When Ben Simmons is on the court without Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers are going to play fast. It doesn’t matter which backup center, Amir Johnson or Mike Muscala, is in the game. That philosophy peaks when Simmons is surrounded by shooters. While Johnson was the backup 5-man last season and will continue to hold down that gig, Muscala, a career 37.8 three-point shooter, is the more lethal bomber, which should open the door for some minutes.
But Simmons is truly at his best when he’s engulfed by players who blend shooting with secondary creation skills. It’s why Markelle Fultz is the key to a more dynamic Simmons this season. It’s why Ersan Ilyasova and Simmons had a plus-12.5 net rating in 2017-18. And, in today’s small-ball era, it’s why Dario Saric might — or should — see a bit of run at center.
According to Jacob Goldstein’s position estimates, Saric only played 4 percent of his minutes at center last season, the product of Philadelphia rostering three traditional centers in Embiid, Johnson, and Richaun Holmes, and Ilyasova gobbling up most of the minutes as a small-ball five. With Holmes and Ilyasova sporting new colors this year, and Muscala lacking the offensive versatility of Saric, the third-year Croat is the best avenue to embracing small-ball and packaging Simmons-led quintets with requisite talent.
The most intriguing of these small-ball lineups is Fultz-J.J. Redick-Robert Covington-Simmons-Saric, one that’s overflowing with length, shooting, playmaking, and versatility. Yet, that unit didn’t see a single minute together last year. Redick, Covington, and Saric are the rubber bands stretching the floor for primary creators Simmons and Fultz; Simmons and Covington are the switchy wing stoppers — though any unit with Saric at center isn’t likely to handcuff anyone.
If the Sixers want to unleash Simmons as a cutter or roll man, Saric can take the reins. Last season, he ranked in the 65th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler (0.87 points per possession), albeit it on just 30 possessions. Saric won’t ever be a high-volume pick-and-roll user given his struggles off the bounce — he’s just 55 of 202 (27.2 percent) on pull-up jumpers in his career — but his craftiness and wit as a passer empowers him to execute quick reads:
Most of the time in that lineup, Saric will flank on the perimeter and space the floor for Simmons and Fultz. Per Synergy, Saric, a 39.3 percent three-point shooter last season, was in the 78th percentile (1.11 PPP) on spot-up shooting, and the 69th percentile (1.07 PPP) off screens. As a small-ball center, he would draw rim-protecting big men out of the paint and open up the floor for Simmons and Fultz in their forays to the hoop. Once those two have blitzed off the dribble and left the defense scrambling, Saric can migrate around the arc as an outlet or crash inside as a cutter — skills Muscala, who’s also capable of stretching the court from the center spot, can’t emulate.
In lineups short on playmaking, say ones where guys like T.J. McConnell and Wilson Chandler replace Fultz and Simmons, Saric’s underutilized passing talents can shine bright, perhaps running some inverted pick-and-rolls/pops with Redick — a frequented action between Redick and Embiid last season.
Or, the Sixers can station him down low and have players orbiting around him, inciting chaos and allowing Saric to pierce defenses with his vision. While he only finished in the 49th percentile (0.87 PPP) for post-ups last season, adding passes into the equation flips the switch. Saric, ranked in the 80th percentile, yielding 1.04 PPP, as he dished to shooters and cutters, capitalizing on defensive gaffes:
To survive defensively, the pressure will be on Philadelphia’s perimeter defenders to limit opposing offenses’ chances at the rim — a stark contrast to its standard defensive philosophy, in which Embiid and Johnson roam the paint and alter shots. The unit would thrive against low-usage centers who don’t task Saric with important defensive responsibilities, lacking the skills to expose him.
Saric is a capable rebounder and, in a pinch, sneaky good interior defender. But he’s not Embiid nor is he even Johnson defensively. Insulating Saric by staying at home and avoiding blown coverages on the perimeter will be the key to reaping the benefits of these offensive-minded squads.
Lineups with Saric at center should be few and far between next season, possessing a nuanced use, almost exclusively against other small-ball lineups or units with lower-rung centers. Saric doesn’t boast the rim protection or rebounding of most centers, and lacks the quickness to pose a mismatch with traditional fives. If Philadelphia wants to simply deploy a floor-spacing center, Muscala fits the mold and does so without sacrificing other important interior traits.
Yet, as more teams continue to roster small-ball personnel, opportunities to feature Saric’s multidimensional offensive game should present themselves. He can fill in the gaps where necessary and anchor offensively charged quintets, notably the Fultz-Redick-Covington-Simmons-Saric one. Simmons thrived for most of the season as the lone adept creator, but units with Saric at the five pair him with complementary playmaking — an aspect Johnson nor Muscala can provide — and taps into his full wealth of talents.
Without Simmons on the floor, the Sixers can still periodically run Saric at the five and harness his passing to a higher degree — something that wasn’t highlighted enough last season. While it may be scarce, it should happen more frequently than last year. Given the East’s hierarchy, with the Raptors and Celtics likely a notch above the Sixers, maximizing the versatility of this team is imperative. Formulating small-ball lineups with Saric at center provides freedoms his traditional role doesn’t, and it might help the franchise inch closer to the top.