Remember the hope that Ben Simmons would make his return after a year-long hiatus from competitive basketball towards the end of last season? In retrospect, it seems that hope had less to do with Simmons’ own progress, and more to do with the fact that the Brooklyn Nets were reeling from James Harden’s departure, desperate for reinforcements heading into the playoffs.
Remember when that well of hope officially ran dry? It was just before Game 4 against the Boston Celtics when Shams Charania announced that Simmons was out, yet again, with back soreness. Read some of these comments from that day, where the masses of NetsDaily set a site record for hate directed at a player who hadn’t yet made his Nets debut. It was likely an Internet-wide record.
I’m not here to make assumptions about Simmons’ competitive spirit, or say that any Brooklyn fan’s reaction was in poor taste or anything. Especially while in crisis mode, about to get fully punked by the Boston Celtics, especially when the national analysts of the NBA world were saying the same things about the one-time Australian prodigy. I’m just saying it was probably a good thing that Simmons didn’t play, considering he was trying to work through a self-described ‘mental block’, in addition to the debilitating back injury. What good could have come from him standing on the court, eliciting groans from his home crowd after not shooting the ball? He had to make his Nets debut then, and take part in an inevitable destruction at the hands of a superior team?
Most of the discussion of Ben Simmons heading into this season, way back in the fall of 2022, centered around patience. Much more logical. The Brooklyn Nets would have time to build a contender, and after a now-year-and-a-half off from ball, Simmons would have time to take the inevitable lumps at regular speed.
Practicing patience, though, is a whole other thing than preaching it, and it was tough for Nets fans to watch a one-time All-Star lock occasionally struggle to look like an NBA player. But we are at all the All-Star break, and the Brooklyn Nets have played two-thirds of their season; Ben Simmons has appeared in 42 games; he started 33 of them. Thus, it’s time for the first long-term look at the progress he’s made upon returning from injury.
And I have some bad news. It’s still tough to watch.
I don’t know where the Ben Simmons of November 15th to November 25th has gone. In that eleven-day stretch, he played in all six Nets games, averaging 31 minutes and 15.5 points a night. Just a month into the season, it appeared he was firmly on the right track - forget the numbers, Ben was doing stuff like this, a fake hand-off into this finish:
Not only does Young Socialite embrace the contact there, but as any Brooklyn fan can attest to, a lefty finish at the rim practically counts as using his off-hand - seemingly every other Simmons attempt in the paint this season has been a right-handed hook shot.
Three days after the completion of that stretch, the former #1 overall pick exited a contest vs. the Orlando Magic after just 11 minutes of playing time due to, officially, ‘knee soreness’. Nothing has been the same since:
- December: 7.6 PPG
- January: 5.7 PPG
- February (so far): 3.6 PPG
The infamous passed-up shot against the Atlanta Hawks during Simmons’ tenure in Philadelphia featured him at his lowest — just picture the highlight dunks he threw down in a Sixers uniform. Not challenging Trae Young at the rim encapsulated his struggles during that series; it was a cartoonishly poor moment. But it wasn’t representative of the player he was in Philadelphia over four seasons.
Well, it’s representative of who he is right now, far removed from that stretch in November. He shot 20 free-throws over those six games; he’s shot a total of 24 free-throws since, with a few of them due to from Hack-a-Ben. Moments like these happen almost regularly now:
I won’t waste time inserting more clips of Simmons passing up shots at the rim — you can imagine what they look like, if they’re not seared into your brain already. He seems more passive in dynamic situations: driving the lane, rolling to the rim, picking up the ball off a scramble, pushing in transition. His shot attempts largely come in the from of slow, deliberate isolations which don’t showcase any of that special combo of size and athleticism that stamped his best moments in Philadelphia. There is a marked hesitation to go full-speed right now, and scoring isn’t on his mind.
Paul Reed is guarding him here, and instead of using the space he’s given to load up into a drive, to generate momentum before he catches the ball, Simmons doesn’t look at the basket until it’s the only option left, capping off the play with a drive fading away from the rim:
This general passivity is killing Brooklyn’s offensive flow, and it shows up in more ways than just the obvious “hey, he should have probably shot that.”
Simmons leading the transition attack has not been as fruitful as expected, largely because opponents don't have to worry about him taking it all the way to the basket. While he does make some valuable kick-ahead passes to start a break, he’s generally looking to get rid of the ball like it’s burning his hands, and opponents have caught on:
Off the ball
Ben Simmons playing off the ball is providing mixed results right now, where he’s a more-than-willing screener, which can open up good looks for teammates. However, screening, rather than cutting and rolling to the basket, is his main interest right now. It feels like he’s disregarding opportunities to collapse the defense when he’s off-the-ball.
Take a look at this play, one that’s scripted by Brooklyn’s coaching staff, where a real cut to the rim by Simmons pays off:
(Patty Mills sure does seem excited from the bench!) And of course, if the last help defender does make that rotation, we know Ben can make that skip pass to the opposite side of the floor (example).
Unfortunately, Ben hasn’t shown himself to be an eager cutter, most of the time. There is a ton of screening in situations like these, which have led to mixed results:
That, to be fair, is a good screen — a recent positive is that he’s been a down-and-dirty, physical screener — and it results in a good look for Brooklyn. But that's largely due to how poorly Max Strus plays the screen, and it doesn’t seem like the best use of potential spacing. Say Simmons cuts to the rim there. Strus, then, has to make a choice on who to stay with, or see if he can successfully split the difference. Point being, an open three for Cam Johnson is still viable, but so is an open lay-up for Simmons. If Strus simply reacts to the above screen better, neither option is available.
Again, the play itself is fine, but this is, for now, all he’s interested in doing off the ball, and it’s limiting how much pressure an already-perimeter-oriented Brooklyn team can apply to the rim. Often, there is nobody left to screen, which results in Simmons simply standing around the perimeter; bottom line, he’s not attacking defenses with or without the ball right now. On a team suddenly hurting for shot creation, Ben Simmons’ offense is doing them no favors.
There have, however, been signs of production, even in this limited state, for Ben 10. These have come when he’s surrounded by, you guessed it, four shooters. And the more shooters that can nail shots off-movement, the better. This unlocks value from the dribble-handoffs that Ben Simmons frequents, turning them into true advantage situations. This sort of line-up was deployed in a recent game against Philadelphia, and featured a few crisp possessions in a row to start the second quarter, even including Simmons rolling down the lane on a cleared-out side:
BKN's first five possessions of the second quarter was the best any Ben + four shooter lineup has looked this season. It helps when shots are falling, but the pace and spacing was excellent, IMO pic.twitter.com/7l5eU1tEZ2— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) February 12, 2023
It would behoove Brooklyn to ease Simmons into these sorts of situations, to prepare for opponents whose bench lineups cannot take advantage of the lack of size similar five-somes of Nets may offer. Following this season, the Aussie has two more max-scale years left on his contract; he's going to be a cornerstone for that time period. Like it or not, the Nets might as well commit to putting him in situations where he may thrive, or at the very least, contribute.
We’re going to talk about the athleticism now, through the eyes of his defense. Ben Simmons’ defense is still solid, but far from spectacular. That’s because the rare explosiveness and lateral quickness he packed into his 6’10” frame has not returned to pre-injury levels. I’m not a chiropractor, I don’t know what it means for his long-term future that we’re approaching the fifth month of his return to NBA basketball, and he’s merely an okay athlete, rather than an outstanding one (by NBA standards, duh). It’s entirely possible that at the start of next season, the burst is back.
But right now, it isn’t there, and it’s limiting his defense more than any of the questions about his mindset at the other end of the floor. Simmons recognizes what’s going on early in this play, and yet, he can't come up with the steal because he hardly gets off the ground:
That play in particular is tough to watch. This 2021 article cites Ben Simmons as averaging 141 dunks per season over his first two years, which would’ve been the 10th-highest seasonal average this century. 10th-highest, and he largely handled the ball out on the perimeter with the Philadelphia 76ers! You think he’s choosing to jump like Nenad Krstić on that play? That he doesn’t want it enough?
By no means is the story of his career closed. But Ben Simmons is 26 years old, a month and ten days older than Mikal Bridges, a little younger than Cam Johnson. If, and it’s truly a big if right now, his body is starting to fail him in an irreparable way, that, even with all the drive in the world, he won’t get back to the heights he once soared to because his body won’t let him...that’s sad. I don't really know how else to say it, but that would be damn sad, regardless of one’s opinion on Simmons.
He cannot perform the defensive feats that he once did out on the perimeter, though he does try. That intense ball-pressure Ben once consistently applied to opponents is not an effective option for him right now. He doesn’t have the lateral speed to hound them from side-to-side. When he does try, he gets blown-by far more often than he once did. Here he is getting picked off on an admittedly nice inverted ball-screen by Duncan Robinson while guarding Bam Adebayo on the perimeter:
But why does he get picked off? Well, because as soon as Bam Adebayo starts his drive, Simmons takes a step diagonally, rather than horizontally. He’s not planning in getting into Adebayo’s body and pressuring his dribble as he once could. That space between him and the ball-handler allows for a much more effective screen to be set.
Not the most uplifting article I’ve ever written, I know. What newly-extended Jacque Vaughn and the Nets do with Ben Simmons’ minutes in the playoffs is anybody’s guess. Can you really flat-out bench forty million bucks? Is that on the table right now? It seems like it is some nights, like when Simmons received just 13 minutes against the New York Knicks. How much improvement is enough improvement to where the coaching staff trusts him to play 30 vital minutes? Can he get back to that November form? Why did it go away? How does Nic Claxton’s emergence complicate all this?
Yeah, there are a lot of questions surrounding Ben Simmons, questions only he can answer through his play. There have been signs this season, undoubtedly. He's still a smart, unselfish player on the court, willing to set meaty screens and look for shooters on handoffs and kick-outs. It's just, you wish he’d do a little less of that and try to dunk on somebody instead. Nets fans just want to see Simmons play with a little reckless abandon, to go full-speed, to provide just one ‘wow’-moment. Are we asking for too much? Who knows?
What we do know is this: On most nights, he isn’t providing positive impact for the Nets. Now two-thirds of the way through this season, there is major cause for concern regarding Ben Simmons’ progress on his lengthy road back from injury. And while there have already been major ups and downs on his path in Brooklyn, we just have to hope he’s not at the end of it yet.