Dario Saric is a Sixth Man among Sixth Men

Dario Saric has a non-traditional Sixth Man of the Year resume but he’s been as important as any bench player in the NBA this season.

NBA MVPs are usually the best players on the best teams who have yet to fatigue the voters by being too great for too long. Michael Jordan ruled the NBA for over a decade but “only” won five MVPs. Was he any less dominant in 1988 or 1993 or 1997? Reader, he was not. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal won the award as many times as James Harden and Russell Westbrook have. MVPs aren’t about the best performance or the best player, or they’re not solely about those things. MVPs are about the best story. If frontrunner Nikola Jokić were having the season he’s having but had already won the award, Joel Embiid and Damian Lillard would be getting more buzz.

By contrast, Sixth Man of the Year winners are a mixed bag. Take this year’s leading candidates: there’s Dallas’ sparkling young point guard, Jalen Brunson; the modern microwave scorer, Utah’s Jordan Clarkson; his teammate and the league’s sweetest shooting forward, Joe Ingles; and the Los Angeles Lakers’ bruising bench big, Montrezl Harrell. And then there’s Dario Saric, someone utterly unlike the other candidates. Even among 6MOY all-time, Saric would be an anomaly. That doesn’t make him any less deserving to win.

Saric plays 18 minutes a game. The other competitors average between 21 and 27 minutes. The only prior winner to average under 20 minutes a game was Bill Walton in 1986. But just as 3-pointers have warped life on the court, increased load management means decreased minutes for everybody. In 2019, the last season to play 82 games, the only player to log more than 3000 minutes was Bradley Beal; 20 years earlier, Beal’s total would have ranked 14th. Same thing 30 years ago. To hold Saric’s minutes against him not only ignores context, but it also goes against the very spirit of an award specifically for players who don’t start, one that recognizes the dignity and normalcy of less is more.

Saric averages a little under 10 points a game, a number every 6MOY this century has topped. The only past winners to average single-digits are Anthony Mason, Walton and the award’s first-ever winner, Bobby Jones. Given the prolific points making of recent winners like Lou Williams, Eric Gordon and Jamal Crawford, Saric’s single-digitry seems — ironically — offensive. But Saric plays three to nine fewer minutes a game than his competitors. Adjust the numbers to per 36 minutes and he scores 19.4, more than Brunson and Ingles; the only Sun scoring more per 36 is Devin Booker. He’s not a quicksilver gunslinger playing 30 minutes a night, but Saric packs a hell of a scoring punch.

In his first year as a full-time bench player, he’s doing some of everything for Phoenix, a jack of all trades for the team with the league’s second-best record. Per 36 he’s second in free throws made and field goals attempted, fourth in field goals made and defensive rebounds and fifth in offensive rebounds. Only three Suns — Langston Galloway, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder — have shot a higher percentage outside the arc on more attempts than Saric. Only Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton have shot a higher percentage inside the arc on more attempts. Saric is garlic, he’s onion, he’s cheese, he’s chocolate: if something is good, odds are he’s a part of it.

All kinds of numbers smile upon his case for Sixth Man of the Year. He’s shooting well from three feet and in (69 percent), mid-range (55 percent from 10-16 feet) and 3-point range (36 percent). When he’s on the bench Phoenix has a plus-5 rating, which is Denver/Philadelphia territory; when he plays that number skyrockets to plus-14, which is Babe Ruth/Wilt Chamberlain/Wayne Gretzky-level absurd. All that good stuff and he costs the Suns less than Ingles, Clarkson and Harrell cost their teams.

What would it take for Dario Saric to actually win Sixth Man of the Year?

The Phoenix Suns have been as good and as hot as anyone in the league for months how, and voters like to know they’re supporting someone who’s supporting something. The Jazz have had the best record most of this season, but the Suns are right on their heels, and Utah’s success could mean Ingles and Clarkson end up splitting each other’s votes. A Saric win would mean he bucked two more recent trends. While 11 winners of Sixth Man of the Year have been 6-foot-10 or taller, seven of those came the first 11 years it was given. Only one player that tall has been so honored this century, Lamar Odom in 2011. Four players born overseas have been Sixth Man of the Year though none since Manu Ginóbili in 2008.

To dive into Dario Saric’s numbers too deeply is to miss the forest for the trees. Nothing he does makes you stop what you’re doing to watch. He doesn’t shoot 50 percent from deep like Ingles. Won’t put up a 40-piece like Clarkson. Doesn’t have the length or strength of Harrell. But if you’re looking at what he doesn’t do you’re missing just how much he does. He’s like an Impressionist painting: take a few steps back and you see the beauty, the clarity of what went into it and what it means to the world.

Sixth men are visionaries. They bring so much to the table you might want more, but you’re more than satisfied with what you got. So many people absorb the idea that there must always be momentum and that momentum must be forward-facing it’s easy to lose sight of other ways of being, like slow food and siestas and road trips with no particular endgame. You don’t need to be a starter to make an impact. You don’t need to play 20 minutes to make an impact. You don’t need to dunk on someone or split a double-team and hit a reverse off-hand 360 to make an impact.

The second-best team in the league wins 77 percent of the time when Saric scores in double-figures. That’s not a causal relationship, but it’s still pretty good. So is Dario Saric. Good enough to win Sixth Man of the Year? It’d be a good story. It’d also be a deserving win and an invitation to re-imagine our horizons as far as what is possible in life — for others and ourselves.

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