MILWAUKEE — We were warned.
We were told Ben Simmons was going to be as rusty as an old bicycle chain. We were told that after more than a year away from basketball, it would take a while for him to get back to being the smooth playmaker that he was in his first four seasons in the NBA.
Still, did anyone expect something like this? Simmons, once a walking triple-double who could play all-world defense, is struggling mightily to find his place alongside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant with the Nets.
Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Bucks, Simmons has looked lost and frustrated while the Nets have dropped two of their first three games. In 83 minutes of play, he has totaled 17 points and 14 fouls. Even more telling is this stat: The Nets are minus-43 when Simmons is on the floor.
Things bubbled over Monday after Simmons fouled out for the second time in three games in the fourth quarter of a 134-124 loss in Memphis. Simmons said afterward he was confused by the way a game against a physical team like the Grizzlies was being called, and he had some harsh words for officials that could very well get him fined.
“It’s frustrating. It's not a foul. That was [expletive],” Simmons said when asked about his foul of Ja Morant that was his sixth of the game with 3:52 remaining and the Nets trailing by six points. “It’s fourth quarter. It's a physical, close game. You know, it's the NBA. This is not college, it’s not high school. Some people are going to get hit, some people will bleed. It’s basketball.”
And basketball is a game that shows no mercy, not even for a player like Simmons looking to get back on his feet with a new team. Morant certainly showed no mercy in baiting Simmons into his final foul.
Morant said that he remembered a game four years ago when Simmons stole the ball after he looked over at his coach. So Morant, with Simmons guarding him one-on-one, looked over his shoulder twice at coach Taylor Jenkins and waited for Simmons to make his move. Simmons lunged toward Morant and was whistled for making contact.
As creative as Morant’s move was, the big takeaway here is that it’s up to the Nets to find a way to make things work with Simmons. The player the Nets traded James Harden for last season is the pivotal piece to this puzzle, the one big roster addition to a team that was swept out of the first round of the playoffs last season.
At the start of this season, coach Steve Nash said he didn’t care if Simmons ever shot the ball. His problems so far have been far greater than that. On offense, Simmons isn’t driving to the basket enough. A player who can’t shoot jumpers and doesn’t drive to the basket isn’t much of a threat, which is something the Grizzlies seemed to realize since they didn’t even pretend to guard him Monday.
Three games are a very small sample, but Simmons is going to have to show improvement fast or things will get ugly for Nash. Nash has gone out of his way to talk up Simmons, to make it known that, unlike in Philadelphia, the Nets believe in him. And he continues to say that it’s going to take some time before Simmons gets back to being the player he was before he was sidelined by mental health and back concerns.
"I think rust," Nash said of Simmons after the Memphis loss. "I just don't think he's played a lot of basketball. So he's just trying to get his game back, his confidence and the familiarity. It's been 18 months, basically, so that's a long period of inactivity. For anyone that's played the game, you know that's very difficult."
Difficult, but at this point still possible. The clock is ticking.