Ben Simmons has shown he’s getting back to his old self.
Nic Claxton has proved he’s capable of being a starter in the NBA.
That means they are going to have to coexist in the Nets’ starting lineup. And whether the two non-shooters can learn to thrive together may be the biggest factor for the Nets going forward this season and beyond.
“We’re going to be better when we’re on the floor together — when we learn to coexist and spacing, just knowing where to be, where he wants the ball,” Simmons said this week before the Nets closed out a three-game road swing with a 128-117 loss in Indiana. Simmons and Claxton combined for 32 points on perfect 14-of-14 shooting (8-of-8 for Simmons, 6-of-6 for Claxton), 20 rebounds, six blocks and 11 personal fouls.
“I think it’s over time learning what we need. Defensively, we’ve got to be the anchors of this team. [Claxton] has got to protect the rim. He’s got a tough job, but he’s capable of it. And defensively we’ve got to get stops, rebounds.”
The Nets have worked their way through off-court drama after off-court drama, from Kevin Durant’s trade request to Steve Nash’s firing to Kyrie Irving’s suspension. But they claim it’s now all about basketball — at least for the moment — and all the focus finally is on the court.
That means lineups and rotations and the like. Despite all the narratives surrounding Irving and Durant, few question what the two superstars will give the Nets on the court. But many have wondered what Simmons and Claxton will bring, and even more have doubted whether they can excel simultaneously.
Jacque Vaughn replaced Nash while Simmons was enduring an early-season malaise, and the three-time All-Star was relegated to a reserve center role as Claxton’s backup. But Simmons’ recent surge has made him a fixture of the starting lineup again and had made Vaughn’s task clear: to get enough from the Simmons-Claxton duo on offense to let the Nets take advantage of their defense.
“Something we’ve got to figure out,” Vaughn acknowledged this week. “Because both guys do present some positives for us. Hopefully we can lean into the defensive piece with their length with Kevin out there on the floor at the same time.
“But we do have to work through some spacing. We’ll try to play fast. Nic has that ability to run the floor and play fast, so hopefully we won’t have a bunch of sets in the halfcourt that we’ve got to make our way through.”
Such is the dilemma with starting multiple non-shooters in a league that has become more and more about shooting. Floor spacing has become crucial in the NBA, the reason teams seek to put four or — in those rare cases such as the Warriors’ so-called Death Lineup or the 2020-21 Nets with smallball five Jeff Green — five shooters on the court simultaneously. Starting Simmons and Claxton limits the Nets’ initial lineup to just three — at best.
After struggling earlier in the season, they’ve shown clear signs of figuring it out over the past two weeks.
“I think they’ve gotten used to one another in terms of the spacing and where guys are going to attack,” Irving said. “Ben’s going to be more aggressive at the point of attack. Nic has got an ability to play off the ball in terms of not necessarily being our main screener, but when he is, it creates opportunities. And Ben’s passing ability is off the charts. He creates so many opportunities when they double me or Kev.
“So we just have to utilize our pieces a lot more. And those guys, when they’re playing up-tempo and doing little things for us — and I don’t just mean screening, but just making the right basketball play — everyone feels good. … We can build on this opportunity with Nic and Ben but just holding them accountable the same way they hold us accountable and just support them.”
The two-man trend
The Nets went into Friday’s game having been outscored by 11 points (net rating of 0.1) in 144 minutes with Simmons and Claxton on the floor together.
But that doesn’t begin to paint the full picture.
Simmons was predictably slow coming out of the gate in his first game action since June 2021, after sitting out due to mental health issues and undergoing back surgery to repair a herniated L-4 disk and nerve damage. Through the Nets’ first 14 games — five of which Simmons missed due a swollen left knee — they were minus-32 in 97 minutes with the pair together. Their net rating in those minutes was a horrid -13.2.
But after sitting out the Nov. 13 loss at the Lakers to rest his knee, Simmons has been better, as has his budding partnership with Claxton.
In the next five games before Friday — Claxton missed one — the Nets were plus-21 in the pair’s 47 minutes. Their 27.6 net rating was the fourth-best of any Nets two-man lineup that had logged at least 10 minutes and second-best of any tandem of starters behind only the Claxton-Irving pairing.
As much as Simmons’ partnership is growing with Durant and Irving — the other members of Brooklyn’s Big 3 — it’s even more encouraging to see it develop with Claxton.
“It’s still early for this group,” Vaughn said. “They really haven’t played together. And Ben, as you see, is just feeling better physically, which is helping us. For him to go coast-to-coast and get easy basket for us, to push the pace for us, to get open shots for everybody else … they’re learning how to play with him and play with his pace. So hopefully we’re growing. Those combinations are going to change as we get healthier, and they’ll continue to play better with each other.”
What’s the depth chart of bigs?
The best Simmons and Claxton had played together arguably was in Wednesday’s victory in Toronto. Simmons was the spryest and most mobile he’s been as a Net, and Claxton’s ability to run the floor created mismatches. The Nets didn’t get drawn into a halfcourt slugfest, but even facing set defenses, Simmons’ sublime passing and Claxton’s ability as a lob threat and screener was effective.
With their defensive ability, effective on offense is good enough. The 23-year-old Claxton — averaging career highs across the board with 11.7 points (on 72.7 percent shooting), 8.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 0.8 steals — is a uniquely switchable big, capable of guarding one-through-five. In Simmons’ last healthy campaign, he was the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up. They have combined for 18 blocks in the past three games, their seven-foot-plus wingspans joining Durant’s 7-4¾ wingspan to give them three rim protectors and pass deflectors in the starting lineup.
“We’ve just got to keep emphasizing we’re not the biggest team — as in bigger bodies — but we are long, athletic,” Markieff Morris said. “And we have to use that to our advantage. We got to put bodies with eyes and just go over top of them.”
Morris has regained a spot in the rotation, effectively replacing Simmons as the backup center. Little-used second-year pro Day’Ron Sharpe is the only other center on the roster. Nets general manager Sean Marks may now have even more need to look outside the organization for a backup big.
But if Simmons and Claxton can not only survive but thrive together on offense, tweaking the bench or the tail end of the rotation would be a small price to pay.
- Can Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton coexist for the Nets?
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