The Brooklyn Nets come into the 2023-24 season looking for a bit of a fresh start after finally scuttling their superteam attempt at the deadline last year, sending Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant out in trades. In return, the Nets got a number of useful players but are now lacking in star power, which isn’t necessarily the worst thing for them.
As they move forward, they will continue wanting to be competitive as they don’t have access to most of their own draft picks due to their previous trades to acquire stars, but they will certainly be in evaluation mode with regards to who fits into what role as they try to pinpoint what their core should be going forward. They face an uphill battle remaining in the East’s top-6 after holding on to the 6-seed a year ago, and most project them as a Play-In contender. If they are to be a surprising team in the playoff hunt, there are a few things that have to happen.
Biggest Question: How Does Mikal Bridges Fare As A No. 1?
The Nets have built this current team around the idea that Bridges is going to be their No. 1 guy, which is a considerable step up from the role he played in Phoenix. He has shown flashes of having the skillset to do that, but being consistently impactful at the level a top star needs to be for their team to be good in the NBA is a very difficult hurdle to clear. Bridges has steadily evolved from a 3-and-D wing early in his Phoenix career to being a three-level scoring threat with an improved handle. The next step is running a team and keeping the offense rolling by keeping everyone else involved and engaged. Last year, Bridges averaged just 2.7 assists per game in his 27 games in Brooklyn, despite boasting a usage rate of over 30 percent. To be the main offensive hub on a good offense, his playmaking for others is going to have to get better and he will have to open up his court vision and be able to make the right reads even quicker. That is a skill that only comes with reps, and the good news is he should get a ton of opportunity to grow into that as the year goes on. Still, it’s not just as easy as flipping a switch and there will probably be some continued growing pains when teams apply considerable pressure to Bridges as he will be at the top of the scouting report each night.
X-Factor: Ben Simmons
For a team that needs a great facilitator, Simmons is the player that seemingly holds the key to unlocking this roster. Simmons was a decent rotation player a year ago in his 42 appearances, but just did not have the same juice as he previously had and was not nearly as aggressive attacking the rim. He’s shown some flashes of that explosiveness in the preseason and if he can be 90 percent of the guy he was in Philadelphia (which is a very big if), that would raise the ceiling considerably on this Brooklyn team.
Banking on Simmons to stay healthy enough to do that is not something most folks are willing to do, and there is a understandable “believe it when we see it” thing with regards to him regaining something close to the form that made him an All-Star. That said, his skillset would be incredibly useful on this roster on both ends of the floor.While Spencer Dinwiddie averaged 9.1 assists per game in his 26 appearances with the Nets, he has never averaged more than 6.5 per game over a full season in his career. Adding a proven facilitator with the passing acumen of Simmons would give this offense a dynamic they simply won’t have otherwise.
They have some good floor-spacers with Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges (and potentially Dorian Finney-Smith if he can find his form again) and a good pick-and-roll big man in Nic Claxton. As such, Simmons should have space to operate and attack the rim, and could focus on distributing more than trying to score, which is the area he’s always been hesitant to try and dominate. He and Claxton could do some fun stuff in the pick-and-roll with shooters around them, and there is a world where this offense looks pretty dynamic. Defensively, the combination of Simmons, Bridges, and Claxton provides a lot of length and versatility and could create a lot of turnovers and cause a lot of problems for opposing offenses.
However, all of that only works if Simmons can move like he used to before the back issues on defense, and if he is willing to be aggressive in pressuring the rim, even if the goal is often to collapse the defense to facilitate for others. Those are very big ifs, but if there’s anyone on this team capable of unlocking another level for the group as a whole, it is probably Simmons.