Phoenix Suns have options to replace backup C Dario Saric

Jul 7, 2021, 3:04 PM | Updated: 3:04 pm
Dario Saric #20 of the Phoenix Suns drives to the basket against Brook Lopez #11 of the Milwaukee B...
Dario Saric #20 of the Phoenix Suns drives to the basket against Brook Lopez #11 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the first quarter in Game One of the NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on July 06, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

Dario Saric began his career with the Phoenix Suns a season ago as a starting power forward whose role, limitations and all, acted as a glue.

By the end of Phoenix’s perfect bubble run in 2019-20, he was a free agent who earned a new deal with the Suns as an undersized backup center.

Saric backed up the new contract throughout this past regular season with the Suns, but while that success looked like it’d regressed to the mean during these playoffs, the reality is more complex.

Would you have guessed Saric had the best net rating (12.1) of any Suns players during these playoffs? Probably not.

After Saric tore his right ACL in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday during a 118-105 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s worth noting just how big of a void he’ll leave for the rest of this series.

The context to his surprisingly positive net rating during these playoffs is that Saric only averaged 10.5 minutes a game in 14 outings — Deandre Ayton has been super hard to take off the floor. But Saric came on strong in the Western Conference Finals, posting positive plus-minus box scores in all but one game in which he was -1 against the Clippers.

Now it’s a matter of what comes next for the Suns.

Regardless of Saric’s drop in minutes played compared to 17.4 in the regular season, there are still 11 or so minutes per game where a competent big body against a team running out Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo would be useful.

Who steps in?

“Yeah, we have different options,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said on Wednesday. “Frank (Kaminsky) gives us quality size and playmaking ability. He’s smart.

“We went small last night with Torrey (Craig). We also have Doolie (Abdel Nader), who can play some small-ball 4/5. So we’re just going to try to make those decisions on the fly. But those three guys come to mind.”

Kaminsky slots in as the closest thing to Saric. The 7-footer started alongside Ayton in a Feb. 10 win against the Bucks and lasted 35 minutes against the same big Milwaukee frontcourt that included Antetokounmpo, Lopez and wing Khris Middleton.

That might’ve been Kaminsky’s best game of the year as he put up 14 points to go with eight boards and eight assists. He did all the side-to-side ball moving that made Saric such a success in the regular season, plus spaced the floor and made himself a scoring threat.

All that said, the Suns may not have a choice about whether to play Kaminsky extended minutes as this series goes on. That is, unless the Suns roll the dice with Kaminsky tagging the two-time MVP for a few moments each night.

Milwaukee down the stretch of Game 1 used Antetokounmpo as the center, and coach Mike Budenholzer’s rotation did not align perfectly to allow the Suns to shadow Ayton’s minutes with the Bucks’ star.

In other words, there will be times where Jae Crowder or Torrey Craig will match up with Antetokounmpo at either the 4 or 5 positions.

Craig played 16 minutes in Game 1, scoring two points to go with three rebounds.

Kaminsky logged just four minutes in the first half.

If the Suns are forced to go small with Craig or Nader, there are more potential problems for them.

“That’s the biggest thing, is trying to figure out the coverages for those guys, because when you go small ball with a guy like Torrey or Doolie, it’s trying to teach those guys a coverage when they’re guarding a five that dives,” Williams said. “That’s not something that those guys are used to.

“And then the offensive package can change a bit. Those guys are so used to playing 3/4. Now you got to put them in an environment where they’re playing the 5.”

Saric remains under contract for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons and will make $8.5 million and $9.2 million, respectively, after signing a three-year deal with the Suns this past offseason.

Williams said that both the team and Saric were shocked to watch him go down with an injury that typically takes close to a full season to return from.

The Suns coach and forward Cam Johnson on Wednesday said it “breaks your heart” the way Saric was lost just minutes into his first Finals appearance.

“It hurts,” Phoenix guard Devin Booker added. “He’s our energy in the locker room that you guys don’t get to see, but we love him and we are here with him. Obviously an unfortunate turn of events, but we’re going to reach out to him, we’re going to make sure he’s mentally right and that he’s in the right spirit and we’re on the road to recovery.

“As far as the court goes, obviously we’re going to be missing his presence and the things that he does out there, but everybody is going to have to give a little bit more.”

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