Super Dario Mode


There has been a cloud hanging over the Sixers' season that while unique and strange, has been euphoric at the same time. The Sixers are currently in the 7th spot in the Eastern Conference, Joel Embiid is an All-star starter, Ben Simmon is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year and almost made the All-star team but of course, there is the continuing and mostly frustrating mystery surrounding Markelle Fultz, the number one pick in this past draft. With all of these storylines jammed-packed into the season, it's easy to forget about some of the other players on the roster. 

There has been a certain Croatian, who has still not come over to the NBA (if you follow the Sixers you'll get that joke), who has been a key factor in the team's success so far. He sometimes goes by the nickname "The Homie". 

Dario Saric --as Zach Lowe recently put it-- has been a chameleon since joining the Sixers last season. He started the first 10 games as a rookie, then came off the bench for the next 45 out of 46 games, and then started the remaining 25 games after the team was annihilated by injuries. During that 25 game stretch, he averaged 17.3pgg/7.3rebs/3.4apg, and while it was on an inefficient 43/28/78 shooting split, it was clear that the talent was there. 

Prior to the start of this season, it was fair to wonder what role Saric would have with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz joining the fray, along with free agent signee J.J Redick. Saric's fit in a Simmons and Embiid frontcourt was a tricky one. He was a below average three-point shooter (31%) his rookie year and despite his hard-nosed effort, he had limitations defensively, especially guarding the perimeter. Could Simmons defend guards and wings (turns out, it's a resounding yes)? Could Saric provide enough shooting to alleviate the lack of spacing caused by Simmons' inability to shoot outside of 12 feet? The initial answer to these questions was to bring Saric off the bench, and roll with a starting lineup of Fultz/Redick/Robert Covington/Simmons/Embiid. The overqualified sixth-man was seen as his long-term role --and it still might be--. The thought process was to have the second unit's offense run through Dario to take advantage of his crafty post game, ability to push the ball in transition, and his passing. His passing that we saw overseas translated well during his rookie year.

For reasons that the Sixers, or anybody else for that matter, can't seem to figure out, Markelle Fultz has only played 4 games this year which has undoubtedly setback what Head Coach Brett Brown initially had in mind for the normal rotation. Saric struggled in his role off the bench for the first five games of the season. He averaged 5.6points, 4.6 rebounds, and only 1.4 assists on terrible percentages. That's when Brett Brown decided to move Jerryd Bayless to the bench and inserted Saric into the starting lineup. Questions about Saric's fit next to Embiid and Simmons were about to be answered, and at first, it yielded mostly positive results. From October 28th to November 30th, the Simmons/Embiid/Redick/Covington/Embiid starting lineup was 4th in Net Rating (20.4), 7th in Offensive Rating 113.7), and 2nd in Defensive rating(93.3) among lineups that played more than 100 minutes. 

Saric, however, was still figuring his role with the starting unit. During that same time frame, Saric averaged 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 1.7 assists on 42/37/83 shooting splits. His numbers went up but it was mostly because it came within the flow of the offense. The three-point percentage certainly ticked up to league average, but we hardly saw the offense run through his dynamic playmaking and the crafty maneuvers in the post that like the season prior. He had to find other ways to contribute and fit in, like spotting up, cutting, and hitting the offensive glass.

When the calendar turned to December first, that's when it started clicking for The Homie. Saric has now figured out when he can make plays for others, and his numbers, as well as his efficiency, has shot through the roof. Over his last 32 games, Dario is averaging 16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game on 47/41/93 shooting splits. So what has worked for Dario? Well for starters, the jump shot was always going to be the huge factor in how he would fit with Simmons and Embiid.

What was once a flat and laser-like shot has now become a deadly NBA three-point shot that defenses have to respect. The threat of Saric's shot has created more driving lanes for him to herk-and-jerk his way to the basket, opening up the offense for him to score or make the right passes.

It's not just the improved shooting that has opened things up for The Homie. Over these last 32 games, it seems that the coaching staff has involved him in more sets. Brett Brown, who fans somehow still want to be fired, has made it a point to run more of the offense through Saric, whether it be through the post, at the elbow or the top of the key. Saric has also taken more initiative to push the ball in transition instead of flanking to the three-point line like he did earlier in the year. This has given his teammates easier buckets.

The starting lineup of Simmons/Embiid/Saric/Covington/Redick has been blasting teams out of the gym over this stretch as well. That lineup has outscored opponents by an absurd 18.6 points per 100 possessions, the offensive rating has jumped to 118, which is a hair behind the Warriors starting lineup of Durant/Steph/Klay/Draymond/Zaza (119), and of course Joel Embiid --with Robert Covington and Ben Simmons slowly turning into an elite defender-- has been the driving force behind the lineup's 99.4 defensive rating.

But the production from this starting lineup has jumped from the numbers in October/November, and that's in part because of Saric and his adaptability, which has been nothing short of spectacular. We are reaching a point where this might be more than a hot streak. This has continued on for more than 2 months, and with every passing game, Saric's rookie contract piles up insane value. If and when Fultz figures out his jump shot and is ready to play, Saric might go back to the bench to become the super sixth man but he certainly could be a starter on most NBA teams. It further shows the wealth of talent that this team possesses thanks to former General Manager Sam Hinkie, who engineered the 2014 draft night trade to acquire the rights to Saric.

In hypothetical fan-trade lore, Saric is often brought up as a trade asset that can be used in any potential deal, and while I get where one might have that perspective, every game makes it that much harder for me to agree with that sentiment. To me, Dario is the type of utility player the team will need down the road when it's ready to contend, and with two more years left on his rookie deal after this season, I'd much rather explore how much further the developmental path can take him. 

I tend to agree with the Big Fella on this one. 

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