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Bourguet Breakdown: How a healthy Dario Saric could revitalize Cam Payne

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
August 4, 2022

Phoenix Suns fans have spent the last month waiting for a Kevin Durant trade to materialize, but in the meantime, they largely have the same roster to look forward to next season. Well, almost the same, thanks to Dario Saric.

Outside of extending Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker, the Suns’ only means to improve at this point lies in continuity, internal development…and the return of one forgotten returning player that general manager James Jones mentioned during his end-of-season exit interview.

“For us, we’ll continue to grow internally, we’ll continue to build,” Jones said in late June. “We’ll get Dario Saric back, and we’ll get all of our players who are young, improving players to get another crack at it.”

That may not feel particularly reassuring for a fanbase that just watched a 64-win team inexplicably fall flat on its face in the second round of the playoffs. This core has a bright future, but the allure of a swing-for-the-fences move is undeniable.

However, it’s worth noting that a healthy Dario Saric wouldn’t just mark the return of one productive bench player, but possibly two. If the math ain’t mathin’ yet, we’ll spell it out plainly: Saric made Cam Payne a better basketball player, and vice-versa.

Coming off an ACL tear in the 2021 NBA Finals and meniscus surgery back in May, there’s no guarantee “The Homie” can stay on the court. But at NBA Summer League, he provided PHNX Sports with an encouraging update.

“It’s been good since the season was over,” he said. “I stayed here [in Phoenix], working out with the coaches here, preparing myself for the next season. I didn’t play last season because of injuries, so trying to get in gaming shape. Last couple days I started playing more with the contact against coaches, so trying to be ready for the next season.”

On the latest Bourguet Breakdown, we’ll dive into why that should be music to the ears of the Suns and their backup point guard.

Payne-ful regression:

It’s no secret Cam Payne has a lot to prove next year. His triumphant coming-out party in 2020-21 was followed by some wicked regression to the mean. Payne was so bad in the playoffs he got benched, and with Chris Paul turning 37, the need for a more trustworthy floor general behind him grew louder.

Payne’s stock hasn’t been this low since he was out of the league. The question of whether he can bounce back is a critical one, especially since Phoenix needs to grow less dependent on an aging Point God. Can he return to that breakout player who helped the Suns win a Western Conference Finals game without CP3? Or was it all just a fluke, and this is just who he really is?

The numbers aren’t on Payne’s side. In many respects, it was a case of simply not making shots. Payne’s shooting percentages — in categories where he flourished in 2020-21 — were down across the board:

  • Field goal percentage: 40.9 percent (48.4 percent the year prior)
  • 3-point percentage: 33.6 perent (44 percent the year prior)
  • “Open” or “wide open” 3s: 34.1 percent (45.6 percent the year prior)
  • Catch-and-shoot 3s: 36 percent (48.9 percent the year prior)
  • Pull-up 3s: 29.9 percent (37.3 percent the year prior)

Pick a statistic that measures efficiency or impact on winning, and there’s a good chance Payne regressed in it last season.

It’s the reason we’ve tackled MLE targets and remaining free agents to fill the Suns’ 15th roster spot: Phoenix needs a third point guard, and it’s crucial to have someone capable of filling Payne’s shoes should he vanish again. New arrival Duane Washington Jr. is an excellent flier on a two-way contract, but he may not be ready for that responsibility on a title contender.

Barring a trade, and with most of the noteworthy free agents gone, there’s a good chance the Suns will simply have to hope Payne rediscovers his rhythm. If that’s the case, the return of Saric, his floor-spacing and his basketball I.Q. might go a long way.

Dario Saric’s gravity

There’s no question Payne underwent quite an adjustment process going from pick-and-pop bigs like Saric and Frank Kaminsky to predominantly rim-rolling bigs like JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo. With the Suns adding two more centers who could imitate Ayton’s playing style, Payne had some trouble adapting.

“It’s just the learning curve, building relationships with my teammates,” he said in January. “Like, training camp, me and ‘Vale had a long talk over there talking about lobs. And it’s just things like that. At first last year, it was Dario, like, ‘Hey, I’m popping.’ So it’s just learning my teammates.”

Payne’s connection with McGee got better as time wore on. By the end of the season, lineups with those two on the court posted a +10.4 Net Rating in 471 minutes. Payne also posted a +9.6 Net Rating alongside Biyombo.

But that still didn’t measure up to Payne’s +16.5 Net Rating when sharing the court with Saric the season prior, or even his +12.0 Net Rating alongside Kaminsky that year. Having a floor-spacing big who could capably pick-and-pop helped Payne rack up some pretty easy assists:

Saric has only made 35.7 percent and 34.8 percent of his 3s over his two seasons with the Suns, but that ability to make defenses pay for yielding too much space lends a different dynamic to pick-and-rolls than Ayton, McGee or Biyombo could offer. In fact, Saric took 10 more 3s in his last season than those three have taken combined in their careers over 29 years total.

Even an average of slightly below-average 3-point shooter helps when he’s a pick-and-pop big, and that gravity opened things up for Payne’s pedal-to-the-metal forays into the paint.

In this first clip below, Devin Booker is posting up on the block with Saric nearby on the 3-point line as a release valve. His presence has a magnetic pull on Rudy Gobert, keeping the three-time Defensive Player of the Year from sagging down to help. Without Gobert protecting the rim, Payne takes advantage of Donovan Mitchell’s poor defensive awareness, cutting backdoor cut for a layup.

Saric doesn’t even touch the ball on any of these plays, but the threat of his 3-ball opens up lanes for Payne to quickly get downhill. Georges Niang and Mfiondu Kabengele are more worried about Dario leaking out than they are about actually stopping the driving ball-handler:

Here, Booker drives in transition and sucks the entire LA Clippers defense in, with Payne and Saric trailing the play. Book kicks it back out to Payne, with Luke Kennard picking him up.

The rest of the Clippers scramble to recover out to Saric, but as Lou Williams and Kawhi Leonard hedge toward the perimeter in front of a vexed Ivica Zubac, Payne has already made his move, blowing by Kennard and capitalizing on the confusion.

You can see that same gravitational pull in effect, ever so briefly, on pick-and-pops like these. Isaiah Stewart and Eric Paschall are stuck in no man’s land for a split-second, stuck between accounting for the ball-handler and Saric’s pop after the screen.

Payne does an excellent job freezing both defenders with a hesitation dribble, and when he sees the screener’s man still trying to navigate that gap, he turns the boosters on to knife his way in for easy layups.

And of course, when Payne’s drives were cut off or the defenders helped too far, he found Saric for wide-open triples that reinforced his gravitational pull:

Opening things up like a real Homie

None of this is meant to take away from what Payne brings to the table or to diminish his remarkable breakout year, but there’s no question the Homie helped make his life easier.

In the pick-and-roll, it showed up in things as simple as Saric’s burly, plodding screens where he lingered in front of Payne’s man to free up open triples. He’s not the most fleet of foot, but he’s got a wide frame, makes good contact and doesn’t mind re-positioning for a better angle to get his ball-handler open.

Saric also put his on-court intelligence to use by slipping screens. When his defender hedged too hard, he’d slither toward the basket, forcing his man to quickly retreat and giving Payne an opening. Payne would immediately change directions and charge right at the open space where the defender used to be.

It worked well on post-ups where Saric had a mismatch too, as his gravity on those deep-positioned plays helped Payne identify driving lanes to exploit.

When defenses switched the pick-and-roll, Payne was often left with a severe mismatch to target off the bounce. Poor Patrick Patterson and Chris Boucher never stood a chance on these plays, especially against the version of Cam Payne who was automatic on step-back jumpers at the time:

Without Saric’s floor-spacing and sneaky slips, the Suns had to work with Payne on tweaking his approach. Rim-running bigs like Ayton, McGee and Biyombo were highly effective pick-and-roll partners, but their real estate in the paint often clogged the lanes that Payne used to galavant through.

“We just tried to ask him to consider taking the midrange shot because when he plays with JaVale, the defensive big is in drop coverage,” coach Monty Williams explained in January. “It’s hard to get to the basket at times like he did last year, ’cause he was playing with Dario and Frank at times in the second unit and the big was worried about Dario popping, so he had a lot more opportunities to get to the basket.”

Payne’s shooting numbers were down across the board, so it was impossible to blame Saric’s absence for his regression on all those wide-open 3s. Still, some of his other diminishing returns traced back to the Homie. According to NBA.com, Payne dipped from 51 percent shooting at the rim in 2020-21 (already below league-average) to a dismal 44.6 percent last year.

Teams realized Payne’s downhill approach, and without pick-and-pop bigs to keep them honest, opponents were able to drop, play the drive and force the type of wildly ambitious finishes that Payne didn’t convert often enough. He even admitted to some early frustration at how defenses were taking away his best weapons now that they had a deeper scouting report:

Payne had to slightly adjust his shot profile without Saric. He took 35 percent of his shots from the midrange the year before, per Cleaning The Glass, but that number jumped to 41 percent last season. His regression from 47 percent shooting on those shots to just 41 percent didn’t help matters. Essentially, he shot six percent worse on a shot he started taking six percent more often.

Even as the Suns continued to churn out wins, striking the right balance and putting the entire onus of the second unit’s playmaking on him was an adjustment for everyone involved.

“I think the thing that we’re trying to make the adjustment to is not having Dario,” Williams said. “Having Dario on the floor relieved Cam Payne from having to make all the decisions….When Dario played, we would throw it to him in trail and then he would in essence become a point guard up top and everybody would cut and he would find guys.”

Saric synergy:

The synergy wasn’t just one-sided, however. Of Saric’s 125 made field goals that were assisted, 27 of them came directly from Payne, trailing only Chris Paul (33).

Saric’s screen slips opened up paths to the rim, but when that didn’t happen, Payne had no problem finding his ground-bound big man for easy dump-offs, pinpoint lobs or pocket passes through the defense:

That synergy permeated through the Suns’ bench, and the ball hummed when those two got in the groove. Williams admitted early last season that Phoenix hadn’t run one of their old offenses yet because Saric and Kaminsky — the two “trail” guys capable of moving the ball from one third of the court to another — were both injured.

“0.5 can be a quick catch and swing it, that’s where Dario and Frank had a huge impact on the offense,” Williams said. “They’re not the fastest guys in the world, but they were pretty good in 0.5 because they knew how to swing the ball from side to side.”

Saric will help on that front, and it’ll allow some of Payne’s craftiness with the ball in his hands to shine again in pick-and-rolls. Not having Saric showed up in Payne’s efficacy as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per NBA.com:

  • Payne as PNR ball-handler in 2020-21: 193 possessions over 60 games, 1.00 points per possession, 47.5 FG%, 80th percentile
  • Payne as PNR ball-handler in 2021-22: 347 possessions over 58 games, 0.84 points per possession, 41.8 FG%, 50th percentile

He and the Homie built terrific chemistry in those sets by reading each other (and the defense) well enough to strand opponents in uncomfortable situations. In this clip, Saric sees Zubac in drop coverage and rapidly resets his position on the screen, making better contact and freeing up Payne for the floater.

On this play, attacking a hapless defender like Enes Kanter never hurts, but Saric popping out to the 3-point line puts Anfernee Simons in a bind as he tries to clog the passing lane. With Payne pressing toward the rim, Simons frantically recovers, trying to obstruct his vision on the outlet pass while also trying to cover for the flat-footed Kanter.

Payne feels Simons on his hip but can sense he’s been torn in two directions. He gives a slight hesitation move by faking a spin back the other way, and it’s enough to get Simons off his back for the layup.

Targeting Kanter must be fun for NBA players, because Payne and Saric do it again here. Kanter is caught in no man’s land, and a simple hesitation dribble fools him into retreating to the rolling Saric. Payne’s runway to the basket is open and he’s cleared for takeoff:

Payne’s hesitation dribble works particularly well with an action like this side Spain pick-and-roll, where Jalen Smith screens Payne’s man and Saric immediately screens Smith’s defender. Saric lays a enough of a shot on Keldon Johnson to give Payne the advantage, while the stop-and-go dribble pushes him right past Jakob Poeltl:

None of these plays is an outrageous highlight, but the beauty of Cam Payne and Dario Saric’s partnership lies in the subtle details that showcase their basketball I.Q. and their understanding of each other’s games.

Coming off two major knee surgeries over the last year, there’s no guarantee Saric will be durable enough to fill the Suns’ backup center spot. Biyombo was a third-string big last year, but his return serves as insurance in case the Homie breaks down again too. Fortunately, according to Saric, the road back to the court finally has an end in sight.

“The process went really well, it’s going very well,” he said. “Playing against coaches, I’m feeling really good. I can’t really complain after this kind of, like, one-month setback. So I’m happy to be on the court, happy to compete. I hope like next month, I’m gonna really put in work and be ready for the training camp and start the season in the right way.”

If that’s the case, Saric might not be the only Suns reserve making a big comeback next year.

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