The Sixers aren’t losers anymore. The bandwagon is overflowing. Multiple potential superstars line the roster. The team sold out its initial allotment of season tickets. The new world-class practice facility draws rave reviews from every player on the roster as camp kicks off. Legitimate NBA players are competing for minutes throughout the entire roster.
Gone are the days of fringe NBA players trying not to give away their shots. Gone are the brick-layers of yesteryear. Some vestiges of that era remain - here’s to Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell for kicking down their proverbial doors into the NBA - but most of the roster are well-established athletes or are high draft picks with the pedigree to be great someday. Also, Jahil Okafor is still around, but even he’s turned a new leaf.
It’s a new day, yes it is. And we’re going to celebrate it in our player previews, which will focus on the change in the air, the new faces, and the old faces in new era of Sixers basketball. We’ll compare and contrast the old and the new, though the writers here might change the format up day-by-day. Today's discussion centers around the homie Dario Saric, who will be adjusting to a very different role this year.
It was a tale of two seasons in Dario Saric’s rookie campaign. The All-Star break serves as a convenient breaking point in looking at his season, and, in truth, Saric’s surge had begun before then. But the dichotomy in his pre- and post-ASG numbers are stark. Dario saw massive upticks in his usage that matched an impressive efficiency bump, boosting his per game numbers from a pedestrian 10 - 6 - 1, to a featured 17 - 7 - 3.5 (points - rebounds - assists).
After Embiid went down due to his meniscus injury in Portland, Dario became the fulcrum of the Sixers’ offense, a whirling dervish of no-look passes, aggressive pump fakes, and line-drive 3-pointers. After two years of worrying whether he would come over (do we think he will yet?), and especially whether his ground-bound style of play would translate to the NBA, it was encouraging to see him amass some success in tougher environs.
In his sophomore season, Dario will now have to contend with the issue that overshadowed his training camp, and many saw as complicating his fit with this Sixers team— Ben Simmons plays the same position as Saric. Obviously, Simmons is the superior player, leading to questions about Dario’s fit with this team and the allocation of cap money to a player such as him in the future.
The first question is the one that will concern the team this year. How well can Ben and Dario fit together, and is playing the two side-by-side a viable option?
On the positive side for each is the ball movement each imparts into the side. Cramped space is a major problem on an NBA court, and there is no panacea for shooting poor units to overcome that; but passing has often been an ointment that greases the wheels, and it’s a skill that these two players possess in spades.
However, the bigger two issues will be shooting and defense.
Playing Dario alongside a playmaker like Ben will force Saric to play off the ball more frequently. While his touch passing and vision help him in some regards here, it’s a feature that reduces his on-court value. Dario won’t be able to create on the dribble as easily, and his defenders will feel some freedom to sag off of him, hoping to recover in time to contest his shot.
This makes shooting improvements a key point of development for Saric this season. For much of the early season last year, when Dario’s shot wasn’t falling, he struggled to contribute, and he finished the year shooting only 31.1% from deep. He’ll need to bump that closer to league average to make a partnership tenable alongside Simmons.
The other key point of emphasis is on the defensive side of the ball, where both players will be most comfortable guarding the 4th smallest opponent. Saric was a better defender than his reputation suggested last year, consistently showing strong effort and doing a decent job completing rotations and help assignments. But he struggled when isolated against smaller, quicker players— James Harden destroyed him on national TV— and he’s at his best when he doesn’t have to deal with large swathes between the ball and the basket.
Simmons’ quickness may help in that regard. While he is naturally a pure 4 on the defensive end, he won’t have much trouble containing bigger wing players, and his switching has looked more organic and effortless than expected in the early going.
But fitting the two together will be a puzzle for Brett and his staff to solve, and it’s doubtful that the Sixers’ best lineup will ever be one that contains both of them.
It therefore seems likely that the best use of Dario will bring him off the bench and use his offensive firepower to overwhelm sub-par opposing bench units. The Spurs have pioneered the idea of playing with a competitive bench unit, and it has served them well over the years. By staggering the use of their best players and ensuring that they have quality playmakers available off the bench, San Antonio has used these periods to expand on or take the lead.
Dario is a perfect candidate to lead these units, especially if it enables Fultz to ease into a playmaking role alongside another gifted player. Units featuring the two of them alongside Richaun Holmes could be highly problematic for opposing scrubs who rarely see much offensive firepower. Become a bench stalwart would also go some way towards minimizing Saric’s defensive shortcomings.
In the end, Brett Brown will surely experiment with Dario in both roles, alongside Simmons and alone with bench players. Now that he has adjusted to life in the NBA, here’s hoping he can shine alongside an improved supporting cast.