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Ben Simmons: the man who wasn’t there ... but is

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Ben Simmons didn’t travel with the Nets to Philadelphia this week. The Nets cited his rehab routine which continues as the former Sixer tries to return to form after last May’s back surgery. Of course, his lack of visibility helps the Nets avoid distracting questions about the 2022 deadline trade that sent him and other assets to Brooklyn for James Harden who is having a signature season. Moreover, he is not that popular in Philadelphia and no reason to subject him to Sixers fans. One would expect Simmons back on the bench for Games 3 and 4 in Brooklyn, but who knows.

Simmons, of course, was diagnosed with nerve impingement in his back on March 24 after not having played since February 15. During his on-again, off-again season, Simmons did not look at all like the three-time All-Star, two-time All-Defensive team, one-time All-NBA as well as former Rookie of the Year. In 42 regular-season games, only 33 of them as a starter, Simmons averaged just 6.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists while shooting 56.6%from the floor and 43.9% from the line. There were signs the player and the organization are not in sync as well. All of it leading to the consensus that Harden-for-Simmons deal could be right up there on the list of worse NBA trades ... ever.

Despite that, in the run-up to the playoffs, his teammates, particularly Spencer Dinwiddie, offered optimism that Simmons could still be a major factor in the Brooklyn rebuild, retool or whatever you want to call it.

“We all know the type of explosive and dominant player he can be on both ends of the floor when he’s healthy and when he’s right… the best thing for his career is to get right, not sacrifice too much for a playoff run, but he’s around the guys.” Dinwiddie told Fan Duel TV, adding that Simmons has been interacting with his teammates.

“He’s been a great teammate. He’s been championing the guys on. I’ve never personally dealt with a back injury and so it’s not really something I can comment on. To the older guys that I know that have, they talk about that it’s the one of the worst things in the world.”

Moreover, Simmons has switched agents, from Rich Paul to Bernie Lee, who has a reputation as a turnaround guy willing to take on difficult challenges. In case you missed it — or have forgotten it, here’s what Lee told Brian Lewis back on April 1.

“Without getting into specifics, what I’ve learned in all these conversations is that what Ben experienced here is considered to be part of the recovery from his previous procedure,” Lee told The Post. “The NBA schedule is obviously rigorous and not forgiving to the need for patience at times, and Ben made every effort to be available to help his team in every way as much as he could.

“This step at this point in time is being taken in partnership with the team to support Ben, to allow him to really get himself physically prepared to begin the start of next season — in an effort to lead the Nets in the way he’s shown over the course of his young career he’s capable of doing.”

Lee and the Nets have said that they expect Simmons to be back for training camp which would be 18 months after the surgery, the normal recovery time all contend was likely all along. (That of course raises the question why so much optimism at the beginning of the last season.)

The Nets need Simmons to be at the level he showed back in the 2019 first round Sixers win in Game 3. With the series tied, 1-1, in Brooklyn and Joel Embiid hurting, Simmons scored 31 points on 11-of-13 shooting to go along with nine assists, four rebounds, three steals and two blocks.

As Kristian Winfield wrote at the time, Simmons broke the Nets spirit.

That Ben Simmons could have made a difference in this series but the need goes well beyond what happens between Brooklyn and Philadelphia this week. The Nets owe Simmons $78.2 million over the next two years. They need to know before they move forward on their rebuild this summer how much he can deliver. At this point, without that knowledge, their decisions become more and more difficult. His contract has been cited as the worst in the NBA and that may very well be true.

If, on the other hand, Simmons could be a huge plus for Brooklyn. He’s only 26, two months older than Mikal Bridges, two months younger than Cam Johnson. Assuming the Nets re-sign Johnson and Simmons was healthy, the Nets would have a nice young threesome with stable contracts going forward ... assuming they could all fit together. The defensive possibilities with Nic Claxton are more than intriguing.

It would seem unlikely that the Nets will put Simmons forward to take media questions with they return home after Monday night’s game in Philly. For the Nets, if not their fans and an inquisitive media, that would probable be for the best. In the case of Ben Simmons, out of sight, out of mind. might be the best solution ... for now.