At the time of writing, Ben Simmons is somewhere between questionable and probable to face off against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday evening. Should he suit up, it would be his second game as a Brooklyn Net at his former home, where things did not end, uh, amicably.
Brooklyn practiced in Sunset Park before hitting the road on Friday morning, where Simmons was a partial participant, according to Head Coach Jacque Vaughn.
“Yeah, it will be day-to-day, and I guess that’s one day away. And so we’ll see how his response was later this evening. He’ll get treatment and then treatment also in the morning so I hope to see him playing. That’s the inclination for this group, and the hopeful expectation is he’s playing.”
Of course Simmons’ teammates and head coach are hopeful he’ll play. And not because they’re dying to see more hostile hijinks from the Philly fans, but because Simmons’ return against the Utah Jazz was picture-perfect. He recorded a near triple-double with 10/7/11 in just 18 minutes in a 147-114 victory, where Brooklyn’s transition offense was unstoppable.
Transition Offense has to be the main story. Here's why the Nets got so many good looks with Ben back, how he organized them on the break, and what they have to improve on going forward: pic.twitter.com/VuuLkMDW5P— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 30, 2024
Dorian Finney-Smith, who will miss Saturday’s game with his left ankle sprain and is targeting a return date within the week, noticed Simmons’ impact even from the bench: “Playing with somebody like that, where it’s a fast-break every time he touch the ball, guys run. You know, if I’m playing with Ben, I’m for sure going to run to the corner hard trying to get a shot. Cause he gonna give it to you, and he’s gonna be yelling at you if you don’t shoot it.”
“It gives our offense a chance to play against a not-set defense,” said DFS of Ben10’s return, “and that’s an advantage for us.”
Nic Claxton did not share the court much with Simmons against the Utah Jazz — Vaughn spoke about his desire to surround the Aussie with four shooters — but noticed his teammate’s impact nonetheless. The energy, he said, was palpable for all 48 minutes.
“Everybody was just in a rhythm. He was creating open shots, open opportunities for our shooters and they were all getting clean looks. The spirits were definitely high.”
The Nets will need that boost against a team they haven’t beat in a while, in a building that’s caused them problems. Including the first round of last year’s playoffs, Brooklyn has lost nine straight games to Philly and four straight in Wells Fargo Arena.
Claxton was blunt about the situation: “We’ve been losing to them a lot. We got swept, we lost to them earlier in the season. So there’s definitely an added motivation for us to come out and get a win. It’s an Eastern Conference opponent, and we’re tired of taking L’s to them.”
If the Nets want to turn their fortunes against Philly around, they must lock in on defense. Brooklyn was the NBA’s eighth-best defense in January, but now must navigate the return of Simmons. The two-time All-Defense First Team selection is no liability on that end, but for now, he’s sharing a front-court with Royce O’Neale, leaving Brooklyn vulnerable in the paint and on the glass when he's out there.
Defense with Ben at the '5' is going to be a challenge, mostly because of size concerns on the interior, but also the rotations necessary to keep offenses out of the paint: pic.twitter.com/FnlszVN5hh— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 31, 2024
“It’s going to be interesting,” said Vaughn of his team’s defense with Simmons. “He gives us the versatility. You saw the other night just in a situation with [Jusuf] Nurkić, without Doe, Ben or [Day’Ron Sharpe], another big body to clean up some of the scrap from switching. It’s hard to do. And Ben allows us to do that so he can guard [Tyrese] Maxey, but he also can guard Paul Reed and be able to protect the rim for us.”
While Vaughn may be overestimating Simmons’ abilities a tad — he was never a plus-value rim protector, even at his athletic peak — there’s no doubt the 6’10” point-forward would have at least been another body to throw at the Phoenix Suns’ Jusuf Nurkić, who rampaged his way to 28-and-11 with most of those stats coming in Claxton’s bench minutes.
The Brooklyn Nets won’t make 21 threes on 48% shooting every time Ben Simmons touches the floor. He presents a tough decision for the head coach, whether to play him with another non-shooting big or risk downsizing too much on the other end. And of course, the half-court offense has a ways to go, and it would even if Simmons hadn’t just missed 38 straight games:
Half-court Offense, as you might expect, was a mixed bag. The positives mostly came from Ben's offensive rebounding, but the spacing was a concern even without another non-shooter on the court: pic.twitter.com/n7EMXB6wnA— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 30, 2024
But no Nets fan, player, or coach would suggest the team is better off without their max-contract player. Their 19-28 record includes a 4-3 stretch with Simmons on the court, the fourth of those wins being the best game Brooklyn played all season.
So, as the Nets head south on I-95 to their house of horrors, they’ll be hoping Ben Simmons can make his return to the court. Again.