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Is Suns’ Saric a viable Sixth Man candidate?

Phoenix Suns center/forward Dario Saric is worthy of the recognition despite being a big man in a little man’s award category.

Phoenix Suns v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Winning cures all.

No matter how hard your team plays and the statistics they generate, if you aren’t winning games, the efforts are not commended. Just look at the Phoenix Suns’ star guard Devin Booker. The “good stats, bad team” moniker has been present since he began scoring over 24 points-a-night in 2017-18. That team won a total of 21 games and there was no recognition of his talent and contributions.

The Phoenix Suns find themselves currently at 26-12 with the second best record in the West and third best record in the whole darn NBA. That puts many national pundits in “observation mode”. It leaves them asking the same question: how?

If you begin to pick apart the “why”, you find numerous reasons. Chris Paul’s leadership. Devin Booker’s efficiency. Deandre Ayton’s defense. Mikal Bridge’s development. The bench. The coaching. The purple uniforms (4-0 in the Icon unis).

One guy who is starting to get some national attention for his efforts is 5th-year forward/center Dario Šarić. As well he should.

His numbers don’t jump off of his Basketball-Reference page when you look at them. 11.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists in 19 games and 0 starts. Meh. Detroit’s Josh Jackson averages more points off the bench (13.6) and New York’s Nerlens Noel has more boards (5.2).

Dario is more than simple numbers, however. He is an advanced metric guy’s wet dream.

  • Per’s formula, his offensive rating is 121.5; his defensive rating is 97.7. That is a net rating of 23.7! That metric is the best for any player in the NBA who has played in at least 15 9.4 (Mike Conley, 14.3).
  • If you look at the best +/- two-man combinations for the Suns, Saric is involved in 6 of the top 8.
  • His net rating with Mikal Bridges on the court is 31.4...the highest two-man combo for any two players that have played at least 20 games together.

The Saric impact is clear. The Suns have a 14-6 record in games in which Dario has played this season and they really began to take off when he came back from ankle/healthy and safety protocol issues.

Increased Usage

Due to his skillset he doesn't draw much gravity. Monty and the coaching staff have realized this and are beginning to use it to their advantage. To start the 4th quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers last Thursday night, with the Suns down 2 points, the team began to feed Dario. It paid off in a variety of different ways.

Their first possession was an isolation against Robert Covington. Yes, the same Covington who had been giving Devin Booker fits throughout the game. Dario went left, backed the 6’7” forward down, pivoted, and put the ball in the basket.

The next time down, it’s a mirror of the previous possession. Dario tries something different this time, opting to spin right and attempt to catch Covington off guard. Covington is a plus defender, however, and adjusts as he cuts off the baseline from Dario’s attack. Dario goes left out of the obstruction and, as Carmelo Anthony brings help defense, he whips the ball across the court to a wide open Abdel Nader. He deposits the three-ball as a result.

Two possessions later, Saric is at it again, this time forcing the issue from the left baseline against Covington. He faces up, goes right, shields the ball, and draw the foul. How would you describe his game? It’s ugly. It’s barbaric. It’s the opposite of poetry. It gets the job done.

Does this sequence solidify a Sixth Man nomination? Probably not. What I see, however, is Monty Williams understanding another way to use the man he refers to as the “connector”. The offensive sets he is experimenting now with the Suns’ small ball lineup with Saric at center will pay dividends in the playoffs. The team is looking for ways to increase their versatility and Dario is the current project.

The Competition

Back to the Sixth Man conversation. Who does Dario need to beat out to win the award? Opposing players, yes, but the system he is playing in might hold him back as well.

The hardware might not sit on Dario’s mantle at the end of the season due to his traditional numbers. If you look at the last six awards winner’s statistics, you see where the challenge is for Saric:

He doesn’t get enough minutes. The previous six winners averaged 28.4 minutes per game which allowed them to average 17.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.2 assists. Dario, conversely, is currently averaging 18.8 minutes per game. Three times this season Saric has played 24 minutes or more. All three have occurred in the last four games.

Level the playing field, and compare Dario’s per-36 numbers to the last six winners, and the case begins for his recognition.

If the Suns allotted more minutes for Dario, his case would increase for the award. His efficiency is apparent with his 62.3 TS%, which would be the best since James Harden won the award in 2012 with a 66.0 TS%.

Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson, who many have penciled in as the winner for the Sixth Man Award, will be hard to overcome. In 25.8 minutes this season, he is averaging 17.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists with a 57.7 TS%. He is doing this on 44.6/37.0/96.7 splits. Jump that to per-36 and he is at 25.0 ppg/5.5 rpg/3.0 apg.

Orlando’s Terrance Ross, Toronto’s Chris Boucher, Miami’s Goran Dragic, and Houston’s Eric Gordon are other obstacles that are in the way as well.

Per, Clarkson is currently the clear favorite (-380).

2021 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Odds

Where is Dario Saric? Per SBD...unlisted.

I’ll end where I began. Is he a viable candidate? Yes.

His contributions continue to assist the Suns towards victories. His statistics might be as sexy as his game, but again, winning cures all.

That is the key: winning. At the end of the day, we know Saric a solid contributor to this team, a guy who chose to come back to fill this role. He might not win the award, but he should be recognized for what he has supplied this team.

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