The Nets are facing their biggest challenge since rising to the East’s second seed, with Kevin Durant spraining his MCL and likely to miss a month of action. His performance this season has been MVP-worthy: 29.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists a night on 62.2% shooting from two and 37.6% from three, on top of stellar all-around defense.
That kind of production can’t easily be made up, and their schedule is about to get tougher. A five-game road trip featuring the 76ers, Warriors, Suns and Jazz awaits, with Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls populating their February.
Who steps up in Durant’s absence?
Kyrie Irving will undoubtedly come with more of a scoring punch, and some guys with smaller roles will likely need to boost their output, such as TJ Warren and Joe Harris. But the real deciding factor in how well Brooklyn keeps pace without their alpha is Ben Simmons.
The key return of the James Harden trade has had a whirlwind first year as a Net, from the will-he-won’t-he play in the 2022 playoffs, to struggling to find his rhythm from injury early this season, to briefly playing terrifically again before missing more time. He’s since resigned himself offensively to being a connector during the Nets' recent run of good form, averaging 6.4 points and under six shot attempts a game in his last 13 games.
Simmons scored zero points in his first Durant-less outing, that won’t quite do. (And he missed Sunday's loss with back soreness.) If there was ever a time for him to solidify his presence on this team as the final member of an All-Star big three, it’s now.
Anybody who’s watched his career unfold knows he’s capable of scoring 20 points a game. He has a unique blend of strength, speed, and guard skills in a build straight out of a 12-year-old’s 2K MyCareer.
Getting to that average, from his current number, would make up half of the points losing Durant leaves on the table. He’ll need to address some of his weak points to do so.
Much of his passivity likely stems from his confidence at the free throw line. Simmons is currently connecting on 41.3% of his free throws, a career-low, attempting under 50 on the season and making a total of one since November.
Converting at such a poor rate makes it difficult to aggressively finish inside, with defenders aware they can safely hack away. But Simmons’s jumper has long been an issue, and it hasn’t kept him from high-scoring stretches in the past.
If he’s able to get a little more comfortable at the line, even to a 60% clip, it would open up the rest of his game and maybe save the Nets from some losses these next few weeks. This isn’t easily fixed on the fly, and may never be in Simmons’s case, but ultimately may be Brooklyn’s saving grace.
They’re just short of so much offensive creation with Durant out. Royce O’Neal, Seth Curry and Harris are very shrewd play finishers, not self-creators.
Will the Nets turn to deep bench options like Patty Mills and Cam Thomas? Will they hope Warren goes bubble mode?
Once Simmons starts looking at the rim and connecting on some of these four-to-eight-foot floaters more, defenses will need to send additional help, allowing him to capitalize on his passing game even more. It’s only as useful as how aggressively defenses come to help on Simmons.
We should also see more of point guard Simmons. With only Irving available to initiate, a return to more spread pick-and-rolls and downhill opportunities for Simmons could net him easy opportunities and boost his scoring confidence.
But perhaps the real reason Durant’s absence will fall on Simmons is his defense. An overlooked portion of Durant’s resume this season has been his impact on that end, which may be just as crucial to the Nets as his offensive contribution.
Simmons can’t entirely make up for an entire elite defensive player missing from the lineup, but he’ll have to step up his interior presence to somewhat fill the hole. Durant is second on the Nets with 1.5 blocks per game, while Simmons is more of a perimeter shutdown guy.
Once again, if it’s not Simmons it’ll have to be a gigantic collective effort.
Nic Claxton can’t be much more of an All-NBA defender. O’Neal, Harris and Warren are solid in their roles, but can’t make the major impact on that end Durant does.
Teams often see their rosters up their play when a star goes down, and the Nets should expect their guys to do so. That should keep Brooklyn smack in the postseason, but if they want to better maintain the home-court advantage they’ve built themselves, Simmons will have to finally come around to his potential.