inside the nets

The Nets’ challenges and creative upside in making the most of Ben Simmons

No matter what happens with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons is all but assured of being a foundational piece of the Nets.

While the ongoing drama surrounding Durant’s trade request — and Irving’s unsure status — has sucked all the air out of the room and dominated almost every headline this offseason, the under-the-radar X-factor for the Nets is getting Simmons back from May back surgery and in the right headspace.

Whether it’s for a title chase or the beginning of a rebuild.

Simmons was the centerpiece of the Nets’ return for trading away former MVP James Harden in February — they also got Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks from the 76ers — and he hasn’t played a single second for them. Simmons first was unavailable in Philadelphia last season due to mental health issues and then was sidelined in Brooklyn due to a herniated disk.

“It is going to be a challenge getting his rhythm back playing basketball,” Curry recently told outlets in Simmons’ native Australia. “But he is a special talent, has all the skills. The Nets need him on the floor.”

The trade front

The Nets, after being swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Celtics, have been shaken by Durant’s trade request, and achieving clarity on Durant and Irving is their foremost need.

As long as Kevin Durant’s trade request lingers for the Nets, it’s hard to know what kind of team they’ll have in 2022-23.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

NBA executives who spoke with The Post said Nets general manager Sean Marks has shown no inclination to move Simmons, whether the Nets are retooling or running it back.

Granted, not having played since June 20, 2021 — Game 7 of the 76ers’ second-round loss to the Hawks, a series in which he shot just 33.3 percent from the stripe — has tanked Simmons’ value.

And because Simmons is signed to a designated rookie extension (which he inked with Philadelphia), the Nets can’t trade for another player on that type of contract. That means Simmons’ presence bars Marks for trading for a litany of stars including Bam Adebayo, Devin Booker, Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zion Williamson.

But whether Marks really believes in Simmons, can’t bring himself to sell a depressed asset or just hasn’t been offered any star whose contract would force him to try to move off Simmons, the result is the same: The Aussie is likely to be in Brooklyn this coming season.

So it behooves the Nets to make the best of it — and that includes figuring how to best make use of him.

Simmons’ skill set

Ben Simmons has been a frequent presence at Barclays Center this summer, sitting courtside to watch Sabrina Ionescu and the Nets’ WNBA sibling franchise, the Liberty.
NBAE via Getty Images

Simmons’ glaring Achilles heel is an inability to shoot. Much of the on-court narrative surrounding the 26-year-old has been about what he can’t do — his playoff struggles at the free-throw line and downright refusal to shoot from behind the 3-point arc (he’s 5-of-34 in four seasons) — but Curry insists the three-time All-Star just needs to double down on all the things he can do: create shots and stop them on the other end.

“I don’t think he needs a jump shot. He’s just got to do what he does best — which is defend, rebound, push the ball, make plays for other people and attack the rim,’’ Curry said. “When you’ve got the size and talent like him, who takes not one but two and sometimes three guys to stop him getting to the rim, that is a lot in itself.

“If he can add knocking down free throws at a higher clip, it’s going to allow him to be unstoppable once he puts his head down.”

“Unstoppable” might be hyperbole, but Curry has seen Simmons at or at least near his best. He was Simmons’ teammate in Philadelphia in 2020-21, when Simmons averaged 6.9 assists per game, finished second in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting and even thrived in limited duty as a smallball center.

Joel Embiid is an all-world player, but their pairing with the 76ers may have limited Embiid and Simmons from maximizing their games.
Getty Images

“He’s a big, big part of this,” Marks said in May. “He fits a lot of holes, plugs a lot of holes that we think we potentially have. With him in there … it’s a different dynamic for his teammates and what they’ll be asked to do in the roles they have to cover, so they can put people in places where they were honestly brought here to do and not try to fill a different role.”

Since making his NBA debut in 2017, Simmons has assisted the seventh-most 3-pointers in the league — and that’s even after missing all of last season. Simmons created 996 3-pointers from 2017-18 through 2020-21, second in the league to Russell Westbrook’s 1,057, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The 76ers largely used Simmons as a 6-foot-11 point guard, and his poor shooting often stagnated the offense and ruined the spacing with Embiid. Finding three shooters to put on the floor with that duo became difficult. The Nets have holdover shooters Curry, Joe Harris and Patty Mills; newcomers Royce O’Neale and Edmond Sumner; plus, for now, Durant and Irving.

Embiid’s presence also may have prevented the Sixers from giving Simmons a more extended look in what may have been his most tantalizing role in the frontcourt: playmaking out of the short roll, causing havoc from the dunker spot, cutting up defenses playing as a smallball 5.

A ‘central’ question

Nic Claxton, re-signed this offseason, currently tops the Nets’ depth chart at center.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The Nets lost center Andre Drummond in free agency. They re-signed Nic Claxton with every intention of playing him, and they also have Day’Ron Sharpe, whom they drafted in the first round a year ago. Still, multiple league personnel told The Post they feel Simmons could be just as good as a playmaking 4 or 5 as he’s been at lead guard. And Claxton is less of an impediment to finding out than Embiid was.

In his four healthy seasons, Simmons spent 8.1, 10.9, 6.5 and 7.6 percent of his defensive possessions playing center, respectively, according to advanced league data. The breakdown was fairly similar on offense: 6.7, 8.2, 7.5 and 7.2 percent.

The Nets got a look at what Simmons could be as a smallball 5 during a 2019 first-round playoff loss to the Sixers. When Embiid was sidelined due to a knee injury, the Sixers closed the fourth quarter of Game 3 with Simmons at center. He responded with the best postseason performance of his career: 31 points on 11-for-13 shooting, nine assists, four rebounds, three blocks and two steals.

Simmons has guarded 1-through-5, but playing more extended minutes at center would require him to provide more rim protection and dirty work than he’s accustomed to. How much playmaking responsibility he has to shoulder depends on whether Irving is still around.

Nets head coach Steve Nash is charged with the tricky work of explaining Simmons’ timetable to return and then figuring out how to deploy him when he gets back on the court.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Po

Bottom line: Simmons has to get back out on the floor. And Nets head coach Steve Nash has to figure out the best way to use him once he does.

“I think he plays both [point guard and center],” Nash said at the end of the season.

“He’s just such a well-rounded, versatile athlete and skilled player that I think it would be limiting to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to handle the ball all the time. You have to facilitate the offense all the time.’ That’s what’s special about him is the varied skills he brings to the table. So, yes, he’ll facilitate and be the point guard. He’ll also sometimes be the center. Other times he’ll be the guy that’s just playing positionless basketball, trying to create offense in the halfcourt. So for me, it’s playing to his strengths, which are varied, and all those things are a part of it.”