Ben Simmons and head coach Steve Nash each have said the Nets need the unique young star to be the engine of the team for them to win.
But after 16 months away from the game, that motor looked predictably rusty in the Nets’ opening two games of the season.
Simmons mustered just four points and fouled out against the Pelicans on Wednesday night in his first official game since June 20, 2021. It’s no coincidence that the Nets lost by 22. He was better in Friday night’s narrow win over the Raptors, putting up six points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, but also went quiet for stretches as the Nets were outscored by three points in his 32 minutes.
The Nets claim the cure for what ails Simmons is just time.
They have no choice but to hope that.
“I just think he’s rusty,” Nash said this week. “The guy hasn’t played in over a year. He’s still getting used to referees, defense and offense. This is process. … He’s showed glimpses of the player we know he is and can be. But it’s not easy. We’re here to support him. We’re here to push him, coach him up and try to get him to a place where he can play at the level he’s played in the past.
“As long as he continues to build his confidence, play hard and play with force, we’re fine with him making mistakes as he grows into this.”
That’s part of what’s been concerning about Simmons’ performance through the preseason and the start to the regular season: He hasn’t played with that force.
The Nets would take him making mistakes in order to have him making plays. But the three-time All-Star has been far too timid — at least on offense.
Indeed, the Nets are having to prod Simmons into offensive aggression, the same complaints he heard in Philadelphia. Whether the Nets handle Simmons better than the 76ers did or he’s more receptive to coaching — or, in a perfect world, both — it will be the key to his development.
‘It’s not going to happen overnight’
The Nets traded three-time scoring champion James Harden — one of the most prolific offensive players of his generation – to the 76ers to acquire Simmons at last season’s trade deadline. But Simmons — who had been sitting out in Philadelphia citing mental health issues — arrived in Brooklyn with a bad back.
A herniated disk forced Simmons to miss the rest of last season, and eventually required a microdiscectomy operation in May. It took a summer of recovery and rehabilitation to get Simmons ready to return to an NBA court.
And even when he did, he hasn’t quite returned to his old, uber-athletic All-Star self.
He took just three shots in Game 1, only one during the first half as the Nets fell behind by 18. That ticked up to five field-goal attempts in Game 2, including first-quarter buckets on a running hook shot and a floater in the lane.
“It takes time,” Simmons said this week. “Having back surgery and being away from the game for a year, there’s little things that your mind might tell you to go [do] something, but your body’s not wanting to go do that.
“[There’s] a focus that I need to have every day coming in, whether it’s playing at a pace, [guarding] certain guys, physically being there,” he added. “I understand and accept that responsibility for this team. It’s not going to happen overnight. Gradually build towards that.”
With stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the fold — and 3-point deadeyes Joe Harris and Seth Curry returning from injuries — the Nets don’t need Simmons to drain jumpers. But they do need him to create them for others, something he can do as well as any player in the league. And he does that by attacking the rim.
He did far too little attacking in the preseason and the opening two games. Whether he makes steady progress or it happens in fits and starts, Simmons has to get back to going downhill.
“That’s the message we’ve been giving him all along: Just to be able to put pressure on the defense, whether it’s throwing the ball ahead, pushing in transition or trying to break the paint every chance he gets,” Nash said. “In the halfcourt as well. He can also do so as a roller, creating off [dribble handoffs] and pick-and-rolls. So there’s multiple ways that he can get in there and create problems.
“I think that the goal is and I think the vision is for him to be the engine of this team on both sides of the ball.”
Simmons said, “If I’m not aggressive, this team’s not going. … I’ve got to be the motor.”
The ghosts of Philly
Criticism over Simmons looking entirely too timid on offense dates back to his time with the Sixers.
He’s always been a shaky free throw shooter (career 59.7 percent), but as his struggles deepened (33.3 percent) in the 76ers’ Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Hawks in 2021, Simmons passed up a dunk attempt in the fourth quarter of Game 7 — seemingly for fear of being sent to the foul line. The 76ers lost to the Hawks, and Simmons lost the backing of the team.
When 76ers coach Doc Rivers was asked after the elimination game whether he felt Simmons could be the point guard for a championship team, he answered, “I don’t know the answer to that right now.” Simmons’ relationship with 76ers star Joel Embiid grew strained. And when he eventually requested a trade, Simmons’ relationship with the city turned to pure hatred.
In the end, the Nets are happy with the trade they made. Team owner Joe Tsai was willing to bite the proverbial bullet and pay the aging Harden a max contract if it meant having a chance at a title, but once the former MVP demanded a trade, Tsai was pleased with the return general manager Sean Marks brought back, fronted by Simmons.
Fair or fouls
But for Simmons to make good, he can’t be hesitant. While he’s been timid on offense, he started by being borderline reckless on defense.
He fouled out of the preseason finale in Minnesota and again in the regular-season opener against the Pelicans — in just 23 minutes.
“I’ve got to tone it down. I’d be a little too physical over the top. Maybe I’m just excited,” Simmons said before committing just two fouls in Friday’s win. “I’m also trying to set a tone within our team and be that physical guy.”
Considering Simmons was acquired to be the stopper for a team with title aspirations — to slow stars such as Zion Williamson, who dominated him in the opener — the Nets can’t afford to have him take himself out of the game.
“We told him in the locker room: he’s a valuable piece for us and we need him out there, and fouling out is not an option,” Irving said. “Playing aggressive is something that we want him to do, but we also want to play smart. And we can hold each other accountable like that in that locker room, which I’m glad for.”
After Durant’s offseason face-to-face meeting with Nash and Marks forced the Nets into a serious self-audit, they claim a heightened sense of accountability and responsibility is being fostered. Being able to embrace Simmons while giving him tough love and real coaching — and him being able to accept it — is key to that project. For his part, Simmons said he felt supported.
“Just keep encouraging him, keep being good teammates — pretty simple,” Durant said. “He’s a veteran. We have a long season ahead. … It’s about just bouncing back and coming to work tomorrow and figuring it out.”