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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.”

Mike Conley sinks backcourt shot… in middle of first quarter (video)

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The Jazz got off to a rough start offensively this season. They still haven’t figured out everything.

But when this shot is falling, it feels a lot better.

During its win over the Warriors last night, Utah had a pass deflected into the backcourt. That left Mike Conley only a couple seconds to make something happen, and he delivered by sinking a 50-footer.

Best I can tell (shot-distance data is unreliable), this was the first made backcourt shot that wasn’t an end-of-quarter heave since Kyrie Irving in 2015:

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry touches live ball (video)

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This hasn’t been a great year for NBA coaches staying out of the way.

First, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – mistakenly believing a timeout had been called – went onto the court during play. He tried to run off, but he wasn’t quick enough to avoid a technical foul.

Then, last night, Rockets forward P.J. Tucker threw an off-target pass past James Harden. The ball rolled all the way to the backcourt and was headed out of bounds… when Pelicans coach Gentry stepped onto the court to scoop it up.

AT&T SportsNet Southwest:

Gentry was just trying to save time. But, of course, that was a technical foul.

After 1-of-11 shooting, Kristaps Porzingis not mad he was benched to end game

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With 9:04 left in the game Monday night in Boston, Kristaps Porzingis picked up his fifth personal foul. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle subbed him out.

Porzingis never saw the floor again.

After a 1-of-11 shooting night when Porzingis had more fouls (five) than points (four), Carlisle went with what was working better against the Celtics and gave his team a chance to win. After the game, Porzingis was asked about being benched for crunch time and he was not blaming his coach. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“Of course I want to be out there, but can’t blame him,” Porzingis said. “I wasn’t having a great game. I’m all-in for whatever’s best for the team. If the coach thinks he’d rather have me out and have someone else in that’s having a better game, let’s do it if we can win a basketball game. That’s the most important thing, but going forward, I want to make sure I’m out there.”

Porzingis has struggled to find his form to start the season — something that shouldn’t be a surprise for a guy who went 19 months without playing competitive basketball following his torn ACL. He’s averaging 18.3 points per game but is shooting just 40.1 percent overall (but 37.5 percent from three).

The issue has been consistency — he’s had nights like the 32 against Portland, but in games where Luka Doncic is dominating the ball, Porzingis has faded away rather than asserted himself into the contest. When he’s had smaller players switched onto him, he has not been an overpowering force, but rather has settled for jumpers over them (and he can shoot a jumper over almost anyone). He’s being a bit passive.

It’s far too early to have serious concerns about Porzingis — again, he just missed 19 months of competitive basketball. And development. Of course this was going to take time. However, if things don’t improve as the season moves along then Mavericks fans should start to worry a little. The Mavericks have gone all-in on the Doncic/Porzingis combo and need it to work.

 

Stephen Curry says he will play this season, hopes to play “in early spring”

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry “definitely” plans to return this season from his broken left hand and is hoping to be back on the court at “some point in early spring.”

When exactly the two-time NBA MVP will be able to play again remains uncertain, but he expects to be back out there.

Curry addressed the media Monday night for the first time since getting injured Oct. 30 and said he needs a second surgery on his non-shooting hand, probably in early December, to remove pins that were inserted during the first procedure Nov. 1 that involved his hand and index finger.

“(Managing the) swelling is something that’s going to be of the utmost priority early in the rehab process,” Curry said, “to get me a chance to come back and get my range of motion back pretty quickly.”

The Warriors initially said Curry would be re-evaluated three months after the surgery, which would be early February.

Curry referred to himself and injured teammate Klay Thompson as “caged animals right now, wanting to be unleashed.”

Thompson, the other part of Golden State’s Splash Brothers combo, is recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The team hopes he can return in the second half of the season.

Curry said he experienced some minor nerve irritation shortly after he underwent his first hand surgery, a common byproduct of the procedure. That’s one thing doctors will continue to monitor throughout his rehab process, and it will impact when he can return.

For now, Curry is working out his lower body and doing whatever training is permitted by the team’s medical staff, saying he’s using this three-month period without basketball as a “mini offseason” to fine-tune his body.

The Warriors’ longest-tenured player had praise for his teammates, who took the court Monday night against Utah with a 2-8 record that was tied with the New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans for the worst in the NBA.

Curry described rookie Eric Paschall‘s energy as contagious and said the play of new guard D'Angelo Russell has been “unreal.” Asked what the benefits would be for he and Thompson to return to the court this season if it was only for the final few weeks, Curry had an answer.

“Just to understand the chemistry with the young guys,” he said. “We can play around with rotations and just get a vibe of what the following season, when we’re all healthy, looks like.”