PHILADELPHIA -- Former teammates Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid squared off against each other for the first time since Simmons was traded from Philadelphia to Brooklyn last February on Wednesday night. The matchup was highly anticipated and the game lived up to the hype as the Sixers pulled out a 137-133 victory over the Nets in front of a raucous crowd at the Wells Fargo Center.
Simmons, however, spent the final eight minutes and 57 seconds of the game glued to Brooklyn's bench, as coach Jacque Vaughn opted to go in a different direction due, in part at least, to Simmons' overall lack of aggression -- a concerning trend that has followed Simmons from Philly to New York.
Despite playing over 16 minutes, Simmons went scoreless in the first half against the Sixers while attempting just a single shot. Then, it was like someone reminded him at halftime that he's 6'10" and super athletic because he looked like a different player in the third quarter. He came out aggressive and actually looked to attack the basket like he used to do when he was making All-Star teams as a member of the Sixers. Simmons attempted five shots and scored 10 points in that third quarter. He even connected on both of his free throws. But then he played just three minutes in the final frame before being subbed out, never to return.
Overall, Simmons' performance against Philadelphia felt like a microcosm of his entire season up to this point. There were glimpses of the bellicose baller that he once was, but overall he was largely a passive non-factor, especially on the offensive end. With Kevin Durant sidelined, the Nets have needed other guys to step up on the offensive end, and while guys like Kyrie Irving (30 points, 10 assists against Philly), Nic Claxton (25 points, 11 rebounds) and Seth Curry (32 points) have answered the call, Simmons simply hasn't.
Sure, Simmons is still one of the league's more versatile defenders, but if he can't be consistently relied on offensively, there's no guarantee that he's going to be on the court in crunch time. That was clearly the message that Vaughn wanted to get across by benching Simmons down the stretch in Philadelphia.
"I think overall it's the message I kind of talked about before the game. We're going to get every guy, and that's including Ben [Simmons] to value every possession," Vaughn said of the decision after the game. "To play hard every possession. And just because you play the first half, it doesn't mean you're going to play the second half.
"We really want to get to a point where your teammate is dependent on you. Dependent on you to do your job every single night and every single possession. Ben showed more ability to play with force in the second half, which paid off, which is what we need, which is great for our team. And then down the stretch, with us being down, I just wanted to space the floor and get more shooting out there. See if we would climb back into the game no matter what the size was or anything."
It can already be a tough task to play Simmons in the guts of the game due to his aversion to shooting, which makes it easier for opposing defenses to apply pressure elsewhere. If he's not even going to consider trying to get the ball to the rim, the game against the Sixers won't be the last time he spends the stretch run on the bench.
You could watch any Nets game this season and point out at least a couple of plays where Simmons' lack of aggression jumps off the screen, and here's just a pair of examples from the first half of the game against the Sixers:
When it comes to Simmons' season and his lack of aggression, one stat is especially telling. In the 36 games that he's appeared in, Simmons has more personal fouls (127) than made field goals (124). That's astonishing, especially for a max player making over $35 million this season.
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A couple of years ago, the popular refrain regarding Simmons was that he needed to add a 3-point shot to his repertoire. Now, people -- especially those in Brooklyn's front office -- just want to see him take opportunities around the rim when they're presented to him. The hope of Simmons ever developing into any sort of a reliable shooter from long distance feels like a dashed dream at this point.
While shooting is a skill, aggression is a mindset, so Simmons is in control of his own fate here. If he can figure out a way to consistently bring that force that Jacque Vaughn is looking for, then he'll solidify his spot as a key contributor for a Nets team with championship aspirations. If not, then his future with the franchise -- both short and long-term -- comes into question.