But while Bridges — an elite defender and ascending scorer — quickly established himself as a dependable building block after February’s trade to Brooklyn, the more-decorated Simmons enters the 2023-24 season as the Nets’ biggest wild card.
That’s because Simmons, a three-time All-Star point guard, is trying to return to form following back-to-back injury-plagued seasons, including a disappointing 2022-23 campaign that ended after 42 games due to a lingering back ailment.
He says he’s finally healthy now, and after an encouraging-but-inconsistent preseason, all eyes will be on Simmons when the Nets kick off their regular season Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Barclays Center.
“This is the best I’ve felt in two years,” Simmons, 27, said on Oct. 9 after the Nets’ first preseason game. “For sure.”
The Nets, who acquired Simmons in the 2022 trade that sent James Harden to Philadelphia, certainly hope so.
In his four seasons with the 76ers, the 6-10 Simmons was a top-tier ball distributor whose size-and-speed combination made him nearly impossible to guard in transition and just as difficult to score against.
Brooklyn is yet to see that version. A herniated disk in Simmons’ lower back required surgery in May 2022, delaying his team debut until last season. Simmons then averaged only 6.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.1 rebounds — significantly below his career marks.
In four preseason games this month, Simmons showed flashes of the player who averaged 15.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.9 assists during his 76ers career.
He looked explosive on transition dunks against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Israeli club Maccabi Ra’anana; played passing lanes well en route to five steals; and repeatedly demonstrated his rare playmaking ability by averaging an NBA-leading seven assists per game. A no-look, behind-the-back pass that led to a Dinwiddie three-pointer against Philadelphia was particularly highlight-worthy.
But Simmons struggled with turnovers this preseason. He was charged with eight in the loss to the 76ers, which he and coach Jacque Vaughn attributed to a new-look roster getting used to his unique style of play. His scoring also remained down, and while he’s played with a steady pace, he’s yet to unleash the locomotive-like speed rivaled by only Giannis Antetokounmpo among players of that size.
“All these guys play a level of basketball in preseason that will get ticked up,” Vaughn said after Monday’s practice. “The first 10 games of the year, the metrics are off the board of how hard people play … so our dudes will play harder than they’ve been playing, and Ben fits in that bucket.”
Few, if any, NBA players enter the season with a bigger range of outcomes than Simmons.
A healthy Simmons would allow the Nets to play the run-and-gun style of team offense they desire as they move away from the isolation basketball Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving commanded in recent seasons.
But if Simmons falters, it could prove disastrous for a Nets team lacking top-end talent after the departures of Durant and Irving. The Nets need Simmons, a former No. 1 overall pick, to create a nightly advantage as their matchup-nightmare floor general who puts his teammates in positions to succeed.
Simmons’ fast-paced, pass-first style complements Bridges, who is among the NBA’s best at moving without the ball; Dinwiddie, who excelled as a catch-and-shoot option next to Luka Doncic with Dallas; and Cam Johnson, who shoots three-pointers at 39.3% for his career.
“The potential there is huge,” Johnson said recently. “I’m excited, man. I can just get to open spots on the floor and he’ll find me? That sounds good to me. … For me as a shooter, there’s nobody else, really, that I’d rather play with.”
Simmons, a two-time All-Defensive first team honoree, also fits what the versatile Nets want to do on that side of the ball as someone who can guard multiple positions.
These are big question marks, considering it’s been two years since Simmons excelled when the games count. Preseason tempo is much different from that of the regular season, as is the 82-game grind.
“I think my IQ, the way I play the game, [can] affect the game in multiple ways without the athleticism that, at the end of the day, I got it back,” Simmons said after the Nets’ Oct. 12 win over Maccabi Ra’anana. “I’m still fast. I still jump high. I’m still strong.”
Simmons has said he played hurt last season and needed the summer to put the back issues behind him. He’s referenced regular treatment, pilates and weightlifting as keys to staying healthy.
“I’ve been taking care of my body every day,” Simmons said. “It’s become habit and routine. There’s not a day I miss where I’m not doing something to be at a high level and stay at this high level. The communication side with Jacque has been great. I let him know if I need a day or some time or less load in terms of deceleration or running.”
The summer helped him bolster a relationship with Vaughn that Simmons has described as being “a little up and down” at the start.
“We’ve been able to talk through that moment of our lives where I expected him to do things that I’ve come to understand that physically he wasn’t able to do,” Vaughn, a former NBA point guard, said during a preseason press conference last month.
“The things I’m gonna ask him to do going forward, I think he can physically do now.”
Soon enough, the Nets will find out exactly what Simmons can do.
“I’m not one to really talk too much, in terms of media and things like that, when it’s not needed,” Simmons said on Oct. 12. “It’s fun to just come out here and play my game and let everyone else do the talking.”