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How’s This Gonna Work?

Kyrie Irving gives Ben Simmons a thumbs-up
Justin Ford/Getty Images

Ben Simmons played 28 minutes in the Brooklyn Nets' 134-124 road loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night. He scored seven points on 2-for-5 shooting, with eight assists. When he shot his five free throws, his left (shooting) elbow wobbled out to the side just as it always has, rotating his hand off-line and making an adventure of the whole thing. He attempted one lonely field goal from outside the paint all game, a three to beat the third-quarter buzzer, and missed it. The Nets lost his minutes by 16 points, the worst plus-minus figure of anyone who took the floor for either team. He also fouled out with around four minutes left to play.

Give or take a couple of fouls, that will all scan pretty familiar to anyone who watched Simmons play the last time anybody could do so, which was in the 2021 playoffs. That was when the former first overall draft pick's customary aversion to trying for baskets finally swallowed up his whole game and made him all but unusable to the Philadelphia 76ers, effectively ending their season. If you remember that, then this will also seem familiar:

Four of five Grizzlies defenders packed around the paint, ignoring Ben Simmons at the three-point line
Great spacing, guys!!!!!!!!!!
Screenshot via Youtube

Yikes. The Grizzlies mostly did not even pretend to guard Simmons on Monday night. In one representative occasion, with around four-and-a-half minutes left in the first quarter, Simmons brought the ball up the court after a Ja Morant free-throw; at the top of the key he dribbled to his right across not one or two but three staggered ball-screens, by Patty Mills and Kevin Durant and Day'Ron Sharpe. An action like this, particularly when two of the screeners (Mills and Durant) are ace three-point shooters, is a good way to scramble a defense, as the four involved defenders try to sort out who will pick up whom, how to keep the shooters covered, and how to keep somebody between the ball-handler and the paint.

Only in this instance Simmons's defender, rookie David Roddy, just went under all three of the screens, with normal urgency and no particular panic; none of the other three Grizzlies pulled into the action paid more than cursory attention to the guy with the ball; and nothing came of it. The Nets reset their offense, and wound up settling for a contested (and bricked) Durant baseline fadeaway over two defenders. All they accomplished by setting not one or two but three ball-screens for Ben Simmons was to burn a few seconds off the shot-clock. In the second half, there were whole entire Brooklyn possessions in which Simmons's defender, Santi Aldama, scarcely even so much as turned to face him.

The season is very young still, yes, and the (horrifying) sample is very puny. But in three games as a Net Simmons has 17 points and 14 fouls; he has attempted two shots from outside the paint and missed both, and fouled out twice; he is averaging more fouls than shot attempts per game. You can assume Simmons is rusty after a year off. You can assume, too, that the Nets will figure some of the tactical stuff at least partway out. They'll use Simmons as a screener more, for Irving and Durant, to force his defender out farther from the basket, and this will set him up for some downhill 4-on-3 stuff, where his size and speed and passing ability can make him a nightmare for defenses, particularly if he is willing to punch down a dunk every once in a while. There's no particular reason that grade of adjustment shouldn't at least lubricate things a little.

If that happens, and unleashes Simmons's (theoretical) beastly inner short-roll playmaking big, the Nets will be terrifying; no one will beat them ever. If it does not happen, it is just going to keep looking like it did on Monday night. Shit is going to get extremely ugly, and not just when Simmons is on the court. In the meantime, while we wait for the sample to puff up a little: Woof! Looks like butt!

One last thing. With around six minutes remaining in the first quarter Monday night, and six seconds remaining on the shot-clock, the Grizzlies inbounded the ball to center Steven Adams along Brooklyn's baseline, with Sharpe guarding him. Adams, one of the sport's most rugged, most technically unsophisticated of oaves, faced up, hit Sharpe with a little half-pivot fake toward the middle of the floor, then drove baseline and threw down a two-handed reverse dunk. It was a pretty sick bucket. I admired it for a second, and then thought of Ben Simmons. Specifically, what I thought was: Jeez.

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