Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Ben Simmons has golden opportunity to thrive in Brooklyn, where his strengths will matter more than weaknesses

It didn’t set the best precedent for the way it went down, signing a max contract only to demand a trade and refuse to play in the first year of the deal, but Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers both ultimately got what they wanted. Simmons got his trade, and the Sixers got James Harden. It has the makings of a win for both sides. 

The Sixers, obviously, get the premier playmaker they’ve lacked next to Joel Embiid. The Brooklyn Nets surely wanted it to work with Harden, but the circumstances around their super-team vision went haywire. Kyrie Irving won’t get vaccinated. Kevin Durant hasn’t played in almost a month. The Nets have lost nine of their last 10 and would currently have to go through the play-in tournament if the playoffs started today. 

How much does Simmons change their fortune? Potentially a lot. In a vacuum, the Nets got a worse player in Simmons, but one that fits better than Harden, who is redundant next to Irving and obviously doesn’t offer the defense Brooklyn is going to need deep in the postseason — if it makes it that far. 

Picture this: New York lifts its vaccine mandate, which it might be moving in the direction of doing, making Irving available full time. Durant comes back healthy. Simmons, assuming he is mentally ready to play at some point, takes a minute to find his rhythm but is ready to roll by the postseason. Could there be a more perfect situation? 

Irving is the creator. Durant is the scorer. Now Simmons isn’t being asked to do either of those things. He can focus roaming and screening and finishing/rolling on the offensive end, or even just staying out of the way at times, while defensively he can be what Brooklyn is missing: a perimeter stopper. 

Simmons is always going to cramp spacing, but if ever there were two guys who can create offense independent of spacing, it’s Durant and Irving. Durant doesn’t even bother to acknowledge double teams. He just shoots over them. Plus, the Nets can play plenty of lineups with plenty of spacing. 

Don’t forget, they also acquired Seth Curry — one of the best shooters in the world — in the trade. LaMarcus Aldridge is a pick-and-pop shooter. Patty Mills is lights out. Maybe Joe Harris makes it back. Even if he doesn’t, add Irving and Durant alongside those names mentioned and it’s not exactly a can of sardines. 

If Simmons wants to, he can cut all day long with the attention Durant and Irving get. He has to accept the role. He can’t be upset that he’s not in control of the offense. But if he does, he’s finally in a position where his strengths are going to matter more than his weaknesses. In Philadelphia, it was all about what Simmons can’t do. In Brooklyn, the focus should be on what he can — much like Andrew Wiggins going from Minnesota to Golden State. 

The Sixers required Simmons to initiate a lot of half-court offense for lack of options. Simmons does his best work in the paint, but the presence of Embiid clogged that area. Brooklyn is a perimeter-based team with perimeter-based stars; Simmons can have the paint to himself. He can rebound and push and help the Nets play even faster, creating early offense before defenses can settle in against Durant. 

Even if Irving doesn’t come back full time, I still believe Simmons offers a better pairing next to Durant than Harden. Durant doesn’t need as much help scoring as he does defending. Simmons take a massive defensive load off Durant’s shoulders, which allows him to save a bit more energy for scoring. 

When this deal first started getting rumored, I didn’t fully understand why Brooklyn would do it. In the short term, I figured Harden is the better player and thus gives the Nets the best chance of winning a title this season, even if he walks this summer. But taking a step back, I’ve changed my tune on that. I love the Simmons fit in Brooklyn, and the risk of losing Harden for nothing this summer made winning the title this season too desperate. Simmons makes Brooklyn a top contender now and in the future, assuming Durant and Irving stay in place. 

For Simmons, the opportunity is there to rewrite his narrative. His reputation has been soured by the way he handled this holdout, no question. But if he goes to Brooklyn, commits to a secondary offensive role and dominates defensively and helps the Nets win a title, all the baggage will be forgotten. He’s going to be viewed as a star again. Which he absolutely still has the potential to be. 

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