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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: Carmelo Anthony tried to convince Knicks that signing him would help lure Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving

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The Knicks reportedly would’ve considered signing Carmelo Anthony if they first got Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Apparently, Anthony tried to persuade New York to reverse the order of operations.

Frank Isola of The Athletic:

According to a person close to Anthony, his representatives were in contact with Knicks management about Anthony rejoining the organization as a free agent on a minimum contract. Anthony’s camp was trying to convince the Knicks that signing Anthony would help the club’s pursuit of Irving and Durant, who became free agents on June 30.

Anthony badly wanted to return to the NBA. I don’t blame him for making whatever case he could. It’s on teams to say no.

And the Knicks reasonably said no.

Who’s supposed to believe a 35-year-old washed-up-looking* Anthony would make a difference with Durant and Irving?

*Even in his surprisingly resurgent stint with the Trail Blazers, Anthony has a -5.0 box plus-minus. He has been inefficient offensively and horrendous defensively. Better than my expectations, still not good.

After signing with the Nets, Durant and Irving reportedly pushed for Brooklyn to sign Anthony. It’s easy to believe Durant and Irving wanted Anthony on their team. Anthony is highly respected by his peers, and Anthony’s individual scoring skills fit nicely into Durant’s vision of basketball.

But Durant and Irving were tying at least the next three years of their careers to a franchise. It’s difficult to believe a factor as trivial as Anthony would have made a difference in their choices.

If they could’ve gotten Durant and Irving by signing Anthony, the Knicks screwed up. The Nets gave DeAndre Jordan a four-year, $39,960,716 contract in conjunction with getting Durant and Irving. Anthony was seeking just a minimum deal.

I don’t think the Knicks screwed up here.

Their real problem was years of dysfunction that turns off nearly anyone with better options. Signing Anthony wasn’t going to undo all that.

Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum on Ujiri: ‘Masai is here to stay’

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Masai Ujiri-to-the-Knicks rumors are heating up.

Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum is throwing cold water on the notion of his team president departing.

Tanenbaum, via Michael Traikos of the Toronto Sun:

“We haven’t talked (about an extension) at this point in time, but if you ask him, his intentions are pretty clear.”

“Masai has a contract that goes for another two years — this season and next season — so there’s really no need at this point (to re-sign him),” he said.

“He is the best,” said Tanenbaum. “But no team can come to talk to him. That’s tampering. And every owner knows that. Masai is here to stay.”

Apparently, Tanenbaum isn’t among those in Toronto afraid of Ujiri leaving for New York.

Tanenbaum’s comments come on the heels of mixed reports of whether the Raptors offered an extension that Ujiri rejected. Though I don’t blindly trust Tanenbaum – who’d be incentivized to deny getting rejected – I appreciate him putting his name behind this information. That’s more credible than the previous reports that cited unnamed sources.

The Knicks are reportedly “obsessed” with Ujiri. They can offer a more prestigious historical franchise, a bigger market, more connections for Ujiri’s foundation and maybe more money. They also have owner James Dolan, who is notoriously difficult to work for.

Tanenbaum sure sounds as if he knows New York won’t tempt Ujiri. The Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chairman is speaking in no uncertain terms. If Masai isn’t there to stay, Tanenbaum will have a lot of egg on his face.

If Masai is there to stay, Tanenbaum will have one of the NBA’s best executives.

Three Things to Know: Miami’s young core can rival anyone’s, has fueled Heat’s hot start

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Miami’s young core can rival anyone’s, has fueled Heat’s hot start. Sometimes the headline can miss the real story.

That happened Tuesday night in the NBA, where the headline out of the Hawks/Heat game was Trae Young calling game, waving his arms and saying it was over after his assist to Alex Len for a dunk put the Hawks up 6 with less than a minute to go in the game.

It was not over, Miami had been coming back all night long and did so again, capped by a Jimmy Butler three that sent the game to overtime.

Miami owned the overtime and went on to win 135-121. Butler took to Instagram after the game to say Trae Young is no Nostradamus.

That back-and-forth is entertaining, but it missed the real story of the night — Miami won that game because it’s young core bailed them out.

As it has all season. Jimmy Butler has been phenomenal and was in this game — a triple-double of 20 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists — but the Heat don’t win if their young core guys do not go off. Miami is 18-6 and third in the East because their young core is better than anyone predicted.

Just ask the Hawks. Bam Adebayo is playing at a near All-Star level and had a triple-double of 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. Kendrick Nunn is in the thick of the Rookie of the Year race and led Miami with 36 points. Then there is Duncan Robinson, who drained 10 threes on the night.

This season Miami got back to its identity — Pat Riley’s team has always found young diamond’s in the rough and developed them into quality players as well as any organization in the league. That — and Miami’s ability to get veterans into great shape and raise their level of contributions — has fueled consistent excellence over the decades. Of course, the Heat also hunted and bagged star players (Miami is a place you can recruit big names to come).

The Heat got back to that identity this season — they went out and got Jimmy Butler, but it’s the young core of guys (and we didn’t even discuss Tyler Herro or Justise Winslow) that is at the heart of why the Heat keep on winning this season.

2) Joel Embiid was having a little fun again and the Sixers improved to 13-0 at home. Joel Embiid has been a little subdued this season. He’s still been one of the game’s elite centers, but his minutes, shot attempts, points per game, efficiency, and his trash-talking fun factor all have been down a little this season.

Which is why it was so much fun when the old Embiid broke out for a minute against Denver. Embiid hit a circus shot while being fouled and then ran out to center court to do a little shimmy for the crowd.

Last Sunday, Embiid explained his more subdued self this year this way, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“The whole season it feels like I’ve been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I’m healthy for the playoffs,” he told reporters. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I’ve been part of I’ve not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I’ve been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body.”

After the win against the Sixers, Embiid said we may see more of the old-school, fun version of himself this season going forward, via Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that’s kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I’m having fun, I dominate.“

With the win, the Sixers improved to 18-7 on the season — 13-0 at home but 5-7 on the road.

3) Two guys vying for Most Improved Player — Davis Bertans and Devonte’ Graham — put on a show in Hornets win over Wizards. Of all the end-of-season awards, Most Improved Player is the one that usually takes me (and a lot of media and league followers) to settle on. It’s just the nature of the award. Most improved usually goes to a player nobody expected to make a massive leap doing just that, so you don’t see it coming. Then, guys come out hot to start the season, but can’t sustain it. For MIP, it just takes longer for the field to sort itself out.

Two guys in the discussion early on for the award are Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham and Washington’s Davis Bertans — and those two put on a show Tuesday night. Bertans had a career night, scoring 32 on 11-of-18 shooting off the bench, including 8-of-12 from three.

Graham, who has gone from a guy who played in just 46 games a season ago to Charlotte’s leading scorer at 19.2 a night, had 29 points on 19 shots to lead the Hornets.

Charlotte picked up the win, 114-107, and if you want to dream big, remain 2.5 games back of the eight seed and a playoff berth in the East.

Joel Embiid was having fun, dancing at mid-court in another Sixers win at home

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid scored 22 points, including two key free throws with 15.3 seconds left, and Tobias Harris added 20 to keep the Philadelphia 76ers perfect at home with a 97-92 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.

Embiid was having fun going against Nikola Jokic, and after Embiid hit a circus shot he was out at center court doing a little shimmy and exhorting the crowd.

Matisse Thybulle added 13 points for the Sixers, who are 13-0 in Philadelphia. They have won three straight and seven of eight.

Will Barton had 26 points to lead the Nuggets, who have lost three in a row and five of six. Leading scorer Jamal Murray was injured with 6:49 left in the first quarter when he collided with Ben Simmons and didn’t return.

The Nuggets set a franchise record for largest fourth-quarter comeback when they rebounded from 19 points down to start the final period in a 100-97 win over Philadelphia in Denver on Nov. 8. They tried again, but couldn’t come all the way back this time.

The 76ers led by 10 early in the fourth after Josh Richardson‘s deep 3-pointer from the top of the key made it 88-78 with 8:54 remaining. The Nuggets scored the next eight, capped by Barton’s three-point play with seven minutes left, to pull to 88-86.

But then Thybulle hit a pivotal 3 and grabbed a big offensive rebound on Philadelphia’s next possession, which ended with Al Horford‘s jumper that put the 76ers in front 93-86 with 4:36 to play.

Denver had chances from that point on but went cold from the field, making just one field goal until Nikola Jokic’s runner made it 95-92 with 18.9 seconds left. Embiid then sank both free throws after being fouled for a five-point lead before Barton missed a 3 from the top of the key.