Dario Šarić’s shortcomings as a defender somewhat handicap what the Golden State Warriors can do with him as their back-up center.
Centers have responsibilities on defense that are extensive. They need to constantly defend pick-and-roll action; that requires knowing which coverages are being played. They need to stay close to the paint to wall it off; should someone fall through the cracks, he needs to be in proper position to contest legally.
Considering the kind of player Šarić has been throughout his career, he’s far from the profile described above — mostly because he hasn’t been used in that manner for most of his career.
Šarić profiles as more of a floor-stretching power forward whose versatility on the offensive end is a valuable asset. He can act as a hub around which others revolve around — either as a passer at the top of the key in 5-out action, at the elbows with screening action happening on both sides of the floor, or as a pick-and-roll partner who can either roll to the rim or drift beyond the arc due to his ability to shoot the three-ball.
Steve Kerr has opted to play Šarić more as a five (465 possessions) than as a four (231 possessions) this season. The numbers with him as the lone big man on the floor haven’t been pretty:
- With Šarić as the five, opponents have outscored the Warriors by 2.8 points per 100 possessions, with a defensive rating of 116.8 (equivalent to 21st in the NBA).
- With Šarić as the four — alongside one of Kevon Looney, Draymond Green, or Trayce Jackson-Davis — the Warriors have outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions, with a defensive rating of 101.7 (equivalent to the best defense in the NBA).
Šarić especially seems to have more trouble as a five against teams whose emphasis on offense is to attack bigs in space — an area where his lack of above-average footspeed handicaps him extensively.
As a four, he doesn’t have to defend in space as often, since teammates better suited for such a task are taking those reps.
The San Antonio Spurs presented a unique opportunity for Šarić to thrive as the five. The Spurs are one of the few teams in the league whose schemes opt not to hunt matchups to attack in space — 17th in the league in pick-and-roll frequency and 30th in the league in isolation frequency, per Synergy.
With Šarić not having to worry too much about responsibilities as a defender in space, the offensive side of the floor became more of a playground for him. He finished with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting (4-of-7 on threes), 7 rebounds, and 4 assists. The Warriors outscored the Spurs by 13 points in his 26 minutes.
Granted, a significant number of his points came on less-than-ideal coverage decisions the Spurs made in terms of defending pick-and-pop possessions. But Šarić was brought aboard partly because he is built to capitalize on coverage shortcomings by opponents.
His ability to shoot the ball allows the Warriors to create space for him on the perimeter, especially with a decision-making maestro in Chris Paul as the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll or Steph Curry as the NBA’s preeminent two-on-the-ball magnet. The lack of “veer-back” switching by the Spurs — sending the ballhandler’s defender to switch toward the pop-man to take away space — allowed Šarić to feast on open looks:
While the Warriors largely prefer Šarić popping out instead of rolling to the rim after setting a ballscreen, he occasionally throws the roll-man curveball as a change-of-pace tool, especially with Klay Thompson as the main attention grabber:
Using Šarić as the screener in “stack” action — more commonly knowns as “Spain” pick-and-roll — also has its benefits. He has extensive experience running it with Paul during their time together in Phoenix and knows how to attack coverage decisions made by the defense.
When the Spurs opt to switch the backscreener’s (Brandin Podziemski) defender onto Šarić, Šarić seals his man down low, with Paul recognizing the matchup and feeding his big man for the easy bucket:
Šarić as the big also allows him to have bird’s-eye view in inverted half-court setups on offense. With him as the big-man decision maker in 5-out “Delay” action, he’s able to see cutters and thread passes to him with accuracy that isn’t common among big men in the league:
“Connectors” have arguably been the main currency of the Warriors’ offense under Kerr. Having players who could bridge that gap between play initiation and play finishing helps keep the engine running and makes sure that its main cogs do their work smoothly and efficiently.
Šarić profiles as the latest big-man connector in a long line that includes the likes of Andrew Bogut, David West, and Nemanja Bjelica — his advantage being that he may be more of a dynamic offensive piece than his predecessors:
While being someone who does his part in keeping the 0.5-principle alive during half-court possessions:
Kerr is rightfully using Šarić’s talents on offense as a connector, shooter, and passer. What remains to be seen, however, is if he can be put in better positions to survive on defense. The data says that pairing him with a bona fide five and slotting him at the four is the best method of addressing that conundrum.
There have been glimpses of Kerr pairing him with the likes of Looney and Jackson-Davis. Whether that’s a trend they’re willing to explore further is something to keep track of as the season moves forward.