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Sports Authority

Coolican: Ben Simmons is exactly what the Nets needed

| Monday, February 14, 2022

Almost a year ago, I wrote a Sports Authority about the Brooklyn Nets’ new big three. While it didn’t pan out that way, it was abundantly clear, from the short time that trio shared the court, that it could have been something special. It is a shame that we as basketball fans only got to experience 16 games of that superteam, as it could have been one of the best offensive units ever assembled. A combination of bad injury luck, Kevin Durant’s size-too-big shoe, a vaccine mandate and apparently New York City itself derailed this experiment before it ever really got off the ground. 

It’s a credit to general manager Sean Marks, then, that despite all these difficulties, the Nets are still the odds-on favorite to win the title. It has to be disappointing that barely a year after paying an exorbitant amount to acquire James Harden, the Nets were all but forced to trade him away. Yet somehow, Marks turned a potentially disastrous situation into his team being even better. 

Ben Simmons is exactly the type of player that the Nets need. With James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Durant sharing the floor, the Nets had three of the premier scorers in the league, but Simmons brings a different, and much-needed, dynamic. Lost in the drama of Simmons’ poor performance in the playoffs last year and his recent holdout is that he remains one of the league’s top players. He’s an elite defender, one of the best playmakers in the game, and presents a matchup nightmare for opposing point guards on both ends of the floor with his size and length. 

His shooting remains a question mark, but he won’t be counted on to score as much as he was in Philadelphia. He can serve as the primary ball-handler which allows Irving to play shooting guard where he is more comfortable, and he’ll help the Nets get out in transition even more than they already do, which will only help Durant and Irving. 

The Nets are poor defensively— they currently sit 21st in the league in defensive rating — and shipping out the often defense-averse Harden for last year’s DPOY runner-up is unquestionably an upgrade in that area, and defense becomes critical in the postseason. 

Additionally, it’s a better fit for both Simmons and the Nets. In Philadelphia, Joel Embiid spends most of his time down low, but since Simmons excels at getting to the basket and doesn’t space the floor, it was always an imperfect fit. In Brooklyn, he’ll be surrounded by an excellent supporting cast of wings and shooters who space the floor, which will allow him to play to his strengths. 

As for Harden and Irving, they ultimately have very similar play styles, and while they proved they could co-exist very effectively, the Nets now have three stars who all provide different aspects and will complement each other exceptionally well. 

We also can’t forget the other assets the Nets received in the trade. Seth Curry remains one of the league’s top shooters, and Andre Drummond provides a much-needed inside presence. Two first-round picks is also a boon for a team short on draft capital. Simmons is also under contract for an additional three seasons, whereas Harden appeared likely to walk away after the season, leaving the Nets with nothing. 

This is definitely a risk for the Nets, but it’s a risk they had to take. Simmons appeared to lose confidence in himself in the Sixers’ playoff run last year and hasn’t played in nearly 8 months. Irving remains a question mark as he is only playing in away games due to the city’s vaccine mandate. Durant’s injury history is also an issue. There is no doubt that this group has potential, but will it translate to on-court success? 

Success is by no means guaranteed, but the Nets found themselves backed into a corner and still found a way to come out on top. The 76ers didn’t come out badly from this trade, either. They were at risk of wasting Embiid’s MVP-caliber season and seemed destined to wait until the offseason to deal Simmons. Instead, they acquired one of the best offensive players in the league. Both teams upgraded, but the 76ers had to pay more to do so. 

If Simmons can return quickly to game form, the Irving situation somehow resolves itself, and Durant stays healthy, there’s not a team in the league, including the 76ers, who can stop this version of the Nets. Their biggest enemy is themselves. As this entire situation highlights, seemingly elite units can find a way to sabotage themselves. I have high hopes for this new super team, but I’m also not holding my breath. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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