As Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving departed from Brooklyn at the trade deadline, so did Ben Simmons’ time as a starter. After starting 33 of 38 games to open the season, the Nets’ highest-paid player has come off the bench in his last three appearances.
The move has coincided with a declining trend in minutes for Simmons. Since returning from a four-game absence, the big man played 27 against Phoenix, then 20 against Chicago, 16 against Philadelphia, and 13 Monday against New York, his lowest total of the 2022-23 campaign.
Simmons’ role alongside Durant and Irving was clear: defend, rebound and push the pace when possible with the stars taking care of the half-court offense. However, with the acquisitions of Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Cam Johnson and Dorian-Finney Smith, the Nets have more defenders than ever before. What they desperately need is scoring, an area where Simmons has been invisible this season.
“It’s gonna be some work that we have to do,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said regarding Ben Simmons’ role. “You put another big next to Ben, then you got to figure out what the spacing is around him. If you put a playmaker next to him, then you have to figure out what Ben looks like without the ball. Then if you go small with Ben, you’ve gotta figure out can you rebound enough with him.
“So the challenges are ahead of us. We’ll look them head-on, we’ll figure them out. We have the personnel to figure it out. Whether it is me mixing and matching throughout different pieces of the game and allowing him to have a group and run with a group, that part we’ll figure out. But you see the challenges that lie ahead.”
Despite Ben Simmons’ declining minutes, Vaughn maintained that he is committed to finding a role for the former number one pick with the new-look Nets:
“What we want from each guy is to give everything, every ounce that they have every game,” the coach said. “All 16 guys are in that bucket. Trying to figure out what lineup fits around Ben, what position fits for Ben, how we can make him look good at every opportunity, that’s the goal. I’m still trying to figure it out. That’s on me. Overall as a team, we’re going to try different lineups to try to figure this thing out.”
While Vaughn said he will continue to experiment with lineups featuring Simmons, the problems lie much deeper than the personnel surrounding the once-upon-a-time star. Simmons appeared to be turning a corner during a six-game stretch in November in which he averaged 15.5 points on 8.3 shots per game. Since then, his unwillingness to attack the basket has not only frustrated fans but the entire coaching staff.
The 26-year-old has completely abandoned looking for his own shot, quickly seeking any opportunity to pass the scoring burden to a teammate when the ball does find his hands. Without the ball, Ben Simmons is content to disappear to the baseline, rarely presenting himself on a duck-in or cut to the rim. When he sets a screen, the thought of rolling almost never enters his mind, even when defenders shade hard towards the ball-hander.
The first-year Net has scored just 16 total points on 3.5 shots per game over his last four appearances. With the stars out the door and his minutes dwindling, Simmons went as far as to say that he has “no idea” what his role is with this new iteration of the Nets.
“Everything’s been changing all year, so it’s hard to really understand what’s going on, but hopefully we find some rhythm and consistency,” he said at shootaround Monday via Kristian Winfield. “It’s different. It’s a different experience (coming off the bench). So whatever the team needs from us to win, I’m willing to do that.”
The $78 million due to Ben Simmons over the next two seasons is a harsh reality for Brooklyn after trading James Harden to the conference rival 76ers. Regardless of what Vaughn says, the minutes and production tell the story. And if his slashed playing time wasn’t enough, Yahoo Sports’ Jake Fischer reported Tuesday that Brooklyn is expected to gauge the trade market for Simmons this summer.
If the forward’s play doesn’t take a major turn, a trade would likely entail attaching draft compensation to dump Simmons’ salary to a non-contender with cap space. Such a move would be the final gut punch of the failed Durant-Irving era.