The Phoenix Suns have a young franchise shooting guard and center. They’ve got a veteran point guard to get them the ball and lead on the court, along with two wings that play off the three well enough.
Despite the unconventional nature of playing Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. together given their size, the Suns did it, because it was their five best players on the court.
And also because power forward Dario Saric never quite clicked into place as perfectly as he should of.
Saric, 26, wasn’t consistent enough this season to earn the full trust of head coach Monty Williams.
In a contract year, Saric appears to have responded by returning to the team in great shape.
“He looks really, really good from a conditioning standpoint,” Williams said on July 14. “He just dedicated himself over the break to conditioning, his diet — I think staying here in the states has really helped him and I’m really excited about his improvement.”
Saric has been working with the strength and conditioning squad 5-6 days a week the past two months.
“I feel well. I feel ready, ready to play,” he said Saturday.
With Saric serving as the team’s “connector,” a label Williams coined for him, his job was to keep the ball moving on offense, rebound, pick up his defensive responsibilities and hit open shots.
Some players, ala Mikal Bridges, are naturals at getting these things done while impacting the game at a high level, even if the stats don’t back it up.
Even if Saric has the skillset to be this player, he didn’t influence enough on a night-to-night basis, leading to Williams cutting down his playing time.
Through Dec. 20 and 28 games, Saric was playing 28.6 minutes a night. Since then, where it looks like Williams pulled the trigger on scaling back, Saric is at 21.4 minutes in 30 games.
Williams saw more of a benefit going with rookie Cam Johnson more, as well as Kelly Oubre Jr. and Bridges. The numbers backed it up.
From that point in mid-December on, Saric’s net rating in those 30 games is -6.3, and when he’s off the court, it’s a team-high 1.5.
There’s a fine line in being efficient as a low-usage role player. Not only do they have to capitalize on their opportunities when they come, but they also can’t do the opposite and screw them up.
This is known in Suns world as the Dragan Bender rule, where the young Croatian couldn’t stop brainfarts from setting him back, even when he was contributing in other areas.
To simplify it, let’s say Saric in a seven-minute run doesn’t screw up on defense, grabs two rebounds and scores once around the basket. But if he also misses two open threes and turns it over once, that’s a net loss.
It’s a tough gig because if the game isn’t coming to him in a natural way and he has two bad turnovers, including the one below, all of a sudden Saric is a team-worst -20 with two points, three rebounds and an assist in 21 minutes against the Kings on Nov. 19.
Guys like P.J. Tucker and Jared Dudley make it look way too easy.
If it’s all rolling, though, long-time basketball fans know how much a guy like that can swing a game.
The Suns are 4-1 when Saric scores 20 or more points and he was great in two of the last games the Suns played before the season was paused, including a home win over Portland.
As that highlight reel reminds you, Saric can do a lot offensively. He’s a step slow to guard the standard power forward individually one-on-one but is also one of the Suns’ best help defenders.
What it really boils down to is that a player like Saric is going to be maximized on a playoff team, and that’s not the Suns. There’s a reason he played his best ball in Philadelphia when the 76ers started really trending upward.
Saric also needs to hit his threes to stay on the court, and 34.1% this year isn’t good enough.
All of this sounds like the Suns didn’t get what they wanted out of Saric this season, but in a way they did.
Acquired in a draft-day trade from Minnesota when Phoenix moved down five spots, Saric earns only $3.4 million this season on the end of his rookie deal, a great price for a rotation-caliber player.
General manager James Jones had too much to juggle this past offseason, and getting Saric in for those minutes at that dollar line was huge. With Saric’s restricted rights as well, they’d be in control if they wanted to bring him back.
Saric’s spot, though, is the most obvious on the roster the Suns can greatly improve, and that’s before you look at the potential crop of replacements.
Free agency includes Davis Bertans, Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap and Christian Wood, while the 2020 draft class boasts Obi Toppin and Deni Avdija as mid-lottery-level talents.
And while it’s unlikely, the front office could also go with Bridges and Oubre as the starting “forwards,” given the success of that starting five this season.
Like backup point guard, the Suns have plenty of options before you even get to the trade market.
Regardless of if it’s a significant name or change, it’s almost certain the Suns won’t come into next season with Saric in the same role he had at the start of this year, even if he returns. Because, yes, Saric coming back can’t be ruled out too given the chance he could sign a relatively affordable deal and be a useful reserve big behind Deandre Ayton and whoever the opening night four-man is.
Either way, the Suns won’t put themselves in a position again where they are truly relying on Saric, and that could be what’s best for both parties.