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Seven NBA Observations on Ben Simmons, Early Surprises, and More

The old Ben Simmons has yet to show up in Brooklyn. Plus, my thoughts on the stunning starts from the Blazers, Jazz, and Spurs as the new season gets underway.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the first full week of the 2022-23 NBA regular season in the books, here are seven early observations about a wild card in Brooklyn, a dilemma in Utah, and more:

1. The Old Ben Simmons Is Still Missing

Simmons deserves time to get back into a rhythm following a long basketball hiatus. But his first week of action is a little worrisome. Back when he was with the Sixers, he was a 16/8/8 guy who played elite defense. So far with the Nets, though, he’s looked like a shell of his former self, particularly on defense. In three games, he’s logged 14 personal fouls and just 17 points.

Simmons frequently—and unnecessarily—picks up his dribble instead of attacking the paint, almost as if he’s trying to avoid getting fouled and put on the free throw line. Opponents sag off him with no fear he’ll launch a jumper, so the lane is clogged for not only Simmons, but for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, too. In no way has he improved his jumper or free throws during his prolonged absence from the court. His only attempted shot from outside the paint was a 3-point heave and he’s missed four of his seven free throw attempts. (Worst of all, he didn’t invest any of his time off into shooting with his right hand.)

Part of the reason the Simmons-led Sixers offense still thrived in the half court is because Joel Embiid could provide space from the perimeter or dominate in the post. But Brooklyn’s centers don’t shoot, and instead feed off of rolls or cuts to the rim. Even though Simmons is timid on the attack, there’s also not much room for him to operate with.

Nets head coach Steve Nash is trying to make it work by using him as the team’s primary point guard. Simmons brings the ball up the floor on 53 percent of the possessions when he, Irving, and Durant are all in the game. That’s far more than the 29 percent for Irving, according to Second Spectrum. But when Simmons is on the bench, Irving brings the ball up 48 percent of the time, and Durant and Patty Mills see an uptick in plays initiating the offense.

The Nets take on a different personality when Simmons is in the game, and it’s hurting their offensive production. Granted, samples are tiny right now, but when Irving and Durant have shared the floor with Simmons, the Nets have been outscored by 23.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. And when Simmons is on the bench, lineups led by Irving and Durant have beaten teams by 10.4 points per 100 possessions.

It’s no surprise an offense with just one or even zero nonshooters is more effective than a lineup plagued by two. Nash doesn’t have many other options to increase spacing with Simmons other than to play him at center with Durant and Markieff Morris in the frontcourt. They’d maintain their switchability, but none of them are rim protectors like starting center Nic Claxton. Simmons is a beat slower on defense than he used to be anyway; he’s not flying around looking for steals or blocks.

Brooklyn’s offense would likely receive a boost if Simmons began setting more on-ball screens for Irving and Durant. He’d get more open opportunities on the roll or to create mismatches when the defense switches.

Fit has always been a concern regarding Simmons since he’s not a shooter and not big enough to be a primary rim protector. Embiid was, in theory, the perfect big man next to him. Maybe the Nets could offer some picks and young players to the Pacers for Myles Turner, or go bargain hunting in search of a center who can shoot and allow the Nets offense to breathe.

But most importantly, Simmons needs to find himself again—be the player who made three straight All-Star teams from 2019 to 2021. Unless he becomes an all-world defender again, it’s hard to forgive his offensive shortcomings. And unless he finds his place on offense, there won’t be a spot for him long term in Brooklyn. The season is young, but the clock is ticking fast.

2. Donovan Mitchell Dazzles Early

Darius Garland suffered an eye injury 13 minutes into Cleveland’s season opener, and his absence is an obvious blow to the team. But the silver lining is that Mitchell has received more reps than anticipated to build early chemistry with his new set of bigs: Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, and Kevin Love.

Mitchell is shredding playing alongside all three despite their different games. Love tends to pop out for more 3s, or slip the screen into the paint; together, Second Spectrum says those pick-and-rolls are generating 1.2 points per chance.

Allen sets rib-shattering screens and his hard rolls to the rim should remind Mitchell of former teammate Rudy Gobert; together, their pick-and-rolls are generating 1.3 points per chance.

And Mobley is unlike any big Mitchell has ever played with, thanks to his ability to pop behind the line, attack off the dribble, and finish above the basket. Mobley has set 29 screens for Mitchell, and the Cavaliers have scored an incredible 1.5 points per chance on those plays.

Sometimes the Cavs are sending a second screener into the action for Mitchell, whether it’s two bigs or a wing like Caris LeVert. They lost to the Raptors on the night Garland got hurt, then beat the Bulls and Wizards, so these efficiency numbers are bound to decline as the season wears on and they face stiffer defenses. But Mitchell appears to have chemistry with his frontcourt teammates already, and he’s on a heater as a scorer (33.3 points per game).

With Garland set to return on Friday, Mitchell’s next goal will be finding balance with his new backcourt partner. Mitchell’s on-ball usage will dip but Garland is one of the league’s better shot creators, and certainly better than anyone Mitchell played with in Utah. It’s possible his best is yet to come.

3. The Blazers Look Way Better Than Expected

The Blazers are undefeated entering Wednesday’s action, Damian Lillard looks like his prime self again, and Anfernee Simons has “ripped the fabric of reality,” as my colleague Tyler Parker wrote on Tuesday. Portland also has a top-10 defensive rating, which is in large part due to their additions this calendar year: Jerami Grant and Josh Hart. (Gary Payton II has yet to play.) But it’s also due to a schematic change by head coach Chauncey Billups.

Last season, center Jusuf Nurkic was asked to blitz or hedge on pick-and-rolls, which meant he’d aggressively come out above the 3-point line to disturb the ball handler. Nurkic is an enforcer but not equipped to play that style regularly. What’s different now is Nurkic is playing up to touch at the level of the screen being set, and then dropping back to the screener.

Portland has used this type of defense on 25.8 percent of pick-and-rolls, which is its most common choice, according to Second Spectrum, and way up from the 15.3 percent it averaged last season.

With better defensive personnel around him, the Blazers are still keeping Nurkic high near the ball screen—though not as high as last season—but now have the necessary help behind him to make the scheme work. Their skilled wing defenders are helping in the gaps and in the paint to deter penetration.

When Nurkic or backup center Drew Eubanks aren’t on the floor and the Blazers play small, they can switch on all screens and blitz with greater frequency. Versatility is the name of the game in today’s NBA, and though it’s early, the Blazers look like they’ve adapted.

4. Utah Faces a Strange Dilemma

After sending Rudy Gobert to Minnesota and Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland (then tossing Bojan Bogdanovic out of the side of a plane flying over Detroit), it seemed like the Utah Jazz had subtracted enough talent from the roster to compete for the worst record in the NBA.

But Utah is one of the league’s biggest surprises one week in after a 3-1 start featuring victories over three good teams. It’s a surprise turn for a squad that was built to lose. And in a season where we could see a generational tank race, these early-season wins could be the difference between having the highest draft lottery odds or not.

There’s a long way to go this season and a losing streak will inevitably come (maybe even sooner rather than later), but the Jazz look better than Danny Ainge could’ve expected when he blew up the roster this summer. Lauri Markkanen is playing better than ever, and both the team’s veterans and youngsters are excelling in the roles designed by rookie head coach Will Hardy. That said, every percentage point will matter on lotto night. Victor Wembanyama is considered by some executives and scouts to be the greatest prospect in league history. G League Ignite point guard Scoot Henderson is projected to go second and would be a clear option with the first pick any other year.

The Jazz are winning games but losing odds of landing a franchise talent in the draft, and teams around the league are wondering what Ainge will do about it. Trades usually don’t start happening until mid-December, but the Jazz have a number of veterans contributing to their early success that could be valuable to playoff teams, including Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Malik Beasley, and Rudy Gay. Could Utah get active a lot sooner than expected?

Conventional wisdom suggests a team hoping to make the playoffs, such as the Lakers, might want to make a move as the losses mount. But it will be a lot easier for them to climb back into the play-in tournament as the season progresses than it would be for the Jazz to plummet down the standings. The Lakers can leapfrog teams that want to lose, whereas the Jazz would be competing with other teams racing to the bottom.

The Jazz already have 14 future first-round picks. Their most valuable asset is their own pick in 2023. Though there is incentive to wait until more teams are ready to bid for their veterans to drive up the price, the value they could potentially gain is being swallowed up by the value they are losing by winning. It could make sense to make a move sooner rather than later to make sure they finish the season where they want to.

5. Jalen Brunson Saves Julius Randle From Himself

Tensions were high between Julius Randle and Knicks fans last season. After Randle signed a massive contract extension, his game absolutely cratered and the Madison Square Garden fans turned on him—then he returned the favor. During an early January game, Randle gave fans at MSG a thumbs-down and told them to “shut the fuck up.”

Randle went from an All-NBA darling to an overpaid enemy. But the pendulum might be swinging back in a positive direction now thanks to the addition of Brunson, whose presence has taken the ball out of Randle’s hands to make him into more of a finisher than a creator.

Brunson is steering a steady ship for the Knicks’ offense, and Randle has been a key beneficiary with pops to the outside and rolls to the rim. Plus, Randle is showing off a new trick with a soft floater upon receiving a pass that works as another weapon defenses must account for.

The Knicks lost to the Grizzlies in overtime in their opener, then beat the Pistons and Magic. They need to topple some good teams before fans are ready to trust this team again, and Randle will need to keep flourishing. But by toning down his on-ball usage, the Knicks are so far getting a better version of their veteran star.

6. Trae Young Is Evolving

Atlanta’s offseason acquisition of Dejounte Murray came as a shocker to many fans and people working around the NBA considering how ball-dominant Trae Young is as a point guard. But league sources said at the time the Hawks intended to more evenly distribute Young’s usage on and off the ball this season. Through one week, we’re seeing that plan unfold.

In the first four seasons of his career, Young used an off-ball screen just 4.8 times per game. So far this season, that number has nearly tripled to 12.3. For comparison, Second Spectrum says Steph Curry logs 13.5 per game.

Young isn’t always launching 3s off these actions. Sometimes, it just works to destabilize the defense before he attacks off the dribble toward the basket, or another screener comes in to run a pick-and-roll with him.

There’s a lot of “your turn, my turn” to Atlanta’s offense. But mixing it up adds an element of unpredictability that wasn’t present in recent years. It’s incredibly difficult to win a championship with one lone source of shot creation. That’s why the Hawks added Murray to help Young accomplish the goal that matters most.

7. The Spurs Are Young and Fun

Gregg Popovich is 73 years old, a mere 50 years the senior of the average Spurs player. Though he’s the oldest coach in the NBA, his team plays a youthful style at a fast pace, with a lot of 3s, and maximum energy at all times.

Odds are, unless you’re a Spurs fan, you haven’t tuned into a game this season. (That’s understandable—we’re only one week into the season and they were expected to be bad.) But with a 3-1 record, it’s worth introducing you to their starting lineup, ranked by how exciting I find their NBA games:

Keldon Johnson, 23, wing: A torpedo on drives to the basket with an improving jumper. He’s not the best player on a championship team, but he’s a championship-quality player because he has a knack for making the right pass and busting his butt on defense.

Jeremy Sochan, 19, forward: The Gen Z Dennis Rodman not just because of his highlight hair but because of his active two-way style. Sochan can rip down defensive boards then go coast to coast, and on offense he’s hyperaware of paint-cutting and board-crashing opportunities. If his shaky jumper develops, he has all the tools to be a great player for many years.

Devin Vassell, 22, wing: A lanky go-to scorer who can hit contested jumpers with a hand in his face. His game looks like Khris Middleton’s, since he can do so much more than just score. And with long arms, he gets stops on defense. The Spurs don’t have a clear future star, but Vassell’s combination of shot making and defensive versatility give him the best path.

Tre Jones, 22, point guard: An advanced playmaker with telepathic chemistry with Jakob Poeltl. He’s dramatically improved as a scorer with his newfound chances following the departure of Dejounte Murray. Factor in his feisty defense and he’s built to play in the NBA for a decade.

Jakob Poeltl, 27, center: An enforcer around the rim on both offense and defense, one of the best rebounders in the league, and he has a feel for making highlight passes out of the short roll.

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’ll say it anyway. What the hell,” Popovich said on media day. “Nobody here should go to Vegas with the thought of betting on us to win the championship.”

But Popovich was given a roster with intelligent, gritty players and he has them playing well early on, giving fans a watchable and lovable team. If the Spurs compete hard all year, maybe the basketball gods will reward them come lottery night.