Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton.

Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton. Credit: Errol Anderson, Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

MINNEAPOLIS

When the season began, one of the Nets’ problems was how to handle Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton sharing the court.

With neither player known as a shooter, when they play together, there are spacing issues that allow defenses to pack the paint. That creates a rebounding disadvantage and doesn’t allow the Nets an easy path to drive to the rim.

With the NBA having resumed play after the All-Star break, the Simmons-Claxton pairing hasn’t worked. They’ve shared the court in only six games, but Thursday’s loss to the Raptors reminded observers why the pairing has been ineffective on both ends, not just offense.

It was an issue that former coach Jacque Vaughn tried to handle, and now it’s the task for interim coach Kevin Ollie.

Simmons and Claxton mostly share time to start halves, but the numbers show how ineffective pairing the two has been.

Simmons and Claxton had played 86 minutes together entering Saturday’s game against the Timberwolves. On Thursday in Toronto, they played 18 minutes, the most they’ve shared in a game as Simmons works his way to more minutes after his back injury.

Against the Celtics on Feb. 13, they played 16 minutes, the same total they played in the season opener on Oct. 25. In three games in between, they played 11 to 15 minutes.

In those six games, the Nets had an offensive rating of 97.3 points per 100 possessions, the worst of any Nets two-man lineup that has played that many minutes.

According to Cleaning The Glass, that rating is in the lowest percentile for any two-man lineup in the league, which shows how rough it can be finding good shots with two non-shooters on the floor.

“I think that just goes back to being disciplined and not focused, knowing where we need to be at certain times and just playing our roles,” Simmons said Saturday on how to get better spacing. “I think spacing is a big part of it. And if we get to our spots, we will be fine, but it’s gonna take a little bit of time.”

But it hasn’t worked defensively, either. When both are on the court, the Nets have a defensive rating of 121.1, the third-highest among Nets two-man lineups with at least 86 minutes played.

Cleaning The Glass, which factors out garbage time, has the defensive rating at 124.3, which is in the fourth percentile among two-man lineups around the NBA.

Both numbers are surprising, given that Simmons and Claxton are regarded as great defenders. If the pairing can’t help lineups get stops, it stands to reason that they need to play together less.

To be fair, offensive and defensive rating reflects all five players on the court, not just one or two. The Nets’ issues on both sides of the floor have been well-documented. Claxton manning the middle, for example, shouldn’t be blamed for opposing teams making three-pointers.

Yet as bad as the spacing issues are on offense with Simmons and Claxton on the floor, not getting stops with both on the court is concerning.

“Just some missed rotations, guys getting some wide-open shots,” Claxton said. “Last game, some possessions not knowing exactly what defense we were in. So just cleaning all of that up with a new group and that should help with all of that, and just not over-helping too much.”

Whether it’s the eye test or the analytics, the Simmons-Claxton pairing hasn’t worked even with a small sample. But the Nets can’t avoid the pairing altogether because they’re two of the team’s best players.

Day’Ron Sharpe made progress in his third year as a backup center, but Sharpe isn’t the rim protector Claxton is. He also isn’t a shooter, so it creates the same problem as with Claxton.

The pairing will remain for at least another season. Simmons’ contract expires after next season, and given his $40.3 million price tag in 2024-25, he likely isn’t going anywhere until then.

Claxton will be a free agent after this season but the Nets are expected to re-sign him. General manger Sean Marks reiterated at the trade deadline that Claxton is part of the Nets’ core going forward.

That means the Nets must figure out how to maximize the Simmons-Claxton pairings on the court while keeping it to a minimum. Their minutes were staggered when Simmons came off the bench in two games, but now that Simmons is back as a starter, the problems have re-emerged.

It’s another thing Ollie and the Nets’ front office has to figure out.

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