For the Nets to turn it around after their slow start, they might need to experiment with Simmons at center.
The Nets lost again Wednesday night, this time at the hands of the Bucks. Brooklyn is now 1–3 to start the season, and with the caveat that it’s still quite early, the Nets are … bad. Brooklyn is second-to-last in the NBA in net rating, and its defense is currently second worst in the league. The starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Royce O’Neale, Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton has been a disaster, having been outscored by 35 points in 49 minutes. And Steve Nash, who was ejected after an uncharacteristic tirade Wednesday, has to be feeling his seat getting warm after an underwhelming start to the season.
Brooklyn’s problems are myriad, and there’s no quick fix to turning the ship around. And yet, I’m here to humbly offer one suggestion: What about giving Simmons more minutes at center?
It’s en vogue in the NBA to fix problems by going small. It’s my go-to solution for everything. “More shooting!” many of us clamor from the sidelines, as if that’s all it takes. And with Simmons in particular, for years people have been desperate to see him play more off the ball, screening, diving and cutting off of the superstar talent he plays with. Yet allowing that “going small” is not the magical cure-all, there’s an argument to be made Brooklyn isn’t doing Simmons any favors with his current role.
For example, the two-man lineup of Simmons and Claxton has a minus-18.7 net rating. Meanwhile, the two-man lineup of Simmons and backup big Day’Ron Sharpe has a minus-38.6 net rating. It’s not hard to see why these pairings fail. The Nets’ spacing is tighter than a pair of jeans on Thanksgiving when Simmons shares the floor with another non-shooter, creating obstacles even too difficult for halfcourt maestros Durant and Irving to overcome. A significant part of the issue is Simmons himself, who has appeared lethargic and/or slow to react at times, not quite playing with the pace and decisiveness required for an off-the-ball role. (Draymond Green—an oft-cited Simmons comp—may never shoot, but at least he has a plan when he catches the ball.)
Still, it’s surprising to see Nash play Simmons with another non-shooter as often as he does. Simmons has played 117 minutes so far this season, 102 of which have come next to either Claxton or Sharpe. That means he’s played only 15 as the lone non-shooter/big/center, and he probably deserves a longer look in that scenario.
The Nets actually went small for a significant portion of Wednesday’s game. The results were mixed, but arguably promising. To end the first half, a lineup of Simmons, Durant, Irving, O’Neale and Yuta Watanabe outscored the Bucks by eight points in under five minutes. To close the game, with Joe Harris in place of Watanabe, Brooklyn was outscored by five points in just over five minutes. Those are obviously small samples. The Nets’ process in those minutes felt good, though. It was easier for Durant and Irving to hunt mismatches. And while letting them dance one-on-one so much may not be the best long-term plan, as long as Nash wants to do it, playing smaller lineups at least engineers more space. Overall, Simmons was a plus-two on Wednesday, the only starter with a positive plus/minus.
There is a defensive concern with those groups. On most nights, however, when the Nets aren’t playing guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid, they should have enough size between O’Neale, Durant and Simmons to match up against opposing frontcourts. Having a healthy Harris would also help. He’s played in the last few games, and his production theoretically should improve as he works his way back to 100% after dealing with issues in his left foot since last season.
Simply put, the Nets have to try something. The current combos aren’t working. And Simmons, coming back from both back surgery and mental health struggles, isn’t playing freely enough. On paper, going small could force Brooklyn to play with some more pace, which in turn could put Simmons in open space, where in the past he typically made good decisions. (For what it’s worth, Nash and his coaching staff have surely thought of this themselves. I doubt they read SI for coaching advice. Which means Simmons has to take accountability here as well, whether it’s about his willingness to commit to that smallball five role, or what he’s shown in practice.)
Ultimately, no matter what the situation is, it’s going to be a work in progress, as Irving confirmed after the Bucks loss.
“You guys keep coming in here, asking me, like, ‘What about Ben?’ He hasn’t played in two years,” Irving said postgame. “Give him a f—ing chance. We stay on his s—. You just stay on him. But we’re here to give him positive affirmations.”
It’s true that Simmons needs a chance. He was too talented and too effective for too long for me to believe he can’t contribute at all anymore. He also needs help. And while letting Simmons cook at center isn’t a panacea for all that ails the Nets, it’s an option that probably deserves a longer look.
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