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How Dario Šarić may be the latest in the line of versatile Warriors ‘fours’

It’s a position that has helped the Warriors win championships.

Golden State Warriors v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

With the Golden State Warriors’ acquisition of Dario Šarić courtesy of a one-year veteran minimum contract, there’s a certain topic I’ve been wanting to broach: the much-touted winning recipe for the Warriors dynasty that consists of a combination of schemes, lineups, and certain player profiles.

Hang around these parts long enough and you’ll hear fans and pundits enumerate those traits in detail. The motion offense cultivated the talents of the roster’s core players, all while maintaining flexibility and openness to change things on the fly whenever the need arises.

Lineups typically had a traditional center — traditional in the sense of size, skill set, and a bruiser-type approach — but those served as openers to set the tone. Closing lineups that sealed the deal often involved 6-foot-6 Draymond Green at center, with multiple like-sized wings ranging from 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 making it possible to switch endlessly with little-to-no drop-off in defensive quality.

Within those lineups was a minute detail that often bypasses the thoughts of most fans and even a couple analysts. The importance of a certain position in a lineup that, for the most part, is virtually positionless seems rather paradoxical, but this team’s winning history over the last decade serves as irrefutable evidence.

The “four” position — power forward, if you want to be traditional about it — has played an important role in every Warriors championship in the Stephen Curry era. Look no further than Green himself, who plays the four in traditional lineups and — despite his reputation for being a negative spacer — has carved out a role on offense as the setup man for the likes of Curry and Klay Thompson.

However, it’s when Green slides to the “five” in small-ball lineups where the importance of the four is arguably more pronounced. Green unlocks small lineups the Warriors employ because of his generational defense — but the person occupying the other frontcourt slot is of near-equal importance.

There’s a list of requirements a small-ball four has to check off in order to become effective:

  1. He must be able to fairly space the floor.
  2. He must meet a certain basketball-IQ threshold to seamlessly fit into the Warriors’ fast-paced, organized-chaos style of play.
  3. He must have a certain level of switchability and/or knowhow of team defensive schemes.

In every championship iteration of the Warriors — 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2022 — the fours have met at least two of the criteria above. Harrison Barnes, Kevin Durant, and Otto Porter Jr. (and even Nemanja Bjelica, to a certain extent) all served as Green’s frontcourt partner and made notable contributions to the Warriors’ small-ball success.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the Warriors fell short of their title goals with Porter’s replacement last season in JaMychal Green. It wasn’t the only reason for the Warriors struggling in the regular season and the playoffs, but it served as a major factor behind their shortcomings.

Going into the offseason with new front-office leadership, the Warriors understood the assignment. They needed to replace the slot Porter left vacant — a slot the Warriors failed to fill last season using cheap veteran-minimum contracts.

The issue wasn’t as much the nature of the contract itself as it was the kind of player they were giving it to. Granted, their tax situation didn’t give them the luxury of flexibility and choice; luck and circumstance were also factors.

This offseason, Šarić’s availability as an unrestricted free agent may have been a stroke of luck the Warriors didn’t have last offseason. Adding to their good fortune was the fact that Šarić and his camp expressed interest in signing with them, in what is an apparent attempt to bolster his profile for more lucrative deals in the future.

On paper, Šarić profiles as a snugger fit within the Warriors’ ecosystem compared to JaMychal. Not only does Šarić provide the requisite versatility, basketball IQ, and floor spacing possessed by previous fours — he provides the bonus of being 6-foot-10 and possessing the kind of size the Warriors have been lacking.

The ability to stretch the floor for someone of his size is what initially sets him apart from others in his position. Šarić is a career 36% on threes; he shot 39.1% on two attempts per game from beyond the arc last season in 57 games with the Phoenix Suns and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Setting solid screens for attention-sucking ball-handlers such as Curry and Chris Paul gives Steve Kerr a plethora of options as to how to use Šarić in the half court. Šarić’s synergy with Paul in second-unit lineups, in particular, was established during their time together as members of the Suns. In the 2020-21 season alone, Paul dished 41 assists to Šarić, a chunk of which were on pick-and-pop actions with Paul engaging both his defender and the roll-man defender around Šarić ball screens.

This left Šarić — parked behind the arc after setting the screen — wide open for shots like these:

A key difference that sets Šarić apart from Porter is the ability to act as a dive man in the pick-and-roll. Šarić may lack the athletic pop and vertical leap that traditional Paul pick-and-roll partners possess, but he has enough juice as a roll man to finish expertly delivered passes from one of history’s premier pick-and-roll passers.

Assuming Paul and Šarić feature heavily in second-unit lineups, I expect Kerr to holster his movement-heavy scheme in favor of a more traditional spread pick-and-roll setup in the half court:

The element of schematic precedence comes into play if and when Kerr opts to employ Šarić as a screener in double-drag/double-ball-screen configurations (which the Warriors call “55” for typical double ball screens and “51” whenever a flare screen is involved), something Šarić has previously done with the Suns with Paul as the ball handler. Having one of the screeners be a deadly shooter such as Curry or Thompson gives Šarić more space to roll to the rim:

Šarić’s threat as an outside shooter extends to more than just being a pick-and-pop operator. Last season, the Suns employed Šarić as a spacer on the weak-side wing to punish defenses sending an extra defender at the “nail” (referring to the area located in the middle of the free-throw line) through stunts or full “next-coverage” commitments.

Being one pass away on the wing allowed Šarić to drill open looks created by the threat of middle penetration:

Šarić isn’t shy about using the threat of his shooting to attack hard closeouts and create advantages by putting the ball on the floor. Once he touches the paint, he has the vision and interior-passing acumen to find baseline cutters and teammates parked in the dunker spot:

He can also serve as a passing hub with a particular knack for hitting cutters on the move with precision:

But what intrigues me the most in terms of Šarić’s playmaking is his short-roll passing. Rarely do the Warriors have a player other than Draymond who can thrive in the middle ground and make quick decisions with the ball.

Šarić processes reads quickly without sacrificing accuracy:

Those quick decisions extend to cuts in space to put additional pressure on an already-tilted defense:

Šarić is far from the perfect role player despite the salivating flashes above. He checks off two of the traits from the aforementioned list: floor spacing, and having the basketball IQ required to fit in. But the third trait is more of a mixed bag.

Šarić won’t profile as a particularly trustworthy individual defender, nor will he catch eyes with his pick-and-roll defense. He has never averaged more than 0.4 blocks in a season and doesn’t provide much mitigation near the rim.

This is where Kerr will have to get creative with his lineups. If defense is the concern, he will have to pair Šarić with at least one wing defender (e.g., Andrew Wiggins, Gary Payton II, or Jonathan Kuminga) and a help-side partner (e.g., Draymond Green).

If Kerr is emboldened to be a bit more adventurous and favor offensive firepower, a lineup of Paul-Thompson-Moody-Kuminga-Šarić isn’t out of the question. Šarić has shown enough spot-up chops to drill open shots created by roll-man advantages, such as a theoretical pick-and-roll set between Paul and Kuminga with Šarić, Thompson, and Moody creating a spaced floor.

Kerr may even opt to close quarters with a Curry-Payton-Wiggins-Šarić-Green lineup to serve as the perfect balance between offense and defense. The coaching staff can play around with several configurations due to Šarić unlocking the kind of lineup versatility the Warriors simply didn’t have last season – and that may be the greatest gift the Croatian can provide the team next season.

Whether that’ll translate to being enough of an impactful ancillary role to help them win another title is another question. But it’s one heck of a step toward the right direction and a signing that kicks off the Mike Dunleavy Jr. era to a promising start.

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