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ESSAY: The Brooklyn Nets must be done relying on Ben Simmons

It is not Ben Simmons’ fault that he is injured again, but it should mark the end of his time as a focal point of the Brooklyn Nets

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Prior to the Brooklyn Nets’ November 10th contest against the Boston Celtics, Ben Simmons was downgraded from questionable to out with “left hip soreness,” marking his second consecutive absence. Jacque Vaughn was asked if he was worried about the seemingly minor injury snowballing into something more serious.

“I don’t think we have a point to even, you know, kind of walk down that avenue. He aggravated his hip in the game the other night,” said the head coach. “For me, it’s just that simple. Other players have missed games from aggravation from ankles and shins and hamstrings. It’s all in the same bucket. And so, that’s been the best thing, is Ben has earned the right just like the other players to get hurt, come back, be a player, try to get back on the floor, have the confidence to be a teammate, all those things. I don’t put him differently than any other player.”

Welp. Simmons’ ailment then became a “left hip contusion,” then was revealed to be a nerve impingement in his lower left back, and has now missed four straight contests, a streak that will grow to at least six before a status update next week.

Vaughn was not wrong in his assessment though, at least not all of it: Simmons has earned the right return from injury as other players do, to be accepted in good faith by his coaching staff and teammates. He could suffer consecutive injuries every week for the remainder of his contract with Brooklyn and still retain that right.

But Ben Simmons is not like any other player. It’s time for a change.

I’m as guilty of buying into and repurposing The Ben Simmons Experience as anybody. I posted this one full minute into Brooklyn’s first preseason game:

That makes me no different than the lot of you — we published two stories from Nets Media Day, one exclusively on the unescapable Simmons hype, one on, well, everything else. One article has 172 comments, the other has three.

This isn’t to disparage myself nor fans, both eager to watch a supposedly rejuvenated Simmons, flashes of which we saw in the preseason, embark on an inspiring comeback story for the Nets. What’s the point of having him on your team if you can’t enjoy the hopeful moments?

This current hopelessness, though, feels different. It feels final. Perhaps that’s what makes each valley unique; maybe we’ll all be watching with bated breath whenever Simmons makes his return, hopefully back en route to All-Star level.

But it feels silly to even type those words. Not just because Simmons is currently out with yet another mystifying injury — though the mystery reflects more on the Nets, who waited nearly a week to send a man who’s played 48 games since the 2021 season through an MRI — but because the healthy Simmons experience wasn’t so great either.

The Aussie had been rebounding the ball at the highest rate of his career while sparking the Nets to run in transition and assisting the most 3-pointers on the team; you could argue he had the most significant statistical impact in the three most important areas of Brooklyn basketball.

Jacque Vaughn even called his squad “two different teams” depending on Simmons’ presence prior to the Nets’ 124-104 thumping of the Orlando Magic: “We were top-five, top-six in transition with Ben, bottom-five without Ben, better executing in the half-court without Ben, not with Ben.”

Well, which side of that equation seems easier to fix? Which side of that equation is important to fix?

Both have easy answers. First, just take that Ben-less win over Orlando, where Brooklyn set a season-high with 31 points in transition, sparked by a 44-37 edge on the glass as well as 13 steals. While Simmons’ three steals in six games can be easily dismissed, his rebounding cannot be. Yet, neither can Nic Claxton, who’s not only grabbed 19 misses in 49 minutes upon returning to the lineup, but brought with him more board-friendly drop coverage.

And as for the second question? From the 2016-2023 seasons, the scope of the NBA’s tracking data, only eight teams have totaled at least 20% of their possessions in transition. If the Nets are able to hit the fast-break button just one-fifth of the time, they will be a historically fast-paced team.

Brooklyn cannot afford to sic Simmons on their half-court offense when they’ll be running it at least 80% of the time. His refusal to shoot is now beyond parody, though we cannot expect it to change: Simmons shot 17.4 times per 100 possessions his rookie year, a number that’s fallen in every season since. It’s now down to just nine shots per 100, tied with Alex Len. However, Len is scoring twice as often, thanks to a free-throw line that Simmons has only visited four times this season.

Admirably, Simmons has no problem setting tough screens for his teammates. However, his refusal to roll to the basket negates any potential value that emanates therefrom. Look at Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe create open threes for teammates by simply diving toward the rim:

Is the intent of this article to kick Simmons when he’s down, a time-honored NBA tradition? No it is not. Rather, I’m arguing that this injury should signal a shift in the Brooklyn Nets’ treatment of their highest-paid player.

The effort to not just integrate Simmons into the starting lineup, but to make him a focal point as the primary ball-handler, was not doomed from the start. But it must end. Jacque Vaughn and the Nets cannot hamstring the talents of their roster to accommodate a Simmons. Not only does he have heaps of work to do in becoming even an average offensive player, but his presence on the court is far from guaranteed, as his health appears to be tragically deteriorating at 27.

Nobody benefits from Simmons returning as a starter, or even a high-minute player. Cam Thomas, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson are learning how to be high-profile offensive creators; why should they have to work against defenses that are free to ignore Simmons and cramp the lane? Why should Nic Claxton in a contract year see his numbers suffer because he can’t roll into space or showcase his burgeoning offense skillset?

Heck, why doesn’t Brooklyn simply encourage Claxton to bring the ball up the floor when he grabs a board to ignite transition offense, or allow him to work from the mid-post area more often? Just this season, we’ve seen Claxton operate as far more of a matchup nightmare and create attempts at the rim, even though he’s played in just three games:

Trendon Watford would also relish such opportunities, having cracked the fringes of the rotation just before his 23rd birthday. A restricted free agent next summer, wouldn’t Watford and his employer each benefit from allowing him to showcase the point-forward skillset we looked forward to from Simmons?

Perhaps Ben Simmons isn’t facing a long-term injury, as his agent Bernie Lee says, and as Brian Lewis of the New York Post reported after consulting with a back specialist:

But lost in the relief was Lewis’ other point retrieved from his interview with the orthopedist: the back injury could be recurring.

In a month's time, Simmons could be back on the court and steadily improving his play, and this could all read as an over-reaction, desperately piling on a guy who did nothing wrong but get injured.

But I’m not arguing for the Nets to exile Simmons à la the Houston Rockets and John Wall. Simmons is owed a max-deal through the end of next season. The Nets, meanwhile, aren’t desperate to forfeit picks to dump his contract; it’s not like that’s the only move between Brooklyn and the Larry O’Brien.

Simmons isn’t going anywhere. It’s in both parties’ best interest to maintain a stable working relationship, and that’s likely why the Nets will welcome Simmons right back into the starting lineup when healthy.

They just shouldn't. The success of the 2023-’24 Brooklyn Nets cannot depend on Simmons, and based on a fun 6-5 start, it doesn’t have to. Nic Claxton is rebounding, as is Day’Ron Sharpe. Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonnie Walker are flying in transition, while Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale are each playing the best offense of their careers.

Should Simmons return in decent health, there is a role for him to play, ideally as a low-minute, spark-plug point-center that pushes the pace relentlessly. Will max-contract politics allow for that? Probably not.

But the Brooklyn Nets have to stick with what works. That’s not going to be a major role for Ben Simmons. It’s time to call it.