SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Brooklyn Nets were embarrassed on national television on Tuesday night, falling 153-121 to the Sacramento Kings in a game so one-sided it had to be seen to be believed.
But after all these weeks of questions surrounding Ben Simmons and his latest round of health woes, there was this silver lining: He not only played, but played reasonably well. In 20 minutes of action off the bench, the much-maligned 2016 No. 1 pick scored 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting – the most points he has scored since June 14, 2021 – while adding five rebounds and three assists.
With Simmons’ lack of availability already a major issue for the Nets — not to mention his lackluster play when he had stepped foot on the court — the timing of his return couldn’t have been any better. Yet with the Nets desperately trying to save their season amid the recent departure of coach Steve Nash and the unresolved Kyrie Irving controversy, the skepticism about Simmons’ ultimate impact remains.
According to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation, the frustration surrounding Simmons had been building in recent weeks within the organization. The coaching staff and players have been concerned about his availability and level of play, with some questioning his passion for the game, those sources said. But even when he did play, Simmons’ struggles in his first nine games this season were part of the Net’s frustration as well.
Simmons made his return from May back surgery to play in the early going of this season, but recently missed eight days to have his left knee drained because of fluid. After the beginning of the season as the starting point guard tasked with playmaking and pushing the pace, Simmons has been moved to the backup center spot in his last four appearances. It marks the first time he has come off the bench over his seven seasons. He was a late scratch in Sunday’s loss to the Lakers, with the team citing left knee soreness as the reason for his absence.
In a discussion with The Athletic on Tuesday, Simmons acknowledged the criticism that he knows is coming his way and shared his view on the matter.
“You’re obviously not gonna be happy when anybody’s out,” Simmons told The Athletic. “But for me, I’ve been dealing with the knee since the start of the season. It’s been swollen. I had PRP (injections). I had drained blood a couple of times. So it’s not a made up thing, you know? It’s a real thing.
“I get (the skepticism), but I think the one thing with me is that I’m a competitor. I want to win and play. So I’m gonna do what I can to get out there.”
This early season stretch has been merely the latest setback in what has been a brutal two years for the 26-year-old. From the back problems that left the former Philadelphia 76ers star vomiting from pain and sidelined in the 2019-20 regular season to his ill-fated finish in the second round playoff series loss against Atlanta to him sitting out last season while citing his mental health before the Sixers traded him to Brooklyn, Simmons’ road has been rocky for quite some time now. He then went on to miss the playoffs due to a back issue stemming from a herniated disc. And this familiar theme — his co-workers questioning his professional desire — is one that he knows he can’t control.
“There’s only so much I can really do (about perception),” Simmons said. “You can’t make people believe, you know? They weren’t there when I was on the floor and couldn’t walk (because of his back). They weren’t there when I was in the ambulance getting taken to the hospital (after a Feb. 22, 2020 game at Milwaukee). People weren’t there, so they don’t know. That was the first episode I had against Milwaukee. That was the original trigger of it…right before COVID, the start of my back issues.
“But that’s a part of my journey. There’s times when I couldn’t walk. I had a dead foot. Couldn’t sleep. A lot of stuff was going on with me, physically, to where it was tough. But there’s only so much I can say for somebody to believe, you know?”
When it comes to this latest physical challenge, Simmons said his ailing left knee has required near-constant care while the back has been vastly improved.
“I’m on full overload with treatment, everything I need to do to stay out there,” Simmons continued. “I’m just spending more time on the table, honestly, more downtime (where) I’m literally just leg up, icing, doing whatever I need to do – sleeping.
“Yeah (the knee is a bigger problem than the back), which is good. And that’s one thing with the league. You’ll be starting to have some (trouble) with one thing and then you’re thinking about your ankle or your leg or whatever it is. That’s gonna happen, but getting it under control is the most important part for me.”
The Nets, meanwhile, desperately need Simmons to regain his All-Star form. Especially considering the chaos that has enveloped their team outside of his situation.
From the departure of head coach Nash on Nov. 1 to the indefinite suspension of Irving, they’ve dealt with their share of tumult this season. But in the midst of this pivotal stretch, with the Nets winning six of 10 games under new head coach Jacque Vaughn, they’re searching for consistency and winning rotations. Superstar Kevin Durant is playing at his usual high level, but Irving remains unavailable, and players such as Yuta Watanabe, Seth Curry and Joe Harris have gone in and out of the lineup at times due to nagging ailments.
The level of exasperation toward Simmons bubbled to the surface on Oct. 29 when the Nets held a players-only meeting following a loss to the Pacers at Barclays Center. Sources with direct knowledge of the meeting, but who were granted anonymity so that they could speak freely say that in that meeting, Markieff Morris — a veteran leader on these Nets — spoke up in front of all of his teammates about how they need Simmons to succeed and that he has to respond when he deals with adversity on the court. Those sources all described a meeting where Simmons appeared to take Morris’ words in stride and was responsive and attentive throughout.
“We had a conversation that obviously I’m not going to talk about. It was honest,” Simmons told reporters after that meeting occurred.
Simmons went on to miss the next two Nets games due to the knee issue and returned in a bench role in the Nets’ loss to the Mavericks in Dallas on Nov. 7.
Sources tell The Athletic that team officials and teammates have been in regular contact with Simmons about how to make him comfortable.
The three-time All-Star is averaging career lows across the board in his return to action following not playing at all last season. Simmons is averaging 5.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists in 27.3 minutes per night over nine games so far. He has come off the bench in his last three games as Vaughn has gone with the much-improved Nic Claxton as the starting center and Simmons as Claxton’s backup. Claxton is having a breakout season, averaging 11.9 points and 9.1 rebounds.
Still, Simmons has shown flashes of brilliance on the floor this season and the all-around attributes that have made him a two-way star throughout his career.
“It’s the consistency piece of it,” Vaughn said before Tuesday’s game when asked about his expectations for Simmons. “Trying to stabilize this group has been the challenge overall, not only the things off the court but us having people in some games, out of some games – not (playing) back to backs. So we try not to use any excuses. This is who we are. I’m gonna coach this group. Whoever’s available that day, that’s who we’re going to play.
“So he can be considered the five. He can be considered (a player who is) grabbing the rebound and pushing it, and he’s the one-slash-five. And so we’ve tried to surround him with smalls where he can dribble-handoff and push the pace, and have shooters around him. It was all based off the space piece, and we needed to maximize our space with Kevin being out there on the floor. And I think as we continue to grow together as a group, that’s going to evolve. And Ben is going to evolve, and you’ll see more and better of him.”
The Nets have $72 million of their payroll out of the lineup with Irving and Simmons, creating a tall task for sustainable winning for this roster of scrappy, hard-nosed players, including the emergence of Royce O’Neale and Edmond Sumner. Even with Simmons’ step forward, the loss against the Kings reminded them of that much.
(Top Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)