The Brooklyn Nets are navigating interesting waters in the wake of the blockbuster deal that sent Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns and the well-chronicled exit of Kyrie Irving in the blink of an eye. Despite the high-profile losses, Brooklyn is in the midst of a playoff chase with a deep and interesting roster that still includes a former No. 1 overall pick on a max contract in Ben Simmons. On Monday, the Nets fell to the New York Knicks by double-digits at Madison Square Garden, and Simmons appeared for only 13 minutes off the bench, marking his second-lowest minutes total of the season.
After the game, Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn was asked an understandable question about why Simmons saw the court for so little time. What followed, though, was a very interesting and detailed answer that revealed, and frankly cemented, some of the ongoing challenges with constructing lineups around Simmons’ strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s going to be some work that we have to do,” said Vaughn, via Tim Bontemps of ESPN. “Because you just take a look at what the lineups could potentially look like. You put another big next to Ben, then you got to figure out what the spacing is around him. Then, if you put another playmaker next to him, then you got to figure out what Ben looks like without the basketball. Then if you go small with Ben, then you have to figure out can you rebound enough with him? So the challenges are ahead of us. We’ll look them head on. We’ll figure it 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.”
For plugged-in NBA observers, none of Vaughn’s sentiments are surprising or particularly new in nature. It is well-known that Simmons has no desire to shoot from the perimeter and, while he has been a high-end defender in the past, he hasn’t excelled as a full-fledged anchor on the backline. Throw in the fact that Simmons has always needed the ball to be his best, the presence of an emerging (and shooting-challenged) standout at center in Nic Claxton, and a bevy of perimeter creators, and it stands to reason that Simmons could slip into the background.
Candidly, Simmons shouldn’t play big minutes for the Nets in his current form which, of course, brings awkwardness. He is owed more than $78 million for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons combined, and many believe Simmons could have the most damaging contract in the NBA. As such, Brooklyn likely can’t plan to move him in the trade market, so Vaughn is tasked with making it work and, on a team with a worse record, it would probably be easier to just throw him out there and see what happens. The Nets clearly want to win, however, and Vaughn’s answer is a reminder that nothing is particularly easy when coaching a team that features Ben Simmons in 2023.