A team is only as strong as its weakest link.
Log onto Twitter and you can see self-indulgent debates left and right about the superstars on a team. Is Team A’s best player better than Team B’s? Can Team A win a championship with Player X as its number-one option? How will Player X meld with Player Y?
Often overlooked is the importance of those littler guys who round out the starting five and have a massive impact on the way a game is played. Don’t believe me? Go re-watch the first round series between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder last year, where the Rockets were able to all but ignore Andre Roberson on offense. No matter how strong the Thunder’s top player was, their team was only as strong as its weakest link.
Collective fit of a five-man unit has a great impact on determining which links fit where in the game of basketball. Rather than simply assembling the five best players at all times, basketball coaches will try to strike a balance. Which link can help us without ruining the cohesion of our best players? That’s always the first question asked when trying to fill out a starting lineup.
Beyond that, coaches are quick to remind anyone asking about rotations at the quickest drop of a hat: It’s not about who starts, it’s about who finishes. To be fair, a large part of which lineup concludes each game is determined by both factors—who has started the game (and therefore might be rested heading into the final stretch, due to normal substitution patterns) and the need to assemble the most talented fitting group possible during tight contests.
When it comes to the Philadelphia 76ers, four of their best players certainly stake a claim to one of those starting and end-game spots. For both positional need and talent level, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and J.J. Redick are firmly entrenched. With that final spot, though, one of those famed positional battles may be ready to take place. Robert Covington and Dario Saric, both versatile and talented enough to assert their skills without much chagrin, are vying for that one remaining role.
Any head man tasked with splitting lineups knows that while the starting and core groups are most crucial, they cannot necessarily be had at the expense of the bench lineups and success. So, what about the specific traits that Covington and Saric possess can help us predict where each might land? What would be best for the team? Weighing both offense and defense into the equation, the result seems fairly clear: Covington is the better fit with the core four than Saric.
First we need to establish a baseline for what each player’s true strengths are.
Dario Saric is a 6’10” wing who, according to his Basketball Reference page, spent 89 percent of his minutes at power forward last season. While that number may or may not change based on the presence of Ben Simmons, his strengths seem to overlap with 2016’s No. 1 overall pick as a pass-first wing. Saric reached an assist rate above 15 percent during his rookie campaign; the only rookie forward or post player to boast a higher mark last season was his teammate, Embiid.
When Saric plays at the 4 with a team of shooters surrounding him, the Sixers find their best path toward maximizing Jahlil Okafor.
Saric is one of the top passing bigs around but has a respectable jumper; defenders crowd him on the perimeter, which creates more room for Okafor inside. At the very least, playing the former lottery pick increases the big man’s trade value, and at worst it gives them a No. 1 scorer for their second unit. Saric is particularly adept at finding open spaces for post entry opportunities, making absurd passes with precision and timing that few other forwards, let alone rookies, could make. Here he recognizes a mismatch down low with Stephen Curry on Okafor and drops him a dime:
Crafty and lean, Saric can create off the bounce as well as from the top of the key. But his downfall is his outside shooting, where he only shot 30.7 percent on the year and a woeful 31.6 percent in catch-and-shoot scenarios, per NBA.com’s player tracking data. Does that sound like the right guy to play off the ball from the offensive talent Philly possesses?
Covington, on the other hand, is a much more off-ball-oriented wing with three-and-D instincts. In those same catch-and-shoot scenarios, RoCo wasn’t much better last year (32.9 percent) but has a track record of success. In ’15-16 he netted nearly 38 percent on catch-and-shoots and was north of 39 percent the season prior. Why is that so important for the Sixers? It’s all about adding space around Embiid, who can command a double-team in the post and is already sharing the floor for long stretches with a known non-shooter in Ben Simmons.
That’s not the only area where Covington adds something substantial. Last season he had a defensive field-goal percentage mark of 49.2 percent, in the top 20 percent of the league and ahead of stalwart perimeter defenders such as Klay Thompson, Andre Roberson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Tony Allen. Combine that with more than one block and one steal per game and it’s easy to see where Covington’s biggest impact will lie.
Beyond that, Covington finished 10th in the NBA last season in steal percentage at 32 percent. Combining quick hands, a high defensive IQ and great instincts, he is able to make an impact off the ball as well as on it. Perhaps his biggest asset though is his size; Covington’s impressive seven-foot wingspan can lock up some smaller guards or wings searching for passing lanes or trying to sneak a ball past him in a narrow window.
Speed and length are tricky combinations to find, and the Sixers have found them both in Covington. While his offensive inconsistencies can be frustrating, he adds the benefit of one thing Saric is largely unable to do. Philadelphia now has a wing defender in J.J. Redick who they must hide from the most physical, offensively gifted perimeter players in the league. In order to do so effectively, coach Brett Brown needs a player to whom he can throw the assignment and trust they’ll do a better job than Redick.
Covington is such a player.
But we all love to talk about offense, and it’s much easier for the eye to see. So what, from the coaching perspective, can Brown grapple with theoretically to make sense of the position battle? Playbook formation.
As Brown begins to digest his sets and his offense, he will try to do so in a fashion where nothing falls apart with one injury. He’ll also tell you, as any coach would, it’s a hell of a lot easier to run the same offense with your second unit as with your first.
For these reasons, Saric makes so much sense to have his minutes staggered from fellow point forward Ben Simmons. The perfect insurance policy to slide into the starting rotation if Simmons misses time, he’d ensure the offense as constructed wouldn’t change too drastically with the occurrence. The construction of the plays would remain the same. Play the ball through their 4-man, run post-ups (for Okafor) or ball screens (with Richaun Holmes) for the 5 and space the floor with a swirling derby of shooters around.
It’s the perfect complement to an offense that also features some savvy creators (Fultz with the starters, T.J. McConnell with the reserves) and green-light shooters (Redick and Nik Stauskas) to have a passing big man flanking them. The first unit wouldn’t suffer at all offensively by having Saric’s great court vision and playmaking prowess on it, but the second unit would feel depleted without it.
The numbers from last season only illuminate a small picture of what next year will be like for the Sixers offense, with three guaranteed new starters and such a small sample size of Embiid. The powerful and impactful center was used frequently for the Sixers when he was in the game, posting an unbelievable usage rate of 36.0. Players relied on that frequently for scoring are seldom seen, and one of the ramifications is a smaller slice of the pie for everyone else.
Certainly Embiid won’t need such a high volume with more weapons in town, but the trickle-down effect is the same: Philly is truly looking for a fifth cog in its offensive arsenal. Of the players to post a usage rate above 35 the last five seasons, here
are the marks of their two least utilized offensive players in their most common lineups:
For reference, Covington’s usage rate of 19.2 and Saric’s 24.6 last season are higher than any single player on that graph.
Embiid’s volume and usage won’t be as high next season as they were with limited options around him this past year. It’s fair to say that with new additions on the roster ready to take more touches, the likes of Fultz, Redick and Simmons will eat more into the fifth starter’s usage than into the star center’s. Each of the last two top picks are ball-dominant players, and Redick hasn’t had a sub-20 usage rate since his Orlando days. Whoever rounds out that unit will have limited touches.
The debate here isn’t that Covington is a better player than Saric, or that Saric cannot augment the first unit in positive ways. The opposite might be the real argument: that Saric is the better player deserving of a higher usage rate and, therefore, should come off the bench. It’s all about blending talents together the right way.
Taking this a step further, the effectiveness of Philadelphia’s true superstar with each is something to be considered, as well. Embiid’s best partner on the court last season: Covington. The two, when sharing the court, posted a plus-2.1 net rating last season, the highest total for the Sixers’ entire team among players to log at least 30 games together. Saric and Embiid weren’t too far behind as a pairing, but they also had a higher turnover rate:
Only one grouping of Sixers shared the court in 80 of the team’s 82 games last season. That duo, Saric and T.J. McConnell, was a fairly mundane minus-2.4 on the court together, but they had good chemistry and kept the rock moving. That ball movement, which Saric aids more than Covington, might help offset the contributions of Jahlil Okafor when he spends time in the second unit as a post scorer. It’s a case where the numbers show mutual benefits to both lineups.
The film does, as well. Put two great passers like Saric and McConnell together, and the ball zips around their second unit. They both can push in transition and toy with a defense’s normal rotations. Two high-IQ players are bound to convert or find the sneakily open player for an easy bucket:
A case can be made that this lineup change really does benefit both players. Covington gets to shine on defense and get seldom, but comparatively easier, offensive chances. Saric, on the other hand, will get to play with the ball in his hands more, not fighting with Simmons to be the creator out of the frontcourt.
Philly’s currently projected 1 for the second grouping, Jerryd Bayless, is less of a natural floor general than a scoring combo guard. As a career 36 percent shooter from deep, his last full season (2015-16) saw him hit 47.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, per NBA.com’s player tracking data. Meanwhile, a solid 45 percent of Saric’s assists (82 of his 182) resulted in a three-pointer. For a second unit needing more space-and-pace around Saric and a less mobile big man, the fit seems too perfect to be true. Whether the Sixers play Bayless at the 1 or the 2, there’s a good pairing to be found with any point guard and the sophomore forward.
Offense, defense, first unit, second unit, injuries, playbook management…they all play a part in determining the lineups and rotations for an NBA team. Ask me straight up which player I’d take on my team, and Saric is the likely pick nine times out of 10. But ask me who is a better fit with the Sixers’ starting rotation, and I’ll show you evidence from nearly every category that points towards Covington being the best fit, hands down.
Follow Adam on Twitter @Spinella14.