What do the Nets do next with Ben Simmons?
It’s clear there’s still a disconnect between what the Nets want from Simmons and what Simmons is able to give the team.
Brooklyn’s star forward recorded five fouls in 18 minutes in the loss to the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, the team’s fourth in a row since Durant went down with a sprained MCL in his right knee. Simmons didn’t agree with the fifth foul and argued it with an official who subsequently assessed him back-to-back technical fouls and ejected him from the game midway through the third quarter.
Ejections are part of basketball. To a lesser extent, so is being in foul trouble. The issue with Simmons, however, is that he is not playing up to expectations.
He finished with seven points, six assists and four rebounds on the night. On the season, he is averaging about eight points, seven rebounds and six assists. While his contract suggests he is the third-most important player on a team with championship expectations, Simmons’ impact ranks fourth behind starting center Nic Claxton despite being signed to a max contract.
“It’s gonna be a good question for our group. It’s both sides of the basketball. We need him to be productive, and that is without the fouls,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said postgame. “That is helping us rebound the basketball. That is playing with poise and composition. That is pushing the pace for us. Unfortunately when you’re a really good basketball player, your list is long, and so are the responsibilities.”
The numbers are jarring — even for a player months removed from offseason back surgery.
Simmons has played in 33 of Brooklyn’s 44 games but ranks top 35 in personal fouls in the NBA. He has more fouls on the team than everyone except Royce O’Neale, who has only missed three games and has logged over 1,400 minutes to Simmons’ 895. Simmons averages 3.6 fouls per game, tied for the fifth-highest average in all of basketball . He has recorded at least four fouls in six of the seven games he’s played in during January.
The fouls are going to come, given Simmons is Brooklyn’s de facto defensive stopper, tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer while also making cameo appearances as the team’s small ball center.
It’s the brainless fouls the team wants to cut down on, and it’s not just Simmons.
“I think a big part of defense is your preparation, and so a lot of times whether that is a reach, whether that’s a gamble, whether that’s a late reaction, it’s because your position at the beginning wasn’t set and sound,” Vaughn said. “So with Ben — and a bunch of our other guys because we’ve had trouble fouling — [it’s] not picking up the ones where the referee clearly sees it [and] it has no impact on the play. It adds up.
“So that’s just playing hard but playing smart at the same time. We’ve tried to address that with our group. You see it numerous times. We reached in. It was across the board, not just Ben. We struggled fouling, and that is not being in position at the beginning of a play.”
Nets star Kyrie Irving believes the team’s fouling issues are a byproduct of Durant’s absence.
“I think it’s just realizing that usually our anchor back there, he’s not there to cover up a lot of our mistakes,” Irving said postgame. “When you’ve got a 7-foot guy that could play multiple positions and guard one through five, he covers up a lot of our mistakes, and it’s Kevin. So that’s the realization here and it’s something we’re gonna have to deal with moving forward, and the approach is to attack it head on.”
Irving said the key to getting Simmons on track is continuing to give him confidence.
“But also knowing that he’s mature enough to handle himself,” he continued. “He’s a very talented basketball player. We could name all the superlatives, but we need him in the game, and I think he understands that especially during this stretch [without Durant]we’re gonna need him in every game.
“I’ve gotten ejected before only once in my career. Temper flare. You disagree with the refs, but the big picture is the most important thing on this team, and I think Ben realizes that, but tonight emotions got the best of him. It happens.”
Vaughn said the dialogue has been transparent with Simmons, and that he views that as a positive. The Nets are asking Simmons to be point guard, center and primary defender, all while staying out of foul trouble and playing with high intensity every minute he’s on the court. It’s a tall order, but for a former All-Star on a $180 million contract, it’s what the team needs — and Simmons must answer the bell.
“We’ll continue to ask him those things and challenge him, challenge this group to be able to answer these long lists,” Vaughn said. “Our job is to continue to believe in him, give him confidence and to continue to put him out there and play, put the people around him to help him and continue to stay together as a group with him.”