So you want to be a starter?
“That’s my preference, yeah.”
All that tick, play any type of minutes, don’t even sit?**
“Even though I have the restriction, that’s where I want to be. I want to be starting. You know, I’m more useful starting than off the bench.”
Following his third game back from the nerve impingement that led to 38 consecutive absences, Ben Simmons made his feelings known. Regardless of injury maintenance or minutes restrictions, he wants to start. Can you tell?
In the game, the Brooklyn Nets’ 119-107 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Simmons got his wish. However, it was granted under extenuating circumstances. Regular starters Cameron Johnson and Dorian Finney-Smith missed the game with injuries, though are expected back in the lineup relatively soon.
But debating whether Simmons should start is putting the cart before the horse. We have to first analyze how he’s looked in his return (and temporarily ignore the politics of benching a max-contract player).
So, we know Ben10 improves Brooklyn’s transition offense greatly; not only do they run faster and more frequently, but it’s organized. Simmons handles and makes hit-ahead passes, shooters fill lanes. It all clicks.
Time for the buzzkill. Per Cleaning the Glass, 17.4% of the Los Angeles Lakers’ possessions start with a transition play. That’s the highest mark in the league. In other words, even if the Nets hit the fast-break button on 1-out-of-every-6 possessions, they’d be running a lot.
In the half-court, Simmons has to be better that what he’s shown, no matter how his minutes are being distributed. Forget the jump-shot nonsense. It’s not even about finishing at the rim, though a return to preseason form would be welcome...
We simply did not see this type of aggression from Ben Simmons last season. He does indeed look different: pic.twitter.com/XTkcHYQPAH— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 10, 2023
And before we get to that, the Aussie just has to do a better job staying out of the way.
Jacque Vaughn has discussed manning the dunker spot as a “solution” for Simmons in the half-court. The dunker spot, AKA the very short corner, is a tried-and-true option for non-shooters. Simmons often occupied it in Philly, and Nic Claxton often occupies it in Brooklyn.
Claxton, like many young bigs, struggled with the finer points of the dunker spot early in his career. It’s not just about athleticism, but interior spacing. Two seasons ago, Clax does not make this play, where upon noticing a Johnson drive, he retreats until he nearly has a foot on the baseline...
That bit of interior spacing not only gives Johnson more room to drive, but separates Claxton from his defender, Paul Reed. By the time Reed recovers, Clax is already dunking it on the other side of the basket.
Whether in the dunker spot or not, Simmons has to replicate this effort. It doesn’t matter that he isn’t a prolific finisher at the rim, clogging up driving lanes is just bad for business...
Particularly when Simmons shares the court with Claxton, as he did in Tuesday’s loss to Dallas...
Before making any final judgements, we must have patience. And hey, it’s not like Brooklyn is going anywhere this season. No matter your feelings on the oft-injured Net, he’s only been back four games; four low-minute games, at that. Any player would look a little rusty in terms of finding the right spots on offense, making the right rotations on defense.
And to Simmons’ credit, he’s snagged 10 offensive rebounds in the 52 minutes he’s played, post-nerve impingement. He is a physical screener, though not always willing to roll to the basket after he makes contact with defenders. Vaughn has mentioned his screening and offensive rebounding as other avenues to production in the half-court, as well as catching the ball on the move, which we saw in the preseason...
Very much a fan of Ben being aggressive at the 45-angle when off the ball: pic.twitter.com/5B8RGTOoZq— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 13, 2023
We’re not There yet, though. Forget attacking the basket, forget taking forceful layup attempts, and definitely forget shooting jumpers. Until the Nets and Simmons figure out how to survive in the half-court, there’s no (basketball) reason to re-insert him into the starting lineup next to Claxton.
Who knows where Simmons is at, both physically and mentally? In his truly epic return against the Utah Jazz, his closing act left him with a knee contusion. He went up to block Talen Horton-Tucker’s shot, and pinned it at the top of the square. It was an excellent play, and the type of defense Simmons would be required to play as the biggest Net on the court.
But in the two games following that knee contusion, he looks far less enthused to protect the rim, and Simmons-at-the-5 lineups have gotten punctured on defense in the ways you’d expect...
Play Simmons and Claxton together, and the half-court offense suffers immensely. Separate them entirely, and while that massages some offensive problems, the defense implodes. Mix it up, and Brooklyn’s problems just shift around. Not to mention the Day’Ron Sharpe conundrum (whenever he returns from a left knee hyperextension).
It doesn’t matter whether Simmons starts. His improvement is key. We know he can push Brooklyn into dynamic transition offense, and generate a ton of 3-point looks doing so. Excellent!
Half-court offense is another story. Luckily, Ben Simmons doesn’t have to move mountains to improve. It’s about being in the right spots and showing more effort to do so. That’s what I’ll be watching for going forward.
And yes, I’ll be keeping an eye on those starting lineup announcements.