In a league that prioritizes spacing more than ever before, the Nets are attempting to defy modern standards, placing two non-shooters in their starting five. It took Vaughn just two games to move away from a Simmons-Claxton pairing after taking over as head coach last season. However, the coach insists Brooklyn is committed to the look entering 2023-24.
“The thing that I've told this group is we can't look at it as a negative,” Vaughn said. “We have two versatile dudes who can push the ball up the floor, who can screen, who can catch the ball in the pocket, who can pass the basketball, who can play pick and roll, who can help us defend on both ends of the floor, and I said this to the group, ‘We'll figure out how to use those two together if we have an open mind.'”
For all their fit concerns offensively, Simmons and Claxton offer the Nets elite defensive upside. Both are nearly seven feet tall and can guard one through five. Add Mikal Bridges, one of the league's top perimeter stoppers, alongside defensive wings Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O'Neale, and Brooklyn has one of the highest defensive ceilings in the NBA.
The Nets are optimistic that defensive versatility will lead to steals and grab-and-go opportunities off rebounds, bolstering their transition offense.
However, NBA games are often decided in the halfcourt as the pace of play slows late in games. Vaughn has been adamant throughout training camp that Brooklyn won't play the isolation-heavy style of past Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving-led teams. That puts an onus on the Nets to remain active in the halfcourt if they hope to create scoring advantages with Simmons and Claxton on the floor.
“We can’t just be a sedentary, stationary team that just kind of sits around in iso game,” Cam Johnson said. “We gotta introduce a lot of movement and guys gotta understand where spots are. They've gotta understand where Ben and Clax will operate from and then be able to play off that, which I think we will figure out.
“I think we can figure it out, and we got guys who are willing to stick it out and watch the film and learn from it.”
Ben Simmons-Nic Claxton pairing
The Golden State Warriors are the pinnacle of off-ball activity in a halfcourt offense. When laying out his vision for the Simmons-Claxton pairing, Vaughn cited the success the Warriors have had with Draymond Green and Kevon Looney, two limited shooters, in their frontcourt.
“You can look at Draymond and Looney and how they play pocket pass to the rim, how the Warriors were able to play two of those dudes on the floor together with two shooters. It's possible, it's been done before,” the coach said. “If we look at it as a positive for this group, and I did challenge our group and stop practice and talk to them about it and how it looks and how it can be a positive for sure.”
Simmons has drawn frequent comparisons to Green throughout his career due to his elite passing and ball-handling ability at 6-foot-10.
However, Green plays with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, two of the best movement shooters of all time. Golden State has built a system around constant off-ball activity with those three players at the center. Brooklyn's vision would center on Simmons alongside Mikal Bridges and Johnson, two high-level shooters with experience playing off-ball, complementary roles.
Bridges has shot 39.1 percent from three over his last three seasons, while Johnson made a living as a spot-up threat in four seasons with Phoenix, shooting 39.3 percent from deep on 5.6 attempts per game.
Simmons earned three All-Star selections in Philadelphia by creating three-point opportunities for teammates at a league-best rate. Brooklyn is attempting to replicate that success this season, and Johnson said he's always felt Simmons' run-and-gun style is a great fit for his skill set.
“I've watched for a while now how somebody like JJ Redick was able to benefit so much from playing with Ben,” Johnson said. “I think as we begin to learn how each other plays and understand how we can play off of each other, the potential there is huge. So I’m excited man. I could just get to open spots on the floor and he’ll find me, that sounds great to me.”
“Flying off of handoffs and then just kind of coordinating that with the other three guys on the court, I think there’s a lot we can do… He allows us to do some pretty cool things and for me, as a shooter, there’s nobody else really I’d rather play with.”
In addition to his spot-up capabilities, Bridges began to flash growing ability as an on-ball creator late in his Phoenix tenure. That success was amplified after his trade to the Nets last season, with the 27-year-old averaging 27.7 points on 47/38/89 shooting splits in 30 games with Brooklyn.
Ben Simmons will dominate the ball-handling responsibilities in units alongside Nic Claxton, limiting Bridges' opportunities as an on-ball scorer and playmaker. However, Vaughn said he will find Bridges touches to further his offensive development.
“There's different phases of the game that we’ll have the ball in his hands. I'm quite sure Ben and Nic aren’t playing 48 minutes, so there will be a little bit of everything,” he said. “I've got to figure out how to play Nic and Ben together. But also lineups when Ben is off the floor, when Nic is off the floor. Who are the other shooters around when Mikal is more of a facilitator? Who is the other guard out there with him?”
“And so as we get whole and healthy, I'll figure out where to put Mikal to maximize what he does with the basketball. But he can do a little bit of everything. He's good at cutting off the basketball. He's good at coming off screens so playing him pick and roll. But for us, if we can get out in transition really doesn't matter who handles the basketball. That's been a big emphasis for us and will continue to be a big emphasis.”
Halfcourt spacing and Bridges' on-ball development are among several question marks surrounding the Simmons-Claxton paring. However, with Brooklyn embracing an athletic, defensive identity this season, Vaughn insists his players and coaching staff are confident the duo can be a positive.
The Nets will get their first look at the revamped starting five when they open the regular season Wednesday versus the Cleveland Cavaliers.