Before the Nets departed for the All-Star break, a week-long pause during which head coach Jacque Vaughn was left to imagine rotation tweaks instead of executing them, a three-minute snippet was added to his sample collection. And, in Vaughn’s mind, it worked.
Ben Simmons, the 6-foot-10 point guard in search of a concrete role, and Nic Claxton, the tallest Net at 6-11, were both on the court for 2:57 in the third quarter against the Heat on Feb. 15. It’s not what Vaughn would have preferred — he likes spacing and speed — but as long as their pairing doesn’t happen for long stretches, “sometimes it makes sense,” he said.
“There’s some time when Ben might guard a perimeter guy or Nic can guard a perimeter guy, and then we still have another big to protect us at the rim,” Vaughn said in a Zoom call Wednesday. “So I’ll probably always lean into [spacing and pace], but have that in the back of my pocket, for sure.”
Therein lies the Nets’ issue with Simmons. Vaughn would rather not have him and Claxton together on the court. At the same time, he reiterated Wednesday that Seth Curry, working his way back from a left adductor strain, is the Nets’ backup point guard behind Spencer Dinwiddie.
Because of that, the ongoing Simmons conundrum — the Nets’ biggest personnel concern prior to the All-Star break and their biggest one for the second half of the season — appears as if it’ll continue.
Simmons’ numbers have dipped to career-lows for minutes, points, assists, steals and rebounds per game. The massive numbers of his contract, two years left for a total of $78 million, haven’t changed. And the Nets have 24 games to find a solution before a different type of question — involving Simmons’ status on the team and those salary numbers — becomes even more relevant.
“We still got some mixing to do,” Vaughn said of the rotation, starting with the game Friday against the Bulls. “But yeah, got a chance to script out some potential lineups over the break for sure.”
Simmons hasn’t started since the trade deadline, when the Nets parted ways with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and brought in a plethora of rotation players — hoping they could all patch together into something passable. After attempting seven shots against the Bulls on Feb. 9, Simmons has seven combined across the Nets’ past three games.
Vaughn soliloquized about the Nets’ pressing issue following a Feb. 13 loss to the Knicks. He used phrases like finding a lineup that “fits around Ben,” or a position that “fits for Ben.” He talked about the need for spacing when another big man, like Claxton, slots around him. There were questions about Simmons playing off the ball, about him rebounding, about anything that had to do with him on the court.
“So the challenges are ahead of us,” Vaughn said that night. “We’ll look them head on. We’ll figure it out. We have the personnel to figure it out.”
In the Nets’ next game, against the Heat, Simmons came in for Claxton just four minutes into the opening quarter, and as the only substitution at that moment, he had a chance to log nearly four minutes with the rest of the starters. He started by making a shot near the basket. Then, he assisted on a 3-pointer from Mikal Bridges.
“That was a good look that was kind of appealing to the group,” Vaughn said Wednesday of that early substitution. “Because Nic can play with both groups, and Nic’s ability to defend and protect the rim for us with either group is huge for us.”
Vaughn thought the All-Star break was helpful for all of the Nets, including Simmons, because it allowed them to return with a “clean slate of juice.” But that time off gave Curry, who made a brief nine-minute cameo against the Heat, more time to recover, too.
Curry is in the team’s 10-man rotation as the sub for Dinwiddie for now, per Vaughn. It’ll involve a “little test-run” because Curry can play with both groups, he added.
But those assertions directly connect back to the same unsolved question: where, if anywhere, Simmons slots into the lineup. The next two dozen games, for better or for worse, will reveal the answer.