The word around Ben Simmons has been uniformly positive the last few weeks. His general manager, head coach, his teammates, his agent and league sources (who sound a lot like his agent) have spoken as if one voice on the 27-year-old’s progress in his rehab down at the University of Miami.
Sean Marks has spoken positively about his “physical and mental state,” Jacque Vaughn says he’s “excited” to coach Simmons. Mikal Bridges has told Paul George that Simmons is fully engaged with his teammates ... “He’s the one talking in the chat all the time” and Bernie Lee, the agent, has described Simmons as “legitimately a basketball savant” who could be back at a pre-holdout level of play. The sources have said that Simmons is “100% healthy” and is now moving on to skill work and conditioning.
Simmons, at least from his social media postings, is living the good life in Florida and on its adjacent waters...
Moreover, everyone is saying that the Nets relationship with Simmons, which was not good during last season’s injury-plagued season, has immensely improved, is fully supportive. There have even been hints that the departure of a demanding Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will help him get a fresh start when players gather at HSS Training Center a little more than a month from now. All good ... or is it?
We are talking about Ben Simmons after all. It is always smart to be skeptical of reports of Ben Simmons progress, whether it’s health or 3-point shooting. In the past, fans in Philadelphia and Brooklyn have been disappointed, sometimes sorely. Steve Lichtenstein, formerly of WFAN and now the proprietor of Steve’s Newsletter on Substack, laid out his concerns Tuesday, ranging from the medical to the obvious flaws in Simmons game, most of it related to his lack of offense, particularly his shooting.
If you take off the rose-colored glasses, you have to be more than a tad skeptical.
For even at his best—showcasing elite passing, ballhandling, and perimeter defense thanks to his length and athleticism—Simmons is a flawed player. Comparisons to Denver’s Michael Porter Jr., who needed multiple back surgeries in the early stages of his career before developing into a key piece in the Nuggets’ 2023 NBA Championship run, aren’t 100% appropriate. If there was any slippage in Porter’s game from the procedures, he made it up with his long-range marksmanship—he converted 41.6% of his three-point attempts last season, in line with his career rate.
As Nets fans—and NBA fans in general—know all too well, that is not Simmons’ forte.
The numbers are the numbers as Lichtenstein notes, starting with his free throws. Simmons free throw percentage last season (which ended after 42 games) was 43.9%, a career low. So where his points, rebounds and assists per game. No doubt part of it had to do with the increasing pain load Simmons had to bear before the Nets stopped playing him in mid-February then officially shut him down a month later. But Lichtenstein also notes, accurately, that Simmons issues predate his back surgery (although there is evidence he’s had physical issues with his back going back to 2019-20.)
Specifically, Lichtenstein points to the need for Simmons to be paired with a dominant big man to succeed and in the Nets current situation, the Nets only have Nic Claxton who despite his defensive skills is not Joel Embiid.
During that last 2020-21 season, the Sixers offensive rating with both Simmons and Embiid on the court was 118.2 in 1,164 minutes, a rate which would have led the league that year. In the other runs that Simmons played sans Embiid, none of the Sixers’ five-man lineups scored at a clip above 110 points per 100 possessions (25-minute minimum). Playing 368 minutes next to aging center Dwight Howard was an epic disaster, with Philly posting a 101.4 offensive rating, which was below that of the 30th-ranked Thunder that season.
Alas, the Nets will be going into another season without the type of floor-spacing big man that helps unlock Simmons’ full arsenal. The team was able to overcome having Simmons and a second non-shooter like Nic Claxton on the court simultaneously last season because the offense could always rely upon the incomparable one-on-one talents of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to score from every level. In Simmons’ last five games following the trades of both superstars and prior to his shutdown due to the injury setback, the Nets’ offensive rating in the Simmons/Claxton minutes plummeted from 116.3 to 103.9.
Lichtenstein also recounts the issues Simmons had in the infamous 76ers-Hawks series back in 2021 when he addresses the optimistic Nets fan: “Were you also aware that he put up a mere three field goal attempts in 56 fourth quarter minutes during that series? It was as if he was so afraid of getting sent to the free throw line, where he shot 15-for-45 (33.3%) over the seven games, that he pretty much took himself out of the late-game offense.”
Of course, there’s the counter balance, the reason for optimism. In his four years in Philly, Simmons was named to three All-Star teams, two All-Defensive teams and a third team All-NBA selection while finishing as first runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year balloting. Moreover, the 76ers won 50+ games twice in those four years. The Nets in their entire NBA history have won 50+ games once back in 2001-02. In one of those two 50-win seasons, Simmons led the 76ers in win shares.
And as everyone in the Nets orbit knows, the team sees Simmons as the lynchpin along with Bridges, another DPoY runner-up, of a defensive machine. Sean Marks & co. have prioritized “D” in their limited actions this summer. As Matt Usher an NBA analyst pointed out on Monday, the result could be the “makings of ... an absolutely suffocating defense”...
With eight players who ranked in the 80th percentile or better for defensive estimated plus-minus last season, the Nets have the makings of an extremely switchable, absolutely suffocating defense. Here are those eight and their ‘22-23 D-EPM percentile ranks:— Brett Usher (@UsherNBA) July 31, 2023
Dennis Smith Jr. -… pic.twitter.com/kzmGsg0bEd
The questions posed by Lichtenstein — and no doubt others — about Simmons won’t be answered until October when he takes the court in front of 18,000 fans whether it’s in the Nets first preseason game vs. the Lakers in Las Vegas on October 9 or at Barclays Center sometime after October 24.
In the meantime, there will be unrelenting discussions in the fan base (and probably in the front office) about how important Simmons will be to the Nets hopes for 2023-24. That’s a good thing.
- Can A Healthy Simmons Cure What Ails Nets? Be Skeptical - Steve Lichtenstein - Steve’s Newsletter