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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.”

Warriors tip-off bittersweet final season in Oakland with title celebration

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — If anybody understands an arena’s link to a city, to a faithful fan base, Kevin Durant does.

Durant played the final NBA game in KeyArena for the Seattle SuperSonics a decade ago before the franchise’s relocation to Oklahoma City, then returned for a nostalgic exhibition earlier this month in the venue’s final event. On Tuesday night, he will play an opener against his former Thunder team — and raise another championship banner — to begin Golden State’s goodbye season at Oracle Arena.

The two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP wants to make sure the Warriors leave more positive memories and defining moments before next year’s move to new Chase Center in San Francisco.

“Luckily we’re not moving to the middle of the country, we’re moving across a 20- to 30-minute drive,” Durant said, “so hopefully that’s a little better for fans to take.”

The Warriors’ pending move comes amid a recent spate of upgrades for NBA franchises.

In Milwaukee, the Bucks will try to build momentum in their new downtown Fiserv Forum next door to the old Bradley Center where they spent the past 30 years. The Timberwolves will play in new-look Target Center following a two-year renovation that cost about $140 million and features a complete overhaul of the arena bowl, a glass entryway outside and other amenities such as a modernized team store and concession stands.

The Sacramento Kings begin their third season in sparkling Golden 1 Center.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was an assistant in San Antonio when the Spurs moved from the Alamodome to a new basketball-only arena in 2002.

“There’s nothing like having a great home atmosphere, having great energy in the building,” Budenholzer said. “There’s no doubt you go into certain cities in the NBA, you know that the crowd is going to be on top of you, the crowd is going to be loud. You have a tough night as a team because of that crowd.”

In Atlanta, Hawks will unveil their $192.5 million makeover of State Farm Arena, formerly Philips Arena. The Hawks say the renovation, which overlapped two seasons, is one of the largest in NBA history. Among the most compelling new features in the arena – in which capacity has been slightly reduced to 16,600 – will be the league’s third-largest center-hung scoreboard with a rounded, 360-degree video screen.

Golden State’s move across San Francisco Bay will be a tough one for many. Fans, players, coaches, even executives, realize how much the Warriors have done for the East Bay in nearly five decades at Oracle. Even through all the down years.

In blue-collar Oakland and right off one of California’s busiest freeways, Oracle has become one of the most imposing stops for opponents on either coast – the frenzied crowd cheering the talented Warriors makes its presence felt.

“It’s still tough for us moving out of Oakland,” Durant said. “But we’re just trying to come out this season and let them know that even though we’re moving we’re still going to be here in the Bay Area, we’re still going to be your team and hopefully people understand that and realize we’re still going to be the Bay Area’s team no matter if we’re playing in San Jose, Oakland or San Francisco.”

The Warriors are offering a similar message: “We’re leaving a building, we’re not leaving a city.”

That’s the motto COO and President Rick Welts is sharing as Golden State, winner of three titles over the past four years, prepares to move into that snazzy, privately funded new arena. Welts hopes fans will stick it out through the transition – realizing full well some might feel abandoned.

“When we talk about the magic of Oracle, the magic of Oracle is the people that are in Oracle,” Welts said. “And to know that four out of five of those people are coming to Chase Center it’s one other element of wanting to maintain that incredible atmosphere that we have.”

From all the down years to the thrilling “We Believe” playoffs of 2007 when Baron Davis and the Warriors ended a 12-year postseason drought then stunned the Mavericks in the first round, loyal fans in the East Bay have experienced all the highs right along with the lowest of lows.

One of the arena’s loudest moments ever was when Davis drove left to the baseline for a powerful one-handed slam over Utah’s Andrei Kirilenko during a 125-105 Game 3 victory in the Western Conference semifinals, Golden State’s lone win of that series.

The lead up to that playoff run left a lasting impression on those players involved in the turnaround. Long before tipoff, the noise was deafening.

“It didn’t matter who showed up, whether we had 10 people, they were going to be as loud and as proud as they could be for our team,” former center Adonal Foyle recalled. “There’s a really amazing spirit to Oakland and what the teams mean to their lives. I think more than anything else what I wanted more than anything with `We Believe’ was to just win one for the people that were in the stands every day supporting us.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr could feel it even back during his playing days coming through.

He always loved playing in Oakland even when the Warriors were bad because the fans were so committed, so loud.

“It is bittersweet. I think the new arena’s going to be amazing and we’re all excited about that but we’re all bummed to be moving on from Oracle,” Kerr said. “So, we would love to finish it the right way. It’s hard to replicate an atmosphere like Oracle’s. I think back to Boston Garden, going to the new Garden, the old Chicago Stadium where I played to the new one. It’s hard to create that same sort of intimacy when you’re building a new arena with suites and concourses and everything else. We know this new arena’s going to be great for our organization. It’s going to provide an incredible viewing experience for people coming in. But that doesn’t make it any easier to leave Oracle and leave Oakland.”

At Chase Center, white exterior panels have already gone up on the east and south sides and are beginning to wrap around to the western end near the main lobby entrance. A waterfront park project is also underway.

“It is crazy. I don’t even know what to think about that yet because Oracle has always … that’s been my experience as a Warrior,” two-time MVP Stephen Curry said. “I don’t think I’m ready to think about what’s next yet.”

AP Sports Writers Genaro C. Armas in Milwaukee and Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Grading every NBA team’s 2018 offseason

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman graded every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there. The full results with links to each writeup:

Atlanta Hawks: B-

Boston Celtics: C+

Brooklyn Nets: B+

Charlotte Hornets: D

Chicago Bulls: C-

Cleveland Cavaliers: F

Dallas Mavericks: B

Denver Nuggets: B-

Detroit Pistons: C

Golden State Warriors: A

Houston Rockets: D

Indiana Pacers: B+

Los Angeles Clippers: C-

Los Angeles Lakers: A+

Memphis Grizzlies: B-

Miami Heat: C

Milwaukee Bucks: B-

Minnesota Timberwolves: D

New Orleans Pelicans: C

New York Knicks: C-

Oklahoma City Thunder: A

Orlando Magic: B

Philadelphia 76ers: C-

Phoenix Suns: D+

Portland Trail Blazers: C

Sacramento Kings: C-

San Antonio Spurs: D-

Toronto Raptors: A

Utah Jazz: C

Washington Wizards: B-

Wizards hire WNBA All-Star Kristi Toliver as assistant coach

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WASHINGTON (AP) — WNBA All-Star Kristi Toliver will be an assistant coach for player development for the NBA’s Washington Wizards this season.

Toliver’s job was one of several changes to coach Scott Brooks’ staff announced by the Wizards on Tuesday, two days before they host the Miami Heat to open the season.

Toliver played for the Washington Mystics and helped them reach the WNBA Finals this year, when she also assisted the Wizards’ coaching staff during the NBA Summer League and training game. She is a 10-year pro and two-time All-Star who won an NCAA title at Maryland.

She joins David Adkins, Mike Terpstra and Maz Trakh on the back of the Wizards’ bench. Alex McLean and Landon Tatum were both promoted to assistant coach for player development.

Robert Pack and Ryan Richman will be with Brooks and Tony Brown on the front of the bench.

Pack was a scout for the Portland Trail Blazers last season, after spending two seasons as an assistant coach for the New Orleans Pelicans. He also was an assistant to Brooks with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2013-15.

 

Austin Rivers: Everybody, ‘so f—ing gassed up on the Celtics and the Sixers,’ overlooking Wizards and Pacers

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We picked the Celtics, Raptors, 76ers and Bucks to be the top four teams in the Eastern Conference this year and ranked the Wizards and Pacers next. If that’s not the consensus, it’s close to it.

Wizards guard Austin Rivers, via James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

“I think we’re heavily slept-on,” he tells me. “Team’s been to the playoffs, what, the last five, four or five years? Then going into this year, you add me, Dwight Howard, Jeff Green and nobody seems to talk about us. So I just think we’re heavily slept-on, but that’s fine. At the end of the day, nothing really matters until the season starts and we set that tone for ourselves. I get the hype of a couple of the other teams, but I think we have a chance to compete with the best of the East.”

I tell him I recently spoke to Tyreke Evans, who said something similar about the Indiana Pacers. Rivers gets more animated.

“Yeah, I would say Indiana’s the other team that gets slept-on, too,” he says. “You look at Indiana, they took Cleveland to seven games and then damn near, arguably could have beaten them.”

Rivers rattles off Evans’ stats from last season, then continues: “That’s who they just added to the team? And nobody seems to talk about the Pacers because everybody’s so f—ing gassed up on the Celtics and the Sixers. And rightfully so: they’re both talented teams. But Indiana is just as good as both those teams. And I think we’re in the same situation.”

I agree the Wizards and Pacers had positive offseasons. But Indiana might have been punching slightly above its weight as a surprise team last year, and Washington’s problem has often been overconfidence.

In that regard, Rivers – acquired in an offseason trade from the Clippers – is already fitting right in. The brashness might be good for Rivers, but it’s not what the Wizards need.

Washington could have a good season. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are a strong starting point in the Eastern Conference, and Dwight Howard could help with the right attitude and health. Rivers is a quality reserve. But let’s pump the brakes on calling Jeff Green a key addition, though Rivers would be only one of many – including someone in his immediate family – to make that error.