.The Nets have been hitting on all cylinders, ratcheting their winning streak to eight games with an impressive beat-down of the Bucks. One of the standouts in this stretch has been their X-factor, Ben Simmons. Just weeks ago, skeptics (many, though by no means all, were Sixers trolls who couldn’t let go of the hate) questioned whether Simmons even belonged in the NBA. Now he is showing flashes of his past all-star form and more, giving Nets fans plenty of reason to look forward to the New Year.
It is hardly surprising that Simmons has needed time to work himself back from a missed 2021-22 season and summer back surgery. He was clearly ailing in the first six games of the season, despite averaging over 32 minutes per game. He missed the next four games with knee soreness, then played 11 of 12 before another four-game break. Tracking his performance from the first six games (October) to the next 11 (November) and then the most recent six after his second break (December) provides a good sense of where he’s improved and where he stands now relative to his most recent full season (with the Sixers in 2020-21).
By November, the Nets’ offensive and defensive ratings with Simmons on the court were already pretty comparable to his numbers with the Sixers. In December his offensive rating soared, producing a remarkable net rating of +19.4. Of course, that’s not all Ben’s doing; the whole team has been playing at a high level. But the only rotation player with a (slightly) better offensive rating during the Nets’ eight-game winning streak is Nic Claxton, and the only player with a better defensive rating is also Claxton. (In 62 minutes together during this stretch, Claxton and Simmons have a spectacular +33.0 net rating; so much for the problem of playing two non-shooters together.)
Simmons’ versatility has allowed him to play a somewhat different role with the Nets than he did with the Sixers, scoring less but rebounding and facilitating more. His shot attempts per 100 possessions have increased significantly over the course of the season, but they haven’t and probably won’t get back to where they were in Philadelphia.
In a preseason interview with JJ Redick, Simmons joked about how foolish it would be for him to take shots when the alternative is to pass the ball to Kevin Durant. That refreshingly sensible assessment seems even more astute given Durant’s insane shooting this season.
And pass the ball he has. In his past six games, Simmons has averaged 13.3 assists per 100 possessions. (For the season, only Tyrese Haliburton, James Harden, and Chris Paul have averaged more than 13.) Moreover, he’s run the offense with remarkable efficiency, logging just 3.6 turnovers per 100 possessions over that period. On a team with plenty of shooters but no other true point guard, Simmons’ most valuable offensive contribution will be to set up his teammates.
So what remains on the to-do list?
The Nets have played at a faster pace when Simmons is on the court, but they still haven’t matched the pace of his Sixers teams. One of the little-noted bright spots of their current winning streak is that they’ve led the league in fast break points, with 19.5 per 100 possessions. If they can continue to snag defensive rebounds at an average-or-better rate, as they have lately, Simmons should be able to keep them at or near the top in that category.
Simmons’ shooting touch is improving. For the season he’s shooting .492 from 3-10 feet and .429 from 10-16 feet, both significant improvements over his numbers with the Sixers (.411 and .295, respectively). However, some of those floaters and hook shots have come at the expense of taking the ball to the hoop; just 46% of his field goal attempts this season have been within 3 feet of the rim, compared to 54% in Philadelphia. As a result, his free throw attempts are way down—a bigger problem than the much-noticed fact that he’s missed more than he’s made.
On the defensive end Simmons has been an increasingly effective disruptor, logging even more steals than he did in Philadelphia. However, he is still committing fouls at a much higher rate, including a lot of touch fouls. Not yet trusting himself physically? Still learning what to expect from his teammates? Probably some of both. In any case, he has work to do to return to the level of a first-team all-defensive player.
One big question is whether Simmons’ minutes will continue to be limited to 25 or 26 per game, as they have been for the past two months. He averaged almost 34 minutes per game through four seasons in Philadelphia. He will be a lot more valuable to the Nets playing 30 to 32 than 25 or 26, if his back and body can take the wear and tear.
There is reason to think that Simmons can be even better on both ends of the court than he has been lately. Asked after the Bucks game about his aggressiveness going to the basket, he responded, “People forget how back surgery is not something that’s just, automatically you’re good and you’re able to go out there and be yourself. It’s something that I’m trying to build and just keep adding up, because come playoffs I gotta be that engine to attack and find my guys.”
The thought of Simmons as “that engine to attack and find my guys” through the rest of the season and into the playoffs should bring cheer to the hearts of Nets fans. Happy