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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.”

PBT Awards: Executive of the Year

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Kurt Helin

1. Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets

2. Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics

3. Dennis Lindsey, Utah Jazz

This award is usually won in July, and that’s when Morey won it — not with simply the Chris Paul trade, but with the moves around it, such as getting P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, that fit perfectly around the stars to create a deep team that could challenge the Warriors. Danny Ainge looks brilliant now with the roster he put together, despite injuries (although the book is still out on some of his moves, such as how good Markelle Fultz will be and what happens with the Brooklyn pick). Also, the Jazz lost Gordon Hayward for nothing in free agency, yet smart moves (led by the Donovan Mitchell trade, and moving on from Rodney Hood and getting Jae Crowder, who has played well in Utah) means they will win just about as many games as they did the season before.

Dan Feldman

1. Daryl Morey, Rockets

2. Dennis Lindsey, Jazz

3. Kevin Pritchard, Pacers

Daryl Morey lured Chris Paul in a creative opt-in-and-trade that required the 32-year-old to delay locking into a long-term deal – an incredible accomplishment in its own right. The Rockets general manager also convinced James Harden, this season’s clear MVP, to sign a  contract extension (easier, considering the price). To top it off, Morey rounded out a roster capable of challenging the Warriors with the savvy signings of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker. In one summer, Houston went from a good team to a championship contender.

Dennis Lindsey found a franchise-changer in Donovan Mitchell with the No. 13 pick in the draft, which alone might have earned second place here. But Lindsey’s other additions – Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko, Ekpe Udoh, an unearthed-out-of-nowhere Royce O’Neal and Jae Crowder – have helped build a team capable of making Utah forget about Gordon Hayward.

Kevin Pritchard was dealt a tough hand when Paul George made clear his desire to leave Indiana, and Pritchard got someone who might be even more valuable in Victor Oladipo. Even if he didn’t realize how good Oladipo would be, Pritchard chose to bet on Oladipo. So, Pritchard gets the credit for how that has paid off.

The Celtics’ Danny Ainge did well to acquire stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and potential future star Jayson Tatum – even if Boston won’t reap the rewards this year. Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis were strong under-the-radar signings. But Ainge was operating from a position of strength entering the summer, so his moves must be judged accordingly when assessing only this year. Tom Thibodeau got a massive head-start with the Jimmy Butler trade, but the Andrew Wiggins extension is enough to keep the Timberwolves president off the ballot.

Sindarius Thornwell absolutely destroys DeAndre Liggins with dunk (video)

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The Clippers were already eliminated from the playoff race. They were getting blown out by the Pelicans last night.

But Sindarius Thornwell brought life to L.A. – and figuratively ended DeAndre Liggins‘.

PBT Awards: All-Rookie

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Kurt Helin

First team

Second team

This is an incredibly deep rookie class, there are guys on the second team that would have been first team many other years, and guys left off — Zach Collins, Bam Adebayo and others — who would have made the cut most years. (It’s possible I will still change my mind on some of the second team before formally voting.) The top four on the first team are fairly clear cut, and Markkanen has averaged 15.2/7.5 for the Bulls. On the second team, Collins has been an efficiency monster, and Anunoby has started 59 games for the top seed in the East and been crucial to their defense.

Dan Feldman

First team

  • Ben Simmons, 76ers
  • Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
  • Jayson Tatum, Celtics
  • Kyle Kuzma, Lakers
  • Lauri Markkanen, Bulls

Second team

The first four first-team picks were easy. The final spot came down to Lauri Markkanen and John Collins. Not much separated the other second-teamers and a few players who didn’t make the cut – Raptors guard O.G. Anunoby, Jazz forward Royce O’Neal and Heat center Bam Adebayo.

Ben Simmons says he should 100% win Rookie of the Year, says no other rookies have caught his attention

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Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell has repeatedly deflected any questions of whether he should win Rookie of the Year.

76ers point guard Ben Simmons answers directly.

Simmons, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“Who would I pick? Me, 100 percent,” Simmons told ESPN at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Philadelphia on Saturday.

“I think I have been playing solid all year,” he continued. “If you look at the numbers, you will see. People who know the game know.”

Asked what rookies have caught his attention this year, he didn’t mince words.

“None,” Simmons responded promptly. “I want to be where the greats are. So, for me, I watch the guys like [Kevin Durant], [LeBron James], [Stephen] Curry, Russell [Westbrook]. Guys like that. That’s where I want to be. I think for me, that’s what I love to watch.”

I’m here for Simmons’ cockiness. He backs it up and, I believe, deserves Rookie of the Year.

But Mitchell has had an attention-catching rookie year. For Simmons to ignore Mitchell looks like an intentional slight. Nearly everyone sees Rookie of the Year as a two-man race between Simmons and Mitchell, and Simmons knows that.

Simmons isn’t here to soothe Mitchell’s feelings, though. Simmons wants to boost his own profile, and he’s doing it.