John Schuhmann, NBA.com’s longtime advanced stats writer (and founder of NetsDaily), does one of his patented film studies Wednesday on Ben Simmons and sums things up this way: “There is potential for greatness.”
Here’s the bottom line for Schuhmann: Simmons has skills on both defense ... and offense ... that fill a lot of Brooklyn’s needs: bringing “plus” defense and offering unheralded offense that can fit neatly with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and, as he notes, “two of the top four guys in career 3-point percentage (Joe Harris and Seth Curry).”
Schuhmann starts with the Nets failings — and some mostly forgotten successes — last year before analyzing where Simmons fits.
After the All-Star break last season, the Nets won in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Miami, doing so without Joe Harris or Ben Simmons. They got swept in the first round, but had the most efficient offense (115 points scored per 100 possessions) in the playoffs against what was the league’s best defense. And that was with Durant shooting 39% and Kyrie Irving averaging just 15.3 points over the last three games.
Defense was obviously a problem. The Nets ranked 20th defensively in the regular season and the 119.2 points per 100 possessions that they allowed the Celtics to score in the first round were 8.5 more than Boston scored in any other playoff series. One primary issue was their lack of size on the perimeter. Five of the top seven players in the Nets’ playoff rotation were 6-foot-4 or shorter. The primary defender on Jayson Tatum (6-foot-8) was the 6-foot-4 Bruce Brown, and the two Nets who defended 6-foot-6 Jaylen Brown the most were Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry (both 6-foot-2).
First things first, Simmons fits with the Nets off-season priority (other than settling the KD/Kyrie issues). They’re much bigger with Simmons at 6’11”, T.J. Warren, Yuta Watanabe and Markieff Morris all between 6’8” and 6’9” and the return to health by 6’6” Harris. Royce O’Neale, a solid defender at 6’6”, is also bigger than the players who tried to guard Boston in the playoffs, Schuhmann points out.
Schuhmann notes the usual caveats with Simmons, that he hasn’t played since June 2021 and that he needs to be “ready and able to play.” But it’s potential that is the foundation of his analysis, starting with defense.
With his size, athleticism and fervor for disrupting opposing offenses, Simmons can be a defensive force. The best example of that might be the three steals (one, two, three) he had in the last 15 seconds of a game against Indiana three years ago, turning a one-point deficit into a three-point win.
In 2020-21, Simmons ranked fifth in deflections per game (3.5) and eighth in deflections per 36 minutes (3.9). And opponents shot 41.7% against him, with the differential between that and their expected field goal percentage on those shots (46.2%) being the ninth best among 312 players who defended at least 300 shots.
And he can guard 1-through-5.
Simmons’ size also allows him to guard every position on the floor. Among the six guys he defended most two seasons ago are primary ball-handlers (Malcolm Brogdon and Russell Westbrook), wings and a power forward (Pascal Siakam).
Schuhmann notes that his defense is not perfect, that he needs to control certain tendencies.
Over his last two seasons, opponents scored 0.97 points per possession when they isolated against him. That ranked 82nd among 142 players who defended at least 200 isolations over those two years, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
If he stays in front of his man, he’s generally a menace. But Simmons’ aggressiveness can sometimes get him on the wrong side of the ball …
While there are a lot of highlights of Simmons going coast-to-coast and dunking the ball, Schuhmann’s stats show he can more productive when he passes the ball rather than driving to the rim.
He’s not the most efficient transition scorer. Simmons’ 1.00 points per possession in transition ranked just 108th among 134 players with at least 100 transition possessions two seasons ago. But Simmons is more apt to fuel his team’s transition game with the pass. He ranked second with 6.8 pass-ahead passes per game and third with 2.2 transition assists per 36 minutes in ’20-21, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
He’s consistently got his head up, looking to get his teammates their own early offense. When he pushes the ball up the floor, his teammates can take advantage of a scrambled defense.
Moreover, Schuhmann notes he and the Nets are likely to be running, running, running, pointing out that in his last season with the Sixers, he scored 23 percent of his points in transition. That was the third-highest rate among 233 players who averaged at least 20 minutes per game, Schuhmann wrote. Two other Sixers also made the top five and adds that Edmond Sumner had the highest rate — 31 percent — among 312 players who averaged at least 15 minutes.
That style fits well with the Nets, Schuhmann argues. He points out that despite the Nets getting swept, “the Nets actually led the playoffs in transition efficiency (1.31 points per possession) this year.”
Addressing well-known spacing issues, Schuhmann writes the Sixers didn’t suffer much with him on the floor.
Despite the spacing and fit issues, the Sixers’ starting lineup scored an efficient 121.3 points per 100 possessions over 765 total minutes two seasons ago. That included a remarkable 142.5 per 100 (332 on 233) in the playoffs before Danny Green was lost to an injury.
There are ways to combat a defense that plays off a ball-handler who can’t shoot. Simmons’ size makes him a good screener on a dribble-handoff, and if his defender is sitting back in the paint, he’s unable to contest the receiver.
And on the Nets, dribble-handoffs are something they were quite adept at before Simmons arrival.
Simmons will have some pretty good DHO partners in Brooklyn. Among 138 players who’ve received at least 300 handoffs over the last two seasons, Irving (1.12), Durant (1.10), Curry (1.06) and Harris (1.05) rank second, third, 11th and 16th in team points per chance on those plays.
Schuhmann also addressed Simmons at the 5. Noting that when Simmons played the 5 in Philly, he was often the last resort, with Joel Embiid, Dwight Howard, Tony Bradley or Vincent Poirier on the court.
That said, the Nets can put a more potent centerless foursome around Simmons than Philly did. The Sixers (other than Simmons) that played the most in those no-center lineups were Tobias Harris (182 of the 214 minutes), Curry (171), Danny Green (162) and Scott (132).
Putting five shooters around Simmons can allow him to attack (slower defenders) in space …
Opponents might switch everything against a Simmons-at-the-five lineup, but that could allow Durant or Irving to feast against overmatched defenders.
While all eyes are on Simmons return to Philly on November 22, Schuhmann reminds us that the Nets first preseason game will be against the 76ers on October 3. Assuming all is well and the Nets aren’t resting players, that’s when we will start figuring out just how quickly and how well Simmons will fulfill that potential.
- Film Study: What Ben Simmons brings to Brooklyn - John Schuhmann - NBA.com