If 2022 was a nightmare year for Ben Simmons, 2023 is all about retribution.
After sitting out the entirety of last season following an ugly trade stand-off with the Philadelphia 76ers, the stage is now set for the Aussie star to bounce back to his previous best heights as a member of the Brooklyn Nets.
A change of scenery provides a fresh opportunity, and alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Simmons rounds out a new big three on maybe the most talented squad he’s ever played on.
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In fact, there probably wouldn’t have been many better landing spots after February’s blockbuster trade where he swapped places with James Harden.
Simmons now finds himself on a team where his defensive prowess and playmaking perfectly compliments a bevy of shooters including Durant, Irving, Patty Mills, Joe Harris and Seth Curry where he’ll play as a pseudo centre in smaller line-ups.
We’ve already seen glimpses of how Simmons meshes with his new team over the pre-season, and the early signs look good.
The athletic 26-year old’s playmaking, exciting transition play and defensive versatility were on full display as the glue guy for a star-studded line-up in a scary prospect for the rest of the league.
New Nets assistant coach Igor Kokoskov’s offensive tweaks to a less isolation plays should also only further help Simmons flourish.
“Watching those three guys play together, you can see the vision … you can see Ben Simmons is the velcro,” Locked on NBA’s Nick Angstadt said.
“He’s the one who makes it all work and when you start to see the dynamics and geometry on the court … Ben Simmons can facilitate really well still, that was something he’s always been good at. He’s a great passer and great in transition.
“He can really pass in tight windows, that’s going to be great to have. Imagine Durant and Kyrie roaming around him — it’s almost like the Splash Brothers (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson) and Draymond (Green) — that’s the kind of offence they can run with those guys.”
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For all of last season the Nets were trying to figure it out with Irving, Durant and Harden while clearly hampered by the former’s ongoing absence due to his vaccination status in what ultimately proved to be a dysfunctional trio, mainly off the court.
Although it was quite possibly the best three players ever assembled on an NBA roster, it at times felt like a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts superstar big three that was mashed together in hopes of working as opposed to a crafted a plan.
We’ve seen enough examples in modern NBA history that forming a fantasy sports-like band of stars doesn’t necessarily equate to success (looking squarely at the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol-Dwight Howard-Steve Nash 2012/2013 LA Lakers).
Whereas the addition of Simmons feels like an ideal fit alongside Durant and Irving to help them all be the best versions of themselves and thus make Brooklyn the genuine title contender it’s long been touted as in the current era.
“You know what you don’t see him doing? Out at the top of the floor initiating the offence a lot of the time playing the one,” former NBA player Jalen Rose said of Simmons during the pre-season on ESPN’s Jalen and Jacoby.
“That’s what is going to be different about his experience playing basketball with the Nets compared to the Sixers. He won’t be considered the primary playing guard, which doesn’t expose the fact that he doesn’t attempt shots outside the paint as much.
“When you’re on the wing and baseline, it’s not as highlighted as it was in Philly when he was at the top of the floor.”
No longer is Simmons the No. 2 guy on a Sixers team where he was at times forced into an offensive role beyond his capabilities, and then chastised when he struggled to live up to it.
Perhaps Simmons was a victim of his own lofty standards after his phenomenal rookie season where there was an expectation he’d soar to superstardom – as one of several young prodigies over the years to draw the impossible-to-live-up-to LeBron James comparison.
But going back to his college days at LSU where he emerged as the clear top prospect and No. 1 draft pick, scoring was never Simmons’ main strength.
And for all his faults and the criticism over the past 12 months on what he can’t do that’s included his reputation coming under fire, the NBA world has overlooked just how special he is and what he can do.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that from Simmons’ first season with the Sixers in 2017, he instantly helped them become an Eastern Conference contender after the franchise had endured several years of hardship, with the Aussie forming a lethal partnership with Joel Embiid.
Philly finished third, third, sixth and first respectively in the East in Simmons’ four campaigns with the team, where he averaged 15.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game.
While the Sixers failed to make it past the conference semi-finals during his time there (including a very unfortunate Kawhi Leonard four-bounce buzzer beater), it was a serious basketball side — and he was a serious player who had impact well beyond the stat sheet.
In addition to beating out Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum to win Rookie of the Year in his first season, he also made three All-Star appearances and was twice named in the All-Defensive First Team during his time with the Sixers.
This guy can play a level not many are capable of that genuinely contributes to winning — and he hasn’t lost those abilities overnight as a bounce back season looms, now with less pressure on him both generally and with co-stars Durant and Irving taking most of the spotlight in Brooklyn.
Sure, he may never be a jump shooter nor from three-point land, but it shouldn’t define him as a player.
And amid his injury issues over the past year, and more notably, questions around his attitude — which yes, is mainly of his own doing — his freakish talents have seemingly been underestimated.
“I’m buying all the Ben Simmons stock, it’s low right now. I’ve always been a Ben Simmons fan, I think he does not need to shoot jump shots,” ESPN’s David Jacoby said on Jalen and Jacoby.
“People always forget about defence, last time he played he was runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year.
“I really think we will see a great version of Ben Simmons because the roster construction puts him in a better place than it did in Philadelphia.”
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Of course, this thing in Brooklyn could fall apart in a hot minute given the off-season of chaos that included Durant’s trade request and Irving also nearly being dealt as the team was almost blown up.
It seems the Nets have since gotten back on the same page, with Durant sitting down with team owner Joe Tsai as well as general manager Sean Marks and coach Steve Nash, the latter two he tried to get fired at one stage, to lay his issues bare.
Order has been restored, for now at least, although it could dissipate at any moment — and it’s proven to be particularly problematic to trust Irving as a franchise leader — plus there remains queries over whether Nash can even coach altogether.
“There is a world where he’s the Simmons from two years ago and that’s a really interesting piece to put in with KD and Kyrie in a contract year,” Bill Simmons said on the Bill Simmons Podcast.
“There’s also a world where they’re a complete disaster.”
Brooklyn is therefore also probably the most shaky destination for Simmons to be playing at in many ways, plus the concerns around his own demeanour.
Any doubts should’ve eroded though after he made his unofficial Nets debut in the pre-season against none other than the Philadelphia 76ers – the team he ghosted for the best part of 12 months.
You sense that after 16 months on the sidelines and listening to the critics grow louder and louder, Simmons will want his play on the court to do the talking.
Australia’s number one basketballer has a statement to make.