Despite a Rookie of the Year-caliber run, Dario Saric‘s second season should see him relegated to sixth man’s role for the Philadelphia 76ers — and defense in the reason why.
I’ll make my initial disclaimer now: this is by no means a hit piece on Dario Saric, nor anything of the sort. He flashed a ceiling higher than any other rookie in this year’s class outside of Joel Embiid on the offensive end, while his production was one of the few mainstays in a wavering Sixers rotation down the stretch.
As they seek to turn the proverbial corner next season, though, Saric’s minutes are best used outside of the starting rotation, where his defensive deficiencies are minimized and his offensive repertoire is utilized to it’s fullest potential.
For everything Dario showcased in regards to offensive talent, he often neutralized — in some capacity — with iffy performances on the other end. The Croatian was clearly adjusting to the pace of the NBA game at times, getting outworked by strong isolation threats and outmaneuvered by sly off-ball operators. He lacked the foot speed needed to contain quicker bigs off the bounce, while his athletic tools weren’t always up to par with some of the more imposing presences in the painted area.
Outside of a handful of highlight blocks against the Raptors, this season was, in short, a work in progress for Saric on the defensive end.
While the potential for improvement remains — his high basketball I.Q. should eventually translate into better awareness — Saric’s game isn’t built around strong defensive play. He has the offensive versatility needed to kickstart an offense, providing the playmaking touch and requisite shooting needed to function as a focal point for Brett Brown’s system when needed.
Those defensive woes, though, are enough to buck the urge to start him. In a league becoming increasingly centered around plus athletes and positional versatility, Saric’s defensive malleability doesn’t keep pace with his flexibility offensively, meaning the team’s net gain may not be high enough for Brown to run Saric in a featured role.
Playing Ben Simmons at the four spot — defensively, at least — gives the Sixers a multi-positional defender who can help Joel Embiid protect the rim on the help side while switching onto the perimeter and sticking with quicker guards at a high level. When you throw Robert Covington into that mix — as well as a player of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot‘s ilk — the Sixers have the potential to run out a switch-heavy scheme predicated on length and upper-level defenders.
Saric, on the other hand, can focus his efforts towards offensive production off the bench. He can supply Brown will additional playmaking at the four spot during Simmons’ rest periods, while improved shooting should allow him to become a reliable floor spacer in reserve. He can help initiate the offense at a high level, while his defensive problems are relegated to the bench, allowing the Sixers to adjust fluidly depending on the matchup.
While some are quick to dub Saric a future All-Star — which may be a result of recency bias, more so than anything else — his skill set is better suited for a significant load in reserve given the trends of today’s NBA. He could spend more time defending second units, rather than starting fours, while his offensive contributions could carry more weight when buoying the second unit behind the Sixers’ other core pieces.
As a personal believer in the Dario-for-ROTY campaign, it feels odd to write him off as a sixth man long term. But that may be the wrong way to look at it from a purely basketball perspective. Rather than a demotion, he’s being given greater offensive responsibility in a unit centered around him, as opposed to working him as a tertiary option alongside the team’s starters.
Moving him to the bench diminishes his negatives while expanding upon his positives. It’s a victory for all parties involved.