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Dario Saric and Slow Starts

How Saric’s career splits might explain the 3rd-year forward’s early struggles.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Dario Saric’s 2018-2019 campaign, his third season in the NBA, is off to an objectively terrible start. If the Homie were to maintain his current shooting percentages of 34.0%/23.2%/88.6% (FG%/3PT%/FT%) for the remainder of the season, two of the three categories (FG% & 3PT%) would easily be career lows — this for a guy who shot just 31.1% from 3PT his rookie season. Saric’s poor play has coincided with a rocky start for the Sixers. While the blame for an underwhelming start can’t be placed entirely on Dario, a bounce back from him would go a long way in getting Philly back to being the Eastern Conference threat that went 17-0 to end last season.

Don’t believe Saric’s issues are affecting the entire team? The Sixers have 11 lineups that have played 10 or more minutes together. Six of those lineups have a negative net-rating while five of those lineups have a positive net-rating. Saric is in all six net negative lineups, and just one of the net positive lineups (Fultz-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid is +13.5 over 23 minutes). Saric’s struggles aren’t only affecting his numbers; they’re a theme of the Sixers’ disappointing 6-5 record and 21st-ranked offensive points per possession (per Cleaning the Glass).

When an NBA player has gone cold, there’s basically two strategies a coach can deploy for a fix: 1) let the player shoot their way out of the slump or 2) reduce the player’s minutes to limit the damage they cause, as the player works his kinks out via practice. Coaches will typically rely on option #1 when the player is a star or focal point with clout or gravity, or offers so much defensively that the coach can live with futile contributions on offense. Option #2 is utilized when the player is not instrumental to the team’s identity or when the coach has more favorable alternatives off the bench.

Brett Brown does not have too many alternatives to Dario Saric at the moment. Wilson Chandler is working his way back from injury, Mike Muscala has never seen starter minutes in his career, Zhaire Smith is out with a Jones fracture, and Jonah Bolden hopped on the Furkan Express last week (that’s the highway corridor from the Wells Fargo Center to the Delaware Blue Coats’ locker room). And Saric is neither a star nor a focal point, and doesn’t offer much in the way of defense. He is, however, an offensive “glue guy” who, when his shot is falling, completes one of the most effective lineups in the NBA as of last season. (Should that still matter? Given the lineup’s youth outside of Redick, whose game appears to be aging like fine wine, I’d say: yes!) Given the circumstances, Brett Brown has been forced to straddle between options #1 and #2.

Dario’s minutes have been reduced from his common distribution of 30+ minutes per game. But Dario is still seeing just under 25 minutes per game in the last three games, after averaging 31 MPG through the first eight. “Still? The coach has clearly significantly reduced Dario’s minutes — by 23% to be clear!” While that response is true, Dario arguably deserves even fewer minutes from a strictly numbers standpoint: his -4.8 points per 100 possessions (i.e., he’s costing the Sixers nearly five points every 100 offensive trips down the court) is in the 26th percentile of his position, well below average. So again, I say to you, Brett Brown is teetering between allowing Dario to shoot his way out while slightly reducing his minutes.

Is that the correct path for Brown to use as a solution for Dario’s woes? (Dario’s woes is not a Croatian R&B album, despite how it might sound.) Tough question, given the developments of the season. Some might argue that the most effective approach would be to declare Ben Simmons a forward who is not to be the primary initiator outside of when in transition, sliding Ben up to the four and inserting JJ Redick into the starting lineup in place of Saric. Others may go as far to make two tweaks to the starting lineup: Markelle Fultz and Dario out, Landry Shamet and Redick in. Or maybe you even believe Mike Muscala should get the starting nod over Dario. Whatever merits these solutions may have in the short-term, none of them really answer the concern at hand: can the Sixers count on Dario Saric to return to form and help power the offense to the heights it saw in 2017-2018? Because listen folks, Mike Muscala ain’t it.

To address the main concern, we have a limited sample to go on which is the numbers and trends we have from Dario’s first two seasons in the NBA. Saric has often been labeled as someone who begins the NBA season on the wrong foot only to get better as the season progresses. The catalyst for this theory is that Dario plays lots and lots of basketball. By representing his national team during summer months, Saric surrenders much of the rest he would otherwise get during the NBA’s offseason. With only two full seasons under his belt, it’s impossible to finitely conclude that Dario’s FIBA activities hurt his early-season NBA production. But it certainly appears that way. Below is a graph of the month-to-month shooting splits of Dario’s first two seasons. (I’ve omitted this season because we already know the numbers would tank the overall values without the remainder of this season to put those numbers in the proper context.)

One thing is abundantly clear from that graph: Dario Saric is a bad October shooter relative to the rest of the season. But rather than a linear upward progression, his percentages seem to crescendo mid-season only to flame out toward season’s end. On one hand, such a pattern lends credence to the claim that fatigue is propelling Saric’s lousy production. As it goes: Saric’s international play causes dead legs and slow start until Dario is able become fully conditioned, only for fatigue to catch back up late in the season. But on the other hand, well, can we be sure the peaks aren’t a fluke or that fatigue has no or only minimal effects?

Given the law of averages and what we know of Dario’s month-to-month splits, I propose a hypothesis: Saric will shoot the ball better as the season progresses. Bold, I know. But an important question arises: how much better? Will Dario trend toward the near 50/40/90 shooter he appeared to be pacing last season, or will Dario settle in as the 40/30/80 shooter of his rookie year? Because the former alone will do wonders for the Sixers’ offense in returning to the top-third-of-the-league efficiency of 2017-2018, while the latter is insignificant (or of negative value) to a championship-caliber roster.

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