Even on a less-than-perfect cell phone connection from Ljubljana, Slovenia, the regret in Goran Dragic’s voice comes across loud and clear.
It’s late and the 14-year NBA veteran is a little tired, a lot disappointed in himself and even more apologetic for comments he made to Slovenian media that he feels were taken out of context and which have caused a stir and could potentially poison the well for the well-respected and well-liked point guard even before he sets foot in Toronto, potentially his fourth NBA city.
“My message basically, to all Toronto fans, is I would like to apologize. It didn’t come out the right way. I know they love their team, and they should be proud, it is one of the best organizations in the NBA. They’ve already won a championship and I didn’t, so what I said, it really was not appropriate,” said Dragic.
He was having a fun day in his home city on Sunday before a brief clip with an accompanying English translation from a conversation with some local media began rocketing around social media Monday afternoon and set off a stink bomb in Toronto.
The Slovenian national basketball team was being honoured in the centre of the city after returning from the Olympics with a more-than-respectable fourth-place finish to show for it. For a country of two million people it was a massive deal and even though Dragic didn’t play, as the longtime centre piece of the team his views were sought out by the media.
Inevitably he was asked about being traded from Miami – his NBA home for the past seven seasons – to the Raptors where a quality 35-year-old point guard in the final year of a contract for $19.5 million could quite reasonably expect to be traded from at some point between now and the trade deadline.
In the clip that makes the rounds Dragic says “Toronto is not my preferred destination, I have higher ambitions, we’ll see.”
Dragic isn’t trying to pretend he was misquoted, just that the broader context was missing.
“I was in the centre of the city and the journalists were there and I was asked about Toronto and it was basically taken out of context.
“I told them that I had spent seven years in Miami and that would be the preferred destination for me because my family is there and everything, not Toronto.”
The irony is that almost from the moment that Dragic and second-year big man Precious Achuiwa were included by the Miami as their contribution to the sign-and-trade that resulted in Raptors icon Kyle Lowry heading to the Heat, the expectation was that Dragic would be traded again, given his value to contending teams and the youth-serving Raptors not really being in the market for late career point guards at the moment.
It’s just that the Raptors are waiting for the trade market to materialize, which means that Dragic could end up starting the season in Toronto.
And make no mistake, Dragic can still play. He averaged 13.4 points and 4.4 assists 27 minutes for Miami last season and put up 19 points and 4.4 assists during the Heat’s run to the NBA Finals in 2020.
It’s widely believed that Dragic is hoping to join the Dallas Mavericks so he can be reunited with countryman Luka Doncic.
But the Raptors have to get the return they want otherwise they’re happy to have an experienced and well-respected playmaker start the season with them and see how things develop.
“Listen, it was translated and I think I would like to get it directly from him just to understand exactly what he meant by that,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said on the subject on 590 The Fan. “But I think that if we're just gonna kind of talk about all of the issues, obviously, we feel like we're gonna be competitive, we have a core -- as we've talked about -- that's been around for a while and has won at the highest level as well.
“So think that we'll just give it some time here to see how he would fit in and if he likes it here or not. I think he's a pro and he's been around a lot and he's obviously entitled to wanting to make the most of his years as his career comes down here … so I don't think it's in any way a slight or anything like that.”
One school of thought is that the Raptors might be holding out for a package that includes Moses Brown, the seven-foot-two 21-year-old who averaged 8.1 points and 8.6 rebounds in just 22 minutes for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season.
Since Brown’s contract can’t be included in a larger deal until Oct. 1 due to a technicality in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, this could take a while.
And there’s no guarantee that Dragic gets moved until the trade deadline, likely slated for mid-February. There’s no guarantee he gets traded at all.
It’s a lot of uncertainty for someone with a pair of school-aged boys who have only known one NBA city, but that’s NBA life on the final year of a manageable contract, and Dragic knows it.
“I cannot lie, of course I was sad [to be traded],” said Dragic. “First of all, I spent seven years in Miami and the second thing is I have two kids and family in Miami and you have to move to a different city, you basically need to start over and find a school and everything, it’s been hard.”
And getting smashed on social media by the fans of his potential new team before he’s even put on the uniform?
Less than ideal.
“It hurts. It hurts because I didn’t mean it like that and it’s not easy receiving all these messages from the fans and everything,” Dragic told me. “That’s why I wanted to explain myself.”
He’s more than familiar with the Raptors and the city. He was the Heat’s best player when underdog Miami pushed Toronto the seven games in the second round of the 2016 playoffs. Nearly his entire career in Miami coincided with the Raptors' rise to the top of the NBA.
He doesn’t need to be told what Toronto is about.
“It’s a top-notch organization. They won a championship two years ago, they have great players like VanVleet, Siakam, Kyle was there, [DeMar] DeRozan was there, and they have probably the most passionate fans in the NBA and it’s a great city,” he says. “I’ve heard the best things about the city and the organization. You always want to be in these kinds of organization in your career.”
Maybe just not now, or – at least – in these circumstances.
But if it does shakeout that Dragic spends some or all of the season with the Raptors? He already knows his role -- he’s been playing it for years, on and off the floor.
“I’m a bit older, I have a lot of experience. I always know how to deal with the locker room and be a leader,” he says. “VanVleet is one of the best point guards in the league, he showed that last year, so it would be a privilege to play alongside him.
“My job at this stage of my career is to be there for the young players and give advice and everything and try to make the game easy for them.”
And: “I’ve always been professional. You can ask a bunch of people. Everywhere I’ve played, wherever I’m going to play, I’m going to be professional and do my job,” he says.
“I love basketball, I love to play and I’m going to give 100 per cent wherever I play. Right now I’m [with] Toronto and that’s my main thing to think about."
He hasn’t made things easy for himself to start his Raptors career -- however long it lasts -- but one way or another, Dragic is determined to make things right.