It was only three seasons ago that Ben Simmons was considered one of the top rising stars in the game, coming off his third consecutive All-Star appearance and a runner-up finish in the Defensive Player of the Year race.
Simmons’ struggles since then have been well documented. Injuries last season limited his effectiveness, but he has declared himself fully back to form this year. Nets coach Jacque Vaughn has confirmed that statement, telling SNY’s Ian Begley that Simmons is 100 percent healthy and has been cleared to return to 5-on-5 practices.
Simmons’ return brings up a conundrum for the Nets — what is the best way to use him? They never really figured out a good role for him last season, contributing in part to his career-low numbers across the board.
The plan for now seems to be to putting Simmons into the starting lineup. Here’s why an off-the-bench role might be a better idea.
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Bringing Ben Simmons off the bench would allow him to play with lineups that fit his skills better
Simmons isn’t the type of player that a coach can plug into any situation. He needs a very specific set of circumstances to be at his best. He struggled when playing away from the ball next to Joel Embiid, but he thrived when the 76ers let him handle the ball with four shooters around him.
The bad news for Simmons is that he will have limited shooters around him again if he starts games for the Nets. Their projected starting five includes two good shooters in Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. But the other two players are Spencer Dinwiddie, a career 33.3 percent 3-point shooter who hit only 28.9 percent of his attempts for the Nets last season, and Nic Claxton, who is a complete non-shooter.
Removing Claxton from the starting lineup to add another shooter isn’t a great option. Vaughn wants to play Claxton and Simmons together, per Begley. Even if that weren’t the case, the Nets don’t have any stretch shooting centers on their roster.
Simmons’ time at point guard, his best position, would also be limited as a starter. Vaughn’s plan is to have Simmons, Dinwiddie and Dennis Smith Jr. share duties as primary ball handlers, per Begley. Dinwiddie was a good facilitator for the Nets last season, averaging 9.1 assists in 26 games. When he has the ball, Simmons will face the same issues that he had with the Sixers.
Bringing Simmons off the bench would immediately alleviate all of these problems. The Nets have a ton of 3-and-D wings that they could play alongside Simmons, such as Bridges, Johnson, Royce O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith. Playing those four with Simmons would give them a switchable lineup and the most shooting that Simmons has ever had around him.
The Nets have roster issues that Ben Simmons could fix by coming off the bench
Finding minutes for all of those wings is going to be the Nets’ biggest problem.
Finney-Smith will likely be pushed out of the starting lineup by Simmons. Finney-Smith is one of the better wings in the league, and he would be starting on most teams. Bringing Simmons off the bench would allow Finney-Smith to excel in his usual starting role.
The Nets also have the worst center depth in the league. Claxton is a solid starter and sleeper candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Behind him are unproven players in Day’Ron Sharpe and Noah Clowney.
That means the Nets will need Simmons to guard opposing centers as much as possible when Claxton sits. Having Simmons come off the bench with size and shooting around him would allow him to play a point-center role. It is one of the few fixes for a very imbalanced roster.
A bench role could lessen the pressure on Ben Simmons
Simmons has been open about the mental health struggles that he has faced. He told The Sydney Morning Herald that he “got into a really dark place” toward the end of his Sixers tenure. And The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported last year that Simmons’ mental health was creating stress that could be a trigger point for his back issues.
Those mental issues could be the biggest thing holding Simmons back. According to Draymond Green, Simmons is the same player that he always was, with one exception — his confidence is shot. Letting Simmons cook while opposing stars are resting, at least until he builds that confidence back up, might be a good idea.
Simmons could be one of the best sixth men in the league. It wouldn’t necessarily be a permanent role, but it would be a worthwhile experiment both for himself and the team.