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Can Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton co-exist? The latest numbers say, yes

2022-2023 Brooklyn Nets Media Day Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s increasingly difficult to find positives in losses. The Nets need real victories. They’re 9-11 and can’t ever seem to get over the hump. That said, when was the last time two Nets teammates were 14-of-14 from the floor, as Ben Simmons (8-of-8) and Nic Claxton (6-of-6) were last night. They also garnered 20 rebounds and six blocks. The two 6’11” athletes, aged 26 and 23, were a bright spot in the Pacers loss.

Still, there remains a debate about whether Brooklyn can play two non-shooters, or to put it more accurately, two shooters with ranges ending at five feet, on the court at the same time. There are obvious advantages. Both are very good defenders whose shot blocking abilities provided a deterrent for those opponent guards and forward wanting an easy path to the rim. Do not go there.

“We’re going to be better when we’re on the floor together — when we learn to coexist and spacing, just knowing where to be, where he wants the ball,” Simmons said this week,

“I think it’s over time learning what we need. Defensively, we’ve got to be the anchors of this team. [Claxton] has got to protect the rim. He’s got a tough job, but he’s capable of it. And defensively we’ve got to get stops, rebounds.”

Now, comes Brian Lewis with a Post Sports+ analysis of their effect on the Nets both offensively and defensively. The numbers spat out of the NBA computers show some positives for the future.

Through the Nets’ first 14 games — five of which Simmons missed due a swollen left knee — they were minus-32 in 97 minutes with the pair together. Their net rating in those minutes was a horrid -13.2.

But after sitting out the Nov. 13 loss at the Lakers to rest his knee, Simmons has been better, as has his budding partnership with Claxton.

In the next five games before Friday — Claxton missed one — the Nets were plus-21 in the pair’s 47 minutes. Their 27.6 net rating was the fourth-best of any Nets two-man lineup that had logged at least 10 minutes and second-best of any tandem of starters behind only the Claxton-Irving pairing.

So in those last six games, not only can they play together. They can, given the right circumstances, play well together. As Lewis also points out, it is a work-in-progress.

“It’s still early for this group,” Vaughn said. “They really haven’t played together. And Ben, as you see, is just feeling better physically, which is helping us. For him to go coast-to-coast and get easy basket for us, to push the pace for us, to get open shots for everybody else … they’re learning how to play with him and play with his pace. So hopefully we’re growing. Those combinations are going to change as we get healthier, and they’ll continue to play better with each other.”

The key, Vaughn said in taking advantage of their defense while having them play alongside Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and their 3-point shooters, is spacing.

“We do have to work through some spacing. We’ll try to play fast,” Vaughn told Lewis earlier in the week. “Nic has that ability to run the floor and play fast, so hopefully we won’t have a bunch of sets in the halfcourt that we’ve got to make our way through.”

Things looked good in Toronto, but the Nets were up against a team that was missing almost all their star players and hadn’t played much together. Still, as Lewis notes:

Simmons was the spryest and most mobile he’s been as a Net, and Claxton’s ability to run the floor created mismatches. The Nets didn’t get drawn into a halfcourt slugfest, but even facing set defenses, Simmons’ sublime passing and Claxton’s ability as a lob threat and screener was effective.

Increasingly, the Nets are using Simmons as their lead guard but he finds his way to the dunker’s spot as well. He is also the back-up center on defense in some lineups. Markieff Morris who has won a spot in the rotation as their backup thinks it can work.

“We’ve just got to keep emphasizing we’re not the biggest team — as in bigger bodies — but we are long, athletic,” Morris told Lewis. “And we have to use that to our advantage. We got to put bodies with eyes and just go over top of them.”

There are other issues confined to the duo like how foul-prone they are, racking up 11 personals and a technical between them. At this point, there isn’t much of an alternative, so it has to work out.