Is it time to start worrying about Ben Simmons?
The Aussie filled up the box score in the Nets’ loss to Boston this week – Brooklyn’s first game without the injured Kevin Durant – racking up nine rebounds, 13 assists, a block and two steals.
He also helped keep Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum to just 20 points, while the Nets outscored Boston by 10 points while Simmons was on the floor.
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The issue? Simmons went scoreless over on a 0-of-3 shooting effort.
Overall, Simmons is still atypically impacting games in a variety of ways, and crucially, is still among the NBA’s best defenders. But his offensive game has completely dried up – averaging 7.5 points per game – less than half his scoring career scoring average of 15.1.
According to The New York Post, Simmons is averaging just 3.3 drives this season, well down on his four healthy years at Philadelphia where he averaged 10.2, 11.9, 9.9 and 15.5.
Simmons has also made just one free throw since November 25 – shooting 1-of-13 at the line over that span – while going at a career-worst 41.3 per cent from the charity swipe over the season.
Speaking on The Lowe Post, ESPN’s Zach Lowe said Simmons’ one free throw make for the best part of two months “seems like a problem” and “big deal.”
And watching him against Boston, Lowe believes Simmons doesn’t appear to want to play a big role on the offensive end.
“We talked the other day about how teams are starting to guard Scottie Barnes the same way (as Simmons). Toronto has responded by using him as a screener and he’s actually doing OK, because he shoots 76 per cent on free throws – he’s not afraid to get fouled,” Lowe said.
“Simmons is a great transition passer – part of the reason he’s a great transition passer is he wants to get rid of the ball at the first semi opportune moment at all times.
“(After passing it) He doesn’t re-engage in the play. If he screens and the Celtics switched Prayton Pritchard or Derrick White or someone he could overpower onto him, he just recedes over to the side of the floor way out, not even trying to post up.
“Look, he’s still a decent player. One of the scouts there last night said: ‘He’s really sliding his feet on defence, he looks like he’s Ben Simmons again.’
“I’m like: ‘He’s averaging (7.5) points a game – when did this become OK for Ben Simmons to average seven points a game?’”
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It comes after Simmons shook off a rusty start to the season to recapture some of his best form in late November – scoring double figures in six-straight games including two 20-plus performances.
But after missing time due to a knee setback, the 26-year old has struggled to really get going again despite Brooklyn surging to the top two in the Eastern Conference.
While expectations were lessened on Simmons after he sat out all of last campaign then underwent off-season back surgery – and now adjusts to life on a new team alongside two of the league’s top superstars in Durant and Kyrie Irving – not many could’ve predicted his offensive game would drop away to this degree.
“There was a Simmons renaissance … now we’re varying into the ‘I have no confidence at all in my offence at all’ stage of the Ben Simmons experience here,” The Ringer’s Bill Simmons said.
“He’s in Ben Wallace territory is where he’s headed. Mid 2000s Ben Wallace ‘please don’t involve me in the offence in any way’ territory.
“If you’re not driving to the basket and you can’t shoot, I’m not sure what’s left.
“At least in Philly he used to drive to the basket … and then there would be times he was feeling it, when he would do little pull ups and stuff. Now he doesn’t drive to the basket at all.”
While it could be argued the Nets don’t necessarily need major offensive output from Simmons with the starpower of Durant and Irving at that end of the floor, Durant’s absence suddenly leaves a massive void.
Not that anyone or anything could replace Durant, the Nets have one of the deepest rosters in the NBA stacked with talent and three-point shooters that, as a whole, can help make up for it in some ways.
But in terms of individuals, the player with the greatest onus to step up is Simmons – acquired in the James Harden trade to be the third star on the team on an average salary of $35 million.
While no one expects Simmons to effectively replace Durant’s elite scoring, the Nets do need him to drive more, if only to create for others.
He even admitted as much after his second scoreless game of the season against Boston.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure, I’d just say it’s something I need to do to help this team,” Simmons said, per The New York Post, conceding the roster build minus Durant means he needs to give the ball up less and attack the rim more.
“Playing with a lot of guys who are able to catch-and-shoot, so just know who I’m playing with and what tempo we need to play with. (That’s) being assertive, being aggressive, knowing that my teammates (need me). I think I’m giving the ball up way too many times when I know who I am. I know I need to get to the rim and get buckets. And that’s also going to help my teammates and get them going.”
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Irving said of Simmons: “He’s just got to be himself. We’re not gonna put too much pressure on him. When he gets his opportunities, we just want him to be aggressive.”
If Simmons can’t step up, the Nets could suddenly find themselves vulnerable at the top of the East amid a logjam of contenders fighting for the highest seed and better home court advantage come playoffs.
The reality is that so much of the driving force behind Brooklyn’s rise has been Durant, and no one knows how Jacque Vaughn’s side will fare without him for the next few weeks.
“When KD comes back, who knows when that’ll happen, but they’re in a dangerous position right now,” Bill Simmons added.
“You know my feelings on Kyrie as the superstar and galvanising force – it’s just not going to happen. He needs to be the sidekick, he’s not going to be your leader.
“We’re in this dangerous spot with the East now, because I think Cleveland and Milwaukee are going to be top four teams. Whoever else is in that top four – you’re looking at Brooklyn and Philly and maybe even Miami if they get their crap together.
“I just don’t want them to have Game 7s on the road in every round. A team like Brooklyn is not going to be able to survive that.”