EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Ahead of playoffs, Suns change rotation with Kaminsky ahead of Saric

May 8, 2021, 2:40 PM | Updated: 3:23 pm
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images )...
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images )
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images )

Last season, Suns big Dario Saric found himself falling out of the rotation toward the end of the regular season before having a complete resurgence in the bubble as a small-ball 5.

This year, it’s happened in the opposite order.

Even with his recent poor run of play, Saric still leads the team in net rating at 12.2. When he’s been rolling, which has been the case in more games than it hasn’t, he’s one of the most important players on the team. He and Cam Payne were instrumental in keeping the Suns afloat at the opening stretch of the season when the Suns started 8-8.

At the very least, Saric is one of the Suns’ core guys, and he brings a unique contribution to the team as a playmaking stretch 5 that can bully switches and is a smart team defender.

In mid-March, though, Saric hit a wall. Hard. After four straight games with at least five field goals, Saric wouldn’t hit that number in any of his next eight games, averaging 5.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.6 turnovers per game on 30.6% shooting.

It looked like he had a classic slump-buster in his next pair of outings, scoring 20 points against the Hawks and 16 more versus the Bulls at the end of the month.

But the struggles continued for the next handful of games before some ankle issues came up.

On April 21, Saric popped up on the injury report with left ankle soreness. He played both games of a back-to-back before missing the nest three because of what was listed as injury management for that left ankle.

After being on the injury report still for April 30’s game against Utah, Saric played 23 minutes.

Since then, however, his run trended down fast in the last four games. He’s gone from 14 minutes to 12, then down to just eight minutes and six in the previous two games.

Due to the Suns being without either Cam Johnson or Jae Crowder over this stretch, Saric has still gotten some time in playing alongside Frank Kaminsky, but Kaminsky has been the guy playing the key minutes at the 5 backing up Deandre Ayton.

Williams was asked Saturday if that was more about Saric still getting back to 100% with the ankle or Kaminsky’s level of play. His answer was definitive.

“Just Frank’s level of play and the decisions I’m making to try and give us the chance to be the best team we can,” he said. “Dario has dealt with some injuries and soreness this year but Frank’s played well and not only do we reward guys for playing the way he’s played but we (are) just trying to win games.”

Now, it’s been a challenging year for Saric, as Williams referenced and spoke on more.

“He’s shown glimpses of who he can be,” he said. “He probably would admit that he would like to be more consistent than he has been but it’s hard to when you’ve had ankle injuries, thigh injuries, COVID — it’s hard to get a rhythm. We feel like he’s going to impact this season at some point going forward.”

Kaminsky has come in and out of the rotation as needed and is being rewarded for his ability to be an impact performer through that.

A big change this year for Kaminsky has been a more reliable three-point shot, with his percentage up from 33.1% last year to 38.0%. He’s always been good for creating his own shot off the dribble, and Kaminsky has done that turning the ball over less this year, dropping his turnovers per 36 minutes from 1.7 to 1.1.

While he will get picked on in ball screen coverage like Saric and is the weaker defender of the two, Kaminsky has had some bright spots defensively this year. The most notable one was a win in New York against the Knicks, a performance Williams shouted out after that game, which was one of those games Saric missed.

In terms of consistency, Kaminsky has been the better player this season. He’s been rock solid all year, but the highs with Saric have undoubtedly been, well, higher.

At a certain point through Saric’s floundering, Williams was going to have to make a tough decision.

While considering the playoffs being only a few weeks away, what’s the right timing for it to be too late for Saric while giving Kaminsky a deserved stretch of games to find a rhythm before the big ones? It’s a different story 20 games into the season when it comes to a guy claimed off waivers (Kaminsky) versus a player on a three-year, $27 million deal (Saric), but it’s crunch time now.

For now at least, we’re there. As Williams said back up there, he still sees Saric making a difference at some point and that Saric is getting in extra work to try and make that happen.

But there was a telling moment after Friday night’s win over the Knicks.

With no practice court anymore in Phoenix Suns Arena, players after the game use the main court to get some extra conditioning work in or shots up if they don’t play all that much. Jevon Carter was out there after every game when he was out of the rotation, and Kaminsky would get sprints in too.

But on Friday night, it wasn’t Kaminsky running up and down the floor in a nearly empty arena. Instead, it was Saric.

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