It feels like it happened generations ago, but really, Dario Šarić is only 534 days removed from his last game in a Philadelphia 76ers uniform, a 133-132 win at home over the Charlotte Hornets in which the Croatian forward poured in 18 points, nine rebounds and two assists in over 40 minutes of play. He was everything the Sixers wanted him to be in that game, as he was third on the team in scoring behind only Simmons and Embiid, and only required 13 shot attempts to get to said mark. He was an alleviating scoring presence that was fine with letting the two superstars run the show, and it was awesome.
During these last few weeks in quarantine, I’ve been feeling nostalgic over that team the Sixers had just 534 days ago. Back then, free from the burden of expectations and superstar names, the team was a joy to watch and played to their talent rather than below it. Watching those old games, I miss no player more than one Dario Šarić.
In 172 total games played for the franchise, Šarić averaged 13.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. More importantly, he was the floor-spacing power forward that could also serve as a tertiary creator within the offense.
Šarić was a master of those little things that other NBA players often overlook. He cut to open space and continued running even when his chance at scoring off of the play seemed to be minimal. This trait was particularly useful playing alongside a genius transition passer like Simmons, as the two developed a good chemistry with Simmons dishing out last-second, unexpected assists to the sprinting Šarić surging into open space.
In the 2017-18 season, Simmons and Šarić played the second-most minutes together of any two-man lineup, and posted a solid plus-7.8 net rating (also, shoutout to the Demetrius Jackson-James Young lineup that gave us a minus-100.0 net rating in only eight minutes).
Šarić’s take-advantage-of-all-the-cracks game also showed up within the Sixers’ half-court offense when things slowed down. When Simmons or Embiid would get the ball in the high post split to one side, Šarić would backdoor his defender with an urgency that gave him the opening even though he was far from the most agile off-ball cutter.
Take a look again to see how genius that second backdoor cut is by Šarić. He runs into it with the ferocity of a rim-runner being set a back screen for a lob dunk, and this allows him to expose the vulnerability in the Washington defense. As you can see in the screenshot down below, he’s moving before Otto Porter Jr. has even flipped his body in the proper direction, and this desire to beat his man to the open space is what gave Šarić advantage after advantage on these cuts.
For the casual fan that just checks the box scores every few days or so, it would be easy to infer that Šarić is just a mediocre passer due to his low assist numbers. Of course, Sixers fans know differently, as at least once every game or so he’d flash next-level passing intelligence, showing that he’s constantly reading the game and looking for openings that no one else bothers to see.
The behind-the-back’s and wrap-around passes are aesthetically pleasing, but Šarić could also provide value out of more simple actions. He had good timing slipping bounce passes to cutters, and this created easy layups for the other off-ball players in the Philadelphia offense.
Actions and play-types such as these have gone all but extinct in the Sixers’ offense post-Dario. Now, part of that can rightly be attributed to the lack of a Belinelli or Redick in the current edition of the team, as their shooting reputations forced defenders to chase them around handoffs, effectively giving them a free run to the hoop. However, even if the Sixers did have a sharpshooting presence of that caliber, it wouldn’t be the same without Šarić. A player like Simmons doesn’t get his own defender to inch up that close due to the lack of a jump shot, and while Embiid isn’t a terrible passer, he’s more adept at skip passes out of double teams rather than leading bounce passes.
Šarić in an odd way combined the threat Embiid has to score at any place on the floor with the ability of Simmons to thread difficult passes through tight windows, and the result was gorgeous displays of offense on a nightly basis.
A big thing for me when I scout NBA Draft prospects is not just studying their 3-point percentages, but studying the way their 3s go in the basket. I played varsity basketball all four years in high school, and a big part of my value was shooting 3s. I could tell the difference between a good make — where I could tell that it was going in immediately after it left my hand, and that it would fall through with a clean swish — and a bad make. I could tell if I had held onto the ball for too long or deviated in my follow through just a little, yet once in a while, it could still result in a made field goal simply due to the high arc I put on the shot and general good fortune.
Even as Šarić shot a respectable 39.3 percent from 3 in his last full season with the Sixers, I never fully believed his shot. There were way too many roll-ins, where the ball would hit the rim at an angle, yet fortuitously drop through as it rolled its way down the basket. It’s obviously better to have a lot of bad makes than bad misses (just ask Jordan Poole about that), but if you had traveled back in time and told 2018 me that Šarić’s 3-point percentage would regress to the 34.1 percent he registered in Phoenix this last year, I wouldn’t have been too surprised.
That said, Šarić stepped up as a shooter in the 2017-18 playoffs when the team needed him most. He shot right at his season average of 39 percent in those ten games, but went 4-of-7 in the crucial Game 3 win in Miami in the first round, and 3-of-3 in a valiant attempt to keep the Sixers’ hopes alive in Boston. Who could ever forget this crucial stretch in Game 5 of the second round, where he first made Jaylen Brown pay for cheating under the screen to give Philly the lead, then punished the Celtics for switching Marcus Smart on him in the post.
Šarić finished that game with a stat line of 27 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists, and was the best Sixer on the floor not named Embiid. It’s this aspect of his game that endeared him to the city of Philadelphia above all else. In the biggest moments with the brightest lights, Šarić had that irrational confidence that you somehow learn to love. He shouldn’t have been as fearless as he was, yet he constantly came through due to the immense belief he had in himself.
There’s no logical reason a second-year forward that’s the fourth- or fifth-best player on his team should feel empowered to go to a spinning floater and an early-shot-clock 3 on back-to-back possessions. Likewise, it’s hard to explain why Šarić goes for that awkward euro step rather than dumping it off to Robert Covington in that two-on-one situation. Yet, both plays are successful, and they’re successful because Dario had unabashed, almost unconscious swagger. He believed in himself even when a lot of signs signaled that he shouldn’t have.
Most Sixers fans defended the trade of Šarić and RoCo to the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler in the moment and still do even knowing how things turned out. The rationale is that it gave the team a very real shot at the title last season that they couldn’t have had if they just stuck with the status quo.
That’s probably true. Jimmy Butler provided a level of on-ball shot making that the team desperately needed in late-game situations, and in Toronto for Game 7, he was the main catalyst for the Sixers’ offense. Meanwhile, Šarić’s career has cratered in Minnesota and Phoenix as poor fit and lack of opportunity have turned him into nothing more than a sometimes serviceable 8th man on bad teams.
So yes, if you forced me to choose I would probably still make the Butler trade on that fateful day in November of 2018. However, if you’re asking me simply what would have been more fun, I think the answer is undoubtedly forgoing the trade and riding it out with Šarić.
Sixers’ fans had really grown to love the homegrown fruits of The Process in that short time period. It’s why Šarić was given three nicknames (The Homie, Ši Ši, Super Dario) in such a short stint with the franchise. It was fun to watch him grow alongside Embiid, Simmons, Covington and even T.J. McConnell. They were a young athletic team that didn’t really know what it was doing, but believed in itself so much that they were able to surpass expectations and achieve a great deal of success for a team in its first season of true contention.
There’s a lot of things we’ve all come to miss during this quarantine. Even though it’s been gone for 534 days now, I still miss the 2017-18 Sixers, and I most especially miss my Homie, Dario Šarić.