In connection with the approach of the 2022-2023 campaign. we delve into some of the players we’re most excited to watch next season. Next up, one of the NBA’s biggest mysteries looking to find itself amid a sea of uncertainty.
For a team that did next to nothing to change their personnel, the Brooklyn Nets really had a high-profile, chaotic offseason.
We don’t need to rehash the stalled contract negotiations and botched sign-and-trade talks that led to Kyrie Irving daring to be different using your player choice. Chances are, you won’t need to brush up on the front office’s months-long standoff with a frustrated Kevin Durant that ended with Durant dropping his trade demand (and his the ultimatum is them or me) to ostensibly restore the commitment to the team he spent the entire offseason trying to dump.
The result is that Brooklyn brings back a virtually identical roster and coaching staff that was eliminated in the first round last spring, with an added dose of tension and interpersonal dysfunction to spice things up.
The biggest difference on the court, aside from Irving likely being a more consistent presence after the local vaccine mandate is repealed, is that Ben Simmons will actually be in the scrimmage. At least that’s the expectation. That was also the expectation last season when the Sixers sent Simmons to the Nets at the trade deadline following his five-month deferral. But Simmons has been sidelined due to a serious back injury and a desire to manage his mental health.
He has since had back surgery in the off-season, which should put him on track to be physically ready for the premiership. Whether he’ll be ready psychologically is another matter, and that’s one of the most pressing questions in the league right now. When Simmons it is possible once he’s back to good physical and mental health, he has the potential to slot in perfectly alongside Durant and Irving, who we now know will at least start the season in Brooklyn.
At defensive center, Simmons would make the Nets a much better team with much more resistance at the point of attack, and he would help address the lack of size and athleticism on the wing that was so evident in their doomed opener. round of the series against Boston. In theory, he’ll also give them a chance to play without a center more often. He’s always been much better as a perimeter defender than an interior defender and has never had much success as a small five, but having the 6-foot-11 Durant next to him in those lineups could make a big difference.
Simmons’ ability to create takeaways will be a boon for Brooklyn on both ends of the floor. That will help a defensive unit that ranked 25th in turnover rate last season, and it will help the transition attack for a group that thrives in the open court but doesn’t always actively create those opportunities. The transition is also where Simmons does the bulk of his damage, and for all of his warts, he’s been very effective at maintaining that positive feedback throughout his career.
In the half court, Irving and Durant can handle the lion’s share of the initiative duties, which should free Simmons from cutting back, screening, short plays in 4-on-3 scenarios, and finding lobs, dump-offs and putbacks at the dunker spot. Between Durant, Irving, Seth Curry, Joe Harris and Patty Mills, Simmons will be surrounded by an array of all-time great shooters for nearly every minute he spends on the court, making the middle of the court luxuriously spacious for him. Despite that number of shots, the Nets had the sixth-lowest 3-point attempt rate in the league last season. While Simmons obviously doesn’t shoot threes himself, he has a knack for creating them for his teammates like no one else in basketball.
In short, Simmons couldn’t ask for an offensive ecosystem more conducive to his strengths and limitations. But in order to truly thrive in this ecosystem, he must be willing and able to implement his theoretical skill set. This season, the rubber will meet the road when it comes to the player Simmons is and the player he has long seemed capable of becoming.
In order to embody the “Draymond role” that many have envisioned for himself, Simmons must show an appetite to watch that he hasn’t shown in his career yet, and shed the notions he once had of himself as a point guard. He wore this look in Philly mainly because there was rarely anyone more capable of doing it. But if such a player temporarily intervened, it created a conflict. Simmons won’t be touching the ball to Durant and Irving in the half court, and the sooner he comes to terms with that, the better for him and his new team.
Due to a combination of factors — from Irving not taking the vaccine, to Harris’ season-ending injury, to James Harden’s decline and frustration, to the trade that sent Harden to Philadelphia for a player who never stepped on the court — the preseason status The Nets, as the 2022 Championship Favorites, have found themselves completely detached from the mediocre hodgepodge they have become. But as bad as it looks right now in Brooklyn, this team still has the makings of a contender if it can get its act together.
Despite the disappointing result, the Nets scored more efficiently against the Celtics’ league-best defense than any other team during the postseason, scoring 115 points per 100 possessions to a team that allowed just 104.6 the rest of the way. The problem was that Brooklyn constantly had to juggle offensive and defensive priorities because, aside from Durant, the players who were integral to maintaining a competent defense were all forwards. Simmons doesn’t exactly solve that dilemma, but he’ll certainly bring more offensive punch than Bruce Brown, DeAndre Bembry, James Johnson, Jevon Carter or anyone else the team has tried to slot into the perimeter dam role.
All of which means that if Durant and Irving are fully fit again, an optimized version of Simmons has the potential to be the connecting piece that puts the whole puzzle together. Of course, to do that, Simmons first needs to step on an NBA court, something he hasn’t done since Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals at Wells Fargo Arena, the site of the missed halftime that was heard around the world. Then he needs to shake off the cobwebs he accumulated during the 16-month layoff and shed the emotional baggage he’s been carrying since that disastrous Hawks run.
It feels like everything is on the table for the Nets this season. A championship, another first-round exit, a mid-season upset … it’s all very possible. How Simmons performs in his comeback season may not be the biggest variable in determining how things go, but it’s probably the most interesting.