NEW YORK -- When the Brooklyn Nets traded for Ben Simmons, it was supposed to make the team more balanced. They would no longer have that otherworldly scoring punch that they had with James Harden next Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but they wouldn't have the same glaring deficiencies on defense and on the glass, either. Simmons' mere presence was supposed to give Brooklyn new life, nudging his teammates away from isolation pull-ups and toward fun stuff: ball movement, player movement, transition play.
But, of course, none of that happened. The enduring image of Simmons' 2021-22 season is him sitting on the bench at Barclays Center during Game 3 of the Nets' series against the Boston Celtics, looking like an "I Think You Should Leave" character, wearing orange pants, orange sunglasses and a purple-and-blue jacket in a sea of black and white.
The dream, however, is not dead. After a sweep, major surgery and a superstar standoff, Brooklyn is back and Simmons is healthy. His game still makes a ton of sense next to Durant and Irving, and he's still speaking reverentially about Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. On a podcast with JJ Redick, he said that the Nets are a "special team" and will be the champs "if we get it all together."
About that: Simmons is not a plug-and-play kind of guy. He's kind of a point guard, kind of a big, sometimes a screener, sometimes a ballhandler -- though definitely not a shooter. Defensively, he can do virtually everything, but even that could change the way Brooklyn plays: Why switch so often when Nash can keep Simmons attached to the opponent's best player?
"I kind of have a head start because I kind of know how to play with Ben already," Seth Curry said at media day on Monday. "So it takes a little adjustment for some guys, some guys are going to have to get used to it, just his spacing and the way he pushes the ball and some of his playmaking."
Curry also said that having Simmons around "allows us to play a lot of different ways." This is particularly true in comparison to last year's Nets, who, with Simmons and Joe Harris sidelined, could play only two kinds of lineups: tiny ones that couldn't defend and bigger ones that couldn't space the floor. Harris is back after two ankle surgeries, and Royce O'Neale, the 3-and-D guy who arrived in a very strange trade, complements the stars on both ends.
"We should be one of the most talented teams in league on paper," Curry said. "And it's our job to come in and put it together and make it a real team, make it look good and see what we can do."
Easier said than done, especially after Durant tried to force his way out of town and Irving failed to come to terms on a long-term contract. We'll see if the bad vibes are simply too much to overcome. Then again, winning tends to change the vibe pretty quickly, and this team has the potential to do a lot of it. How tenuous this situation is behind the scenes can't be separated from the way the Nets jell on the court. If they truly believe they have an opportunity to do something special, they won't throw it away.
Nets believer: I have to admit something: I'd prefer not to say that much about the Nets right now. I just want to quietly state that they're the most underrated team in years, they should be the favorites to win the championship and a lot of people are going to feel foolish for focusing so much on soap-opera stuff at the expense of basketball. I hate soap operas!
Nets skeptic: Are you seriously saying you wouldn't watch a soap opera based on last year's Nets? I'd call it "The Young and the Rested." You know, because Kyrie was pretty well-rested ...
Nets believer: Oh, boy. Uh, like I said, people are overlooking Brooklyn for non-basketball reasons. I expect this team to have the best offense in the league, like it did two years ago, and to be above-average on defense, health-permitting. There's so much shooting here that Ben Simmons must be in a constant state of jubilation. Can you imagine a better situation for him?
Nets skeptic: I can absolutely imagine a better situation for him: Any situation in which people don't have to talk themselves into him playing center. If he can't play with Nic Claxton, then I don't see him solving the Nets' problems with defense and rebounding. And against good defensive teams, i.e. any of the teams they could face in the second round, I really don't think he can play with Claxton.
Nets skeptic: Not the same thing! Yeah, sure, if the Nets are running Steve Kerr's offense, they can play two complete non-shooters … provided that Kyrie and KD are willing to run around like the Splash Brothers and Simmons is content to do a Draymond impression. Have you gotten the impression at any point since KD left Golden State that he misses Kerr's offense? How do you think he'd react if the guy he tried to get fired proposes playing that way?
Nets believer: They don't have to play exactly like the Warriors. They just have to commit to a less iso-heavy system. This really shouldn't be so hard to imagine -- has last year's series of unfortunate events rendered you incapable of remembering how they played the year before? Nash had KD, Kyrie and -- wait for it -- James Harden playing a cohesive brand of basketball, and they were unstoppable. The personnel is different now, but the idea is exactly the same.
Nets skeptic: I'm sorry if I'm not convinced that this particular coach is going to get this particular team to come together and play harmonious basketball. This is one of those situations when the off-the-court BS isn't just off-the-court BS.
Nets believer: Will you at least admit that this roster is way better than last year's? The Nets don't have a zillion old bigs anymore, and Claxton looks 10 times stronger than he was a year ago. Royce O'Neale is exactly the type of wing they needed, T.J. Warren might be the steal of the offseason and I'm calling it right now: Edmond Sumner is the new Bruce Brown. They don't even necessarily need anything from Cam Thomas, Kessler Edwards or Day'Ron Sharpe this season, but I bet at least one of them pops.
Nets skeptic: What, no love for Yuta Watanabe? I'm actually higher on him than most of the guys you just mentioned -- all he needs to do to stick in the rotation is make a decent amount of his 3s. Anyway, if the bar is "better than the team that got swept in the first round," then yes, I admit that this roster clears it. But this is once again a pretty fragile ecosystem, and I'd bet against everything going just right. Also: They needed a taller version of O'Neale, a healthy version of Warren and a shootier version of Sumner. I don't think the young guys are ready, and I don't get why they let Brown go.
Nets believer: I don't see this team as being all that fragile. If Irving misses a few weeks, Brooklyn will still have more than enough weapons. If Harris misses a few weeks, it will not be some kind of calamity. If Irving and Harris and Simmons are all sidelined at the same time, then, sure, that's a problem, but there isn't a team in the NBA that is well-equipped to be without three-fifths of its starting lineup. This is why I disagree Durant's criticism of last year's team.
Nets skeptic: Of course you do. And not only do I agree with Durant, I think that they're about to have the same issues. I won't be surprised if you feel real smug about your Nets optimism a few weeks into the season, only for them to crumble the first time they hit any sort of adversity. And when we're talking about Irving's free agency and the possibility of another Durant trade request, you'll whine about it, I guess.
The curiosity: Kessler Edwards
The Nets tried a bunch of stuff to mitigate their fundamental problem against Boston, but they simply couldn't get enough defense and shooting on the court at the same time. Edwards had a short stint in each of the first two games, then watched the rest of the series from the bench -- the Celtics didn't guard him at all, and he picked up quick fouls on defense.
In the regular season, though, the 22-year-old Edwards made the most of his low-usage role. He's not a reliable enough shooter to be called a 3-and-D guy, but he's long, active, athletic and willing to let it fly. In other words, there's an obvious role for him on a team like this, provided that the shot comes along.