Early in the third quarter of the Brooklyn Nets' Wednesday night loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Kyrie Irving attempted to distill what the team needs from Ben Simmons down to three words: "Shoot it, Ben!"
Brevity can lack context, and Kyrie doesn't take the time to stop, break the fourth wall and explain to the camera everything else the Nets need from Simmons. But he's also not wrong.
Simmons was 2-of-7 from the floor in Milwaukee and is now 9-of-20 from the field for the season. Wednesday marked the second time this year he finished with at least as many fouls (four) as points (four).
He has tallied 21 points against 18 fouls through four games, and the Nets have been outscored by a total of 43 points during his minutes on the floor—the fourth-worst mark in the league among 100-plus players who have logged as many minutes so far.
Of course, the two most important words in the previous sentence might just be "four games." That sample size is nothing. Early-season stats get warped every night. Plus-minus, in particular, isn't always telltale. KD owns the absolute worst mark in the league from the above 100-plus-player group.
Leeway must be given. Simmons is still working through his return from back surgery, a 16-month(ish)-long absence and a well-documented yet poorly covered mental health struggle. Players don't always simply return to previous form. (Simmons also tweaked his back against the Bucks.)
Kyrie once again eloquently noted as much after Brooklyn's loss to Milwaukee:
Brian Lewis @NYPost_Lewis
Kyrie Irving on Ben Simmons: "You guys keep coming in here asking me like what about Ben? He hasn't played in two years. Give him give him a fu-king chance. We stay on his sh1t. You just stay on him. But we're here to give him positive affirmations." <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Nets?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Nets</a>
Does screaming "Shoot it, Ben!" while waving your arms and jumping up in apparent exasperation count as positive affirmation? Who's to say? I'm not trolling, either.
I did not interpret Kyrie's reaction to Simmons looking off a layup in favor of a KD jumper as ironclad support. But Kyrie deserves nothing less than the benefit of the doubt after this soundbite. Dropping F-bombs is proof of positive affirmation in my book.
Still, Simmons has been a problem for the Nets—at both ends. And it's OK to say that. Citing facts is not akin to personal attacks or declaring his career over. Maybe he needs more time, but at this exact moment, his play is an issue.
The defense should be fine. Simmons is not playing with the same circular, unaltering explosion and force and has committed some ticky-tack fouls, sometimes seemingly out of frustration or disinterest in getting back in transition.
He has also needed to guard some pretty large humans early on (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zion Williamson, Jonas Valančiūnas), and rumor has it that can be tough. A fairly large chunk of his fouls coming on the offensive end is either an aberration in the face of unfamiliar usage, a slight concern worth monitoring or both.
Paint me free from panic—for now. Simmons should get healthier and work his way back into game shape. More than that, the Nets, as currently constructed, don't seem built to optimize how he best defends, not even when Nicolas Claxton is on the floor.
That's a problem, but not necessarily a Simmons problem.
His offense is a different story.
Relative passivity warrants plenty of panic. The lack of aggression we're seeing now is not rooted solely in his extended absence and recovery from injury. It's an extension of the warts he's always hinted at, the same ones that seemed to mushroom leading up to what became his final game and hallmark moment with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Playing Simmons with non-shooters up front has always been a no-go. (Who among us wasn't traumatized from his minutes alongside Dwight Howard in 2020-21?) The Nets are predominantly slotting him beside two non-shooting bigs anyway. And their offense is paying the price.
In the 75 minutes Simmons and Claxton have played together, Brooklyn's offensive rating sits at a not-so-robust 100.7. That mark has plunged to 92.6 when Simmons sets up shop beside Day'Ron Sharpe. And yes, the Nets look just as clumpy during these stretches as the numbers suggest.
Part of this might be on the offensive structure. The Nets are not having Simmons initiate a ton of pick-and-rolls with Claxton or Sharpe. And anytime he spends off the ball in the half-court is largely moot when Claxton and Sharpe generally need to occupy the same space.
Playing Simmons without a big is a trendy hypothetical solution. Emphasis on hypothetical. The Nets haven't leaned on it a ton. Simmons logged 12 possessions outside garbage time without Claxton or Sharpe on the court entering Wednesday night.
Brooklyn did give those arrangements a more thorough look against the Bucks...and it sort of worked. The lineups finished as a net plus overall, and that setup spearheaded a strong close to the first half:
Simmons-without-a-big lineups are worth further exploration because, well, what else are the Nets supposed to do? But they can't be viewed as a cure-all.
Screening and rolling is not Simmons' natural state, and the Nets have not meaningfully attempted to use him in that vein. They should try more of it, to be sure, especially in pick-and-rolls with Kyrie or KD. But this type of usage is largely foreign for Simmons and has never been considered a potential strength.
Some of this can, once more, be traced back to his getting displaced from the ball. But even his quality moments don't feel the same. Most of his assists aren't coming deep into paint penetration.
He's throwing pitch passes or completing handoffs from above the free-throw line. He's getting rid of the ball early in transition, which, to be fair, isn't necessarily sinister.
Maybe this changes in time. Maybe the Nets need to scour the trade market for a stretch big to streamline Simmons' defensive role and open up the half-court on offense. Maybe this is just an overreaction to four friggin' games.
Whatever this is, though, doesn't change what Brooklyn needs from Simmons in the coming days and weeks and months: to cease toeing the line of offensive invisibility.