered this debate, the same numbers have been thrown out there to compare the two: their statistics as starters. Because Dragic plays a different role off the bench, it only makes sense to compare Lowry and Dragic's performances as starters (apples to apples, if you will).
As a starter, Dragic has averaged 16.4 ppg, 9.5 apg on 52% shooting from the floor and 42% on 3's versus Lowry's 15.9 and 7.2 on 42% from the floor and 39% on 3's.
Add in the fact that Lowry has regressed mightily on defense this season, and there is little doubt that Dragic has outperformed Lowry since taking over the starting job.
Unfortunately, simple analysis like that completely ignores the presence of confounding variables and a lack of sufficient sample size.
Before injuring himself, Lowry was called upon to carry the team, playing long minutes in a compressed schedule. While Dragic has taken on that role himself in recent weeks, the stress associated with playing long minutes for nearly 40 games is much more significant than doing so for 12.
Some 15-20 games into the season, Lowry hit a wall and started to slump mightily. It would be fair to assume the same will happen with Dragic at some point. As great as he's been, his legs will start getting weak, teams will start game-planning against him, and he'll struggle for a few games. Just as Lowry's once-exceptional stats took a hit with a slump, Dragic's will as well.
Another reason why Dragic is due for regression is the fact that any evaluation of him as a starter is based on a tiny sample size. This season, Lowry has started 38 games. Dragic has started 12. To accept that the 12 game stretch is an acceptable sample size to judge Dragic as a starter would be a leap I'm not willing to make.
Anybody who expects Dragic to shoot nearly 45% from three point range if he's retained next year is kidding themselves. It is reasonable to conclude that Dragic is a better starter than backup, but any expectations of Dragicsanity to continue at this level would be unfounded.
As everybody and their mother know, the Rockets are looking to make a splash in the free agency and trade markets this summer and beyond. By declining Jordan Hill's 2012-13 option and opting not to extend Courtney Lee and Dragic, the Rockets have done an excellent job of maximizing their potential cap space this summer.
With his play in recent weeks, Goran Dragic is going to find a bidding war for his services this summer. As an unrestricted free agent, Dragic can decide his fate. Even if the Rockets promise to trade Kyle Lowry and hand Dragic the starting job, the Rockets are going to have to make a big offer to keep Dragic, certainly in excess of what they are paying Lowry now.
On top of the cost of paying Dragic some 5 years and $40 million to keep him around, the Rockets would also be trading Lowry for pennies on the dollar. If the Rockets had taken advantage of Lowry's high value before he went down, they could've picked up a haul. Now? Teams won't be able to know whether Lowry will have lingering effects from the infection that has ruined his season.
In an ideal world, the Rockets would retain Lowry and Dragic, and find a way to trade one of them mid-season in an effort to maximize value. Unfortunately, I can't see Dragic wanting to come back to Houston without some assurance that he would start and I can't imagine the Rockets benching Lowry. Thus, it appears the team will have to decide.
For me, that decision is easy. Lowry and the $12 million contract over two years is far more appealing than Dragic, whatever you can get for Lowry, and a $40 million commitment to the salary cap. As much fun as this run has been, the Rockets will have to cut ties with Dragic.
When a player is injured and the team continues to succeed in spite of that, fans are quick to forget how important that player is to the team. The Rockets famously were "better without Yao" in some people's eyes after they continued to win without him, and many are starting to forget how great of a point guard Lowry is. Let's hope the front office isn't the same way.