The Nets lost again Wednesday night, this time to the Bucks. Brooklyn is now 1–3 to start the season, and with the caveat that it’s still pretty early, the Nets are…bad. Brooklyn is second-to-last in the NBA in net-rankings, and its defense is currently the second-worst in the league. The starting formation of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Royce O’Neale, Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton was a disaster, having been outscored by 35 points in 49 minutes. And Steve Nash, who was ejected after an unusual tirade on Wednesday, must feel his seat warming after a disappointing start to the season.
Brooklyn’s problems are myriad, and there’s no quick fix to turn around. And yet, I’m here to humbly offer a suggestion: how about giving Simmons more minutes in the middle?
It’s fashionable in the NBA to solve problems by going small. This is my go-to solution for everything. “No more shooting!” many of us shout from the sidelines, like that’s all it takes. And with Simmons in particular, for years people have been desperate to see him play further off the ball, filtering, diving and cutting the superstar talent he plays with. Still, admitting that “going small” isn’t the magic panacea, there’s a point to be made. Brooklyn is doing Simmons no favors with his current role.
For example, the two-man formation of Simmons and Claxton has a net rating of minus-18.7. Meanwhile, the two-man lineup of Simmons and backup great 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 hurdles still too much for half-court maestros Durant and Irving to overcome. A significant part of the problem is Simmons himself, who has looked lethargic and/or slow to react at times, not quite playing with the pace and decision required for an off-the-ball role. (Draymond Green– an oft-quoted Simmons composition – 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, including 102 next to Claxton or Sharpe. That means he’s only played 15 times as the only non-shooter/big/center, and he probably deserves a longer look in that storyline.
The Nets actually went small for a significant portion of Wednesday’s game. The results were mixed, but no doubt promising. To end the first half, a lineup of Simmons, Durant, Irving, O’Neale and Yuta Watanabe outscored the Bucks by eight points in less than five minutes. To close the match, with Joe Harris in place of Watanabe, Brooklyn was trailing five points in just over five minutes. These are obviously small samples. The Nets’ process in those minutes felt good, though. It was easier for Durant and Irving to chase mismatches. And while letting them dance so much one-on-one might not be the best long-term plan, as long as Nash wants to do it, playing smaller lineups at least creates more space. Overall, Simmons was a plus-2 on Wednesday, the only starter with a positive plus/minus.
There is a defensive concern with these groups. Most nights, though, when the Nets aren’t playing with guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo Where Joel Embid, they should have enough size between O’Neale, Durant and Simmons to face the opposing frontcourts. Having a healthy Harris would also help. He’s played in recent games and his production should theoretically improve as he returns to 100 per cent after dealing with left foot issues since last season.
In other words, the Nets must try Something. Current combos do not work. And Simmons, who is coming back from both back surgery and mental health issues, isn’t playing freely enough. On paper, going small could force Brooklyn to play with a bit more pace, which in turn could put Simmons in an open space, where in the past he usually made good decisions. (For what it’s worth, surely Nash and his coaching staff figured it out themselves. I doubt they read IF for coaching advice. Which means Simmons has to take responsibility here too, whether it’s his willingness to step into that smallball five role or what he’s shown in practice.)
Ultimately, whatever the situation, it will be a work in progress, as Irving confirmed after the Bucks’ loss.
“You guys keep coming here, asking me, like, ‘What about Ben?’ He hasn’t played in two years,” Irving said after the game. “Give him a 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’s been too talented and too efficient for too long for me to believe he can’t contribute at all anymore. He also needs help. And while letting Simmons cook in the center isn’t a panacea for all the Nets’ ills, it’s an option that probably merits further consideration.
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