Will Ben Simmons at center be Brooklyn’s death lineup? And is the model for him at the 5 one Draymond Green?
The Nets have made it clear that Simmons at the center position is no pipe dream. Almost as soon as Brooklyn acquired the 6’11” 26-year-old with skills to play a number of positions, Steve Nash said playing the 5 was an option for him in addition to the point guard. The reason: the Nets are planning what has to be the biggest small ball lineup in history, five starters with an average height of 6’8” and a wingspan three inches longer.
Small ball has brought much success to the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty for the past seven years, with Green acting as facilitator and defender. Teams all over the NBA have tried to adapted and counter this strategy. Yet, no other team has proven to do so effectively other than the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016.
Finding all the right pieces to complement each of the other pieces in a small ball lineup is hard to come by, however. Still, the Nets now find themselves with the next big thing in Simmons returning from injury and according to various reports ready to play.
As Brian Lewis reported last month, Simmons has played some minutes at center over his years in Philadelphia. In his four healthy seasons, Simmons spent 8.1, 10.9, 6.5 and 7.6 percent of his defensive possessions playing center, according to advanced league data Lewis found. The breakdown was fairly similar on offense over those four years: 6.7, 8.2, 7.5 and 7.2 percent. And at times when Philly was without Joel Embiid, he shined.
In fact, when Embiid was sidelined with a knee injury in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, the Sixers relieved him. The 76ers closed the fourth quarter of Game 3 vs. Brooklyn with Simmons at center. As Lewis noted, 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.
More than one basketball mind has suggested that Simmons’ role in Brooklyn could be analogous to how Green plays in San Francisco. Rick Pitino, the former Knicks, Celtics and University of Kentucky head coach, is one of them.
“Every team needs a Draymond Green and I think Simmons probably will serve that role,” he told Adam Zagoria of NJ.com. “He’s the play-maker, he’s the defensive player.”
It would be more than just spacing the way the Warriors utilized a small-ball lineup with Green playing center, Simmons at the 5 could provide the most spacing possible for Brooklyn, putting its agile near seven-footers, Kevin Durant and Nic Claxton, next to near seven-footer Simmons to free up all those shooters.
As for his presence on the defensive end, it is exactly what Brooklyn has been lacking. The last time the Australian played, which was the 2020-21 campaign, he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year votes with averages of two steals and a block. After turning 26-years-old in July, it’s safe to say Simmons has not even reached his peak of what he can do defensively.
At the start of last season, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said of small ball, perhaps pre-saging the Nets current plan for Simmons.
“There are more and more small lineups out there. Every team has more shooting, so you have to cover more ground, which is something Draymond is really good at. Then when we’re on offense, we want to have more shooting, so putting him at 5, having him run pick-and-roll with Steph and shooters around them, that’s tough to guard.”
Similar to Green, Simmons is also good at covering more ground against shooters. His pre-draft agility drill ratings set records. Luckily for the Nets, they also have four shooters that shot 40 percent or better from behind the arc last season: Joe Harris, Seth Curry, Kyrie Irving and Patty Mills, plus two others in T.J. Warren and Edmond Sumner both hit the 40 mark in their last season. Royce O’Neale came in just short at 38.9. If you then factor in Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant running the pick-and-roll with Simmons, you’re looking at a what can be a championship-worthy offense.
The downside of having Simmons at center would be his matchup with elite post players such as his old teammate, Embiid. This will force the Nets to put in Nic Claxton. Having both Simmons and Claxton on the court would not provide much spacing.
Indeed, there are differences between Simmons and Green. Simmons is four inches taller and six years younger. Green has four rings, Simmons has never gotten past the EC semi-finals. But there are similarities, at least on the surface. Green led the NBA in steals in 2018-19, Simmons the following year. Green won Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, Simmons was runner-up in 2021. And while Green’s 3-point shooting is mediocre and Simmons non-existent, Simmons has been the better scorer. Simmons has the better court vision. Green’s nine percent usage at the 5 is close to Simmons’ average before last season.
Brooklyn is, of course, short on traditional big men, Simmons and Durant aside. Simmons along with Nic Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe are the three biggest players currently on the Nets roster. Now, even if you add the Nets’ new acquisitions, 6’9” Markieff Morris and 6’9” Yuta Watanabe to that list, there should still be concern in the interior defense, particularly rim protection.
One thing does seem certain: that a lot of the Nets off-season acquisitions and indeed since the Harden-Simmons trade seem good fits for small ball. They’re younger, more athletic 3-and-D types — and they all can work with Simmons.