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How Dario Saric’s improvement opened door for Ben Simmons and the 76ers

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DETROIT – Dario Saric emerged as a 6-foot-10 playmaker as a 76ers rookie last season. He could initiate the offense, put the ball on the floor and distribute. His size, fluidity and ball skills created mismatches. His 3-pointer was unreliable, though.

That’s the profile of a helpful player.

The only problem: Philadelphia had another – higher-upside – player in the same mold: No. 1 pick Ben Simmons.

Simmons sat out last season with injury, leaving Saric to seize that role and finish second for Rookie of the Year. With Simmons healthy this year, it was unclear how the two would coexist. Only one could handle the ball at a time. The other wouldn’t space the floor.

Saric provided a solution. He increased his 3-point percentage from 31% to 39% while launching 3s even more more often.

“That is the single thing that has made Dario different,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “It’s The. Single. Thing. that’s made Dario different.

“You need a stretch four that can shoot 3s. Europe taught us that two decades ago. And when you look at the modern-day sport, and when you look at end-of-game situations, and it’s only going to be magnified in the playoffs. Watch that position. And he can do it.”

That might be the biggest thing, but it’s not the only thing.

Simmons has become the NBA’s biggest point guard, and Philadelphia’s offense runs through him. Saric’s seconds per touch are down 17%, and his dribbles per touch are down 38%. Only Carmelo Anthony had greater reductions in both categories from last season (minimum: 1,000 minutes each season).

Yet, Saric looks comfortable deferring to Simmons. Saric is making the quicker decisions necessary to thrive as a secondary ball-handler and passer. With the ball less often, Saric has also committed to hitting the offensive glass harder.

“The way he’s been playing helps me, and me improving my game is going to help everybody,” Simmons said.

Saric’s improvements and adjustments have unlocked the NBA’s best heavily used lineup. The 76ers’ healthy starters – Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Saric and Joel Embiid – are outscoring opponents by 21.4 points per 100 possessions, best among the 28 lineups to play 300 minutes this season. That unit scores better than the league’s best offense and defends better than the league’s best defense.

Here are the league’s top lineups with at least 300 minutes, showing the spread from defensive rating (left) to offensive rating (right) with net rating listed. The gray bars represent the NBA’s best defense (Celtics) and best offense (tie between Rockets and Warriors):

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Philadelphia obviously needs an injured Embiid back to use this lineup again. The 76ers have been outscored when Simmons and Saric play together without Embiid. The star center is still so important to this team.

So are Covington and Redick, who are often involved in cross-matching defensively – a necessary product of starting a point guard and power forward of the same height. Saric’s athletic shortcomings limit him defensively, but he makes up for them with high effort.

All in all, Saric has improved from 1.0 win shares last year to 6.5 win shares this year. That 5.5 win-share increase is the NBA’s largest from a previous career high to this season.

Here are the biggest win-share gainers, with the spread from their previous career high (left) to this year (right) and the increase listed:

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Not only has Saric improved immensely, he improved in the exact ways a 76ers team with Simmons at the controls needed.

Even if he needed a season to adjust from the shorter 3-point arc in Europe, few saw this coming from Saric, who had only one good 3-point season overseas. With a massive jump of 31% to 39% from deep, how could anyone have seen this coming?

But those around him aren’t terribly surprised, either. They saw how much he improved throughout his rookie year, and – even if they didn’t know exactly how it would manifest – they believed in him.

“He’s just got that demeanor about him,” Covington said, “that he really took on everything that came his way.”

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it – most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season – the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio – whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach – finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.