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Lewis: Ben Simmons agent says client will be healthy ‘for sure’ by camp, but experts not so sure

Houston Rockets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Ben Simmons new agent, Bernie Lee, thinks that his client will be back in Brooklyn by next season, ready to go after what has been two miserable years marked by a holdout in 2021-22, off-season back surgery, then a miserable year in Brooklyn that ended with him and the Nets admitting he isn’t healthy enough to play.

“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 Brian Lewis. “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 has a Mr. Fixit reputation among agents. Simmons, who is certainly in need of a restart, joined him earlier this month after leaving Klutch Sports and Rich Paul. Now, Lee and his Thread Management team will be looking to get Simmons back on the court and helping the Nets and Simmons get on the same page. While Simmons is only three weeks older than Mikal Bridges, two seem to be headed in different directions, much of it the result of the LSU product’s back issues.

The big question, put simply, is just how long and how difficult Simmons recovery from May 2022 back surgery will be. While fans and apparently the organization had hoped for Simmons to return to his All-Star, All-Defense form this season, Simmons had cautioned everyone last November that while he intended to work through his recovery, things related to the the back issues take time, as Lewis points out.

“It takes time to build, especially with having a nerve injury,” Simmons said back in November. “It takes 18 months for your nerves to fully heal. People don’t know that. But over time, you know, I get better and better. Just keep pushing.”

Lee says that what has laid Simmons low is not a new issue, but one related to that surgery 11 months ago.

“Noise is simply that: noise. It is neither motivating nor defeating. It simply exists,” Lee said. “Ben will continue to remain singularly focused on keeping the main thing the main thing.”

In talking to Lee and back experts, Lewis reports that while there is a lot of hope, there is also some skepticism about whether Simmons road back will be smooth, with one doctor suggesting the possibility of a second, if less significant, back surgery.

“Remember, nerves regenerate — if they can — about a millimeter a day, depending on the damage that’s there,” said Dr. Rahul Shah, a Board-Certified Orthopedic Spine & Neck Surgeon and partner with Premier Orthopedic Associates in New Jersey. “So assuming he’s roughly 7 feet tall, or three and a half feet from his hips down to his foot, that’s what you’re looking at: about 18 months to two years for the nerve to fully regenerate. Or to whatever extent they can.”

Dr. Neel Anand, an orthopedic spine surgeon and co-director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center (affiliated with the Los Angeles hospital where Simmons had his procedure last year), told Lewis that Simmons’ back surgery alleviated a lot of the pressure and pain, it doesn’t make the nerve “normal.”

“He had a microdiscectomy … an operation to remove a herniated disc that’s pressing on a nerve,” Dr. Anand told The Post. “The surgery only takes the disc out and takes the pressure away from the nerve. It doesn’t make the nerve normal. The nerve is damaged, injured or whatever. The nerve has to recover on its own. … Yes, it would be right to say it might take 18 months for it to get better.”

Shah also thinks it’s possible that Simmons would need a second surgery.

“[It’s] the most likely scenario,” Dr. Shah said. “The surgery that he had has a roughly 15 to 20 percent chance of a repeat disc herniation. This isn’t out of the ordinary, so we have to go with the odds that this is going to be a repeat disc herniation.

“If that’s the case, the reality is he has a good chance of getting a smaller procedure done, and it will just take a rehab that will be a little bit longer than the rest of this season. … Not all repeat herniations need another operation, but in Ben Simmons’ case, there’s a good chance it will because it’s not responding to anything else.”

When the Nets shut down Simmons, Jacque Vaughn said that the Nets had consulted with a number of specialists about the Nets guard/forward, all of whom believed a full recovery was in the cards, but he could not rule out surgery only saying that’s not in the cards, at least as of now.

“As recommended right now and by the doctors, that is not in sight. That’s the recommendation right now,” said the head coach.

When asked whether Simmons would need another surgery this offseason, Lee was noncommittal.

“We’ve spent the last period of time along with the Nets really canvassing a broad spectrum of specialists from around the country to get both a full understanding of what’s going on right now, why and what the best plan is moving forward to allow Ben to fully resume his career at the highest level,” Lee said.

“We feel like we have a very pragmatic plan in place that will lead to Ben’s return to his highest form, which is what everyone clearly wants. I have zero doubts in his ability to do this based on the information we’ve been given.”

The Nets need to get Simmons back. He is still owed $78.2 million over the course of the next two years. His contract has been called the worst in the NBA with some pundits speculating that the only way to dump him is to give up some serious draft capital in a salary dump. The other option, at least at the moment, is to waive and stretch him, but that would mean the Nets would be stuck with $15.6 million in dead money on the books through 2027-28. Brooklyn doesn’t seem to be interested in doing either but will rather wait things out, see how Simmons progressed. A healthy Simmons combined with some of the Nets newly acquired assets would give Brooklyn one of the league’s top defenses. After all, Simmons was runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2020-21 just as Bridges was in 2021-22 and Nic Claxton could be this season.

And there is a precedent for a young big like Simmons to return to form: the Nuggets 6’10” Michael Porter Jr., who had three back surgeries before he was 23, spoke about Simmons earlier this year as Lewis recounts.

“The biggest thing that happens with a back injury — whether it’s a back strain or sprain or things that I dealt with or Ben Simmons has dealt with — is it takes awhile for the explosiveness and athleticism and all those things that come back,” Porter Jr. said.

“People are so hard on Ben Simmons. But I know what he’s going through as far as he’s able to play right now, but he’s not back to Ben Simmons, and it’ll take awhile for him to have all the explosiveness,” Porter said. “I watched a little highlight video from a couple years ago — he’s just flying down the lane. He’ll get that back, but it just takes time. Anything with the back, it just inhibits a little bit of explosiveness.”

Porter Jr. is currently averaging 17.2 points in 59 games this season.

No matter what happens this summer, expect Simmons health to be as big question as there is for Sean Marks as he retools. If the Nets believe in Simmons and Lee gets him back on track, that would certainly affect what Brooklyn does. In fact, the Nets summertime moves may be as good an indicator as any about whether the Nets believe he’ll be back and when.

Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett on Showtime had his own opinion on Simmons being shut down. While lamenting Simmons back issues, he also wondered aloud whether Simmons love of the game is where it should be.

“I want you go back and find your roots. Go back and find why you love playing the game… There’s Melo, Cousins at home, Dwight. There’s n—s at home that could be in the league. If your heart ain’t in it, it is what it is.”