Is it all about Ben?
While the Nets front office works in Brooklyn finalizing the roster and a big contingent of players, coaches and staff board a charter for Las Vegas and the NBA Summer League, the team’s highest paid player (by far) is in Miami, working out, rehabbing from back and nerve issues, his status uncertain.
Ben Simmons, who at $37.9 million this season will make $10 million more than the newly re-signed Cam Johnson, remains a mystery. First of all, will he be a Brooklyn Net when the team gathers in earnest this October for training camp. Assuming that, the next question is how good can he be? Is he going to return to form that saw him make the All-Star three times, the All-NBA team once and All-Defensive team twice, even finishing as the runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year three seasons back? Putting aside that litany of accomplishments, can he be the guy who if need be will dominate a game. Some Nets fans remember that Ben Simmons, the one who when the first round of the 2019 playoffs was tied, he did this...
With no Joel Embiid and the series at an inflection point, Simmons scored 31 points on 11-of-13 shooting even hitting 9-of-11 from the line, adding nine assists, four rebounds, three blocks and two steals and one big win. The 76ers went up, 2-1.
Of course, a LOT has happened since. After being severely criticized (fairly or unfairly) for his performance in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis two years later, he held out until the 76ers and Nets worked the deadline deal that saw him and Brooklyn’s own unhappy point guard, James Harden, trade places. Then, with a worsening back condition, Simmons never took the court the rest of 2022 and underwent back surgery on May 5 in Los Angeles. The hope that he’d return to form last season quickly evaporated. He simply wasn’t the same player. After only 42 games, he was shut down. Worse, he did not look like the Ben Simmons of old, his averages well below career numbers, his back not fully healed, his knee giving his trouble. It was a bad time. Between February 6 and 15, the Nets lost Kyrie Irving, then Kevin Durant in trades, then Simmons went to the bench and didn’t return. The team and its stars were decidedly not in sync.
Things ARE getting better. Simmons has a new agent, Bernie Lee, who has both an exclusive clientele led by Jimmy Butler and a reputation as being a Mr. Fixit in the NBA. While getting Simmons back on the court has been his top priority, Lee has also striven to repair the relationship between the player and the organization. Rich Paul, Simmons former agent and the man who ran his holdout, is more confrontational, in the spotlight. Lee works behind the scenes, below the surface.
On the court down in Miami where he was working out with David Duke Jr. and Royce O’Neale, reports are positive. He didn’t need a second surgery on his back, always a possibility, and we are told that he is in as good a physical and mental state as he has been since joining Brooklyn. He looks stronger, as his Instagram account has shown (and no, the images of the swole, bare-chested Simmons were not photoshopped.)
He and the Nets decided against him playing for Australia in the FIBA World Cup this summer, believing that cutting short his rehab by three weeks wouldn’t be worth the added reps Simmons could have gotten playing in Asia. Sean Marks has publicly targeted September 1 as the date when he and the Nets performance team had hoped Simmons would be ready to go. The Melbourne native would have had to join the Boomers camp the first week of August, then travel to Japan and if the team was successful, on to the Philippines.
On Monday, Draymond Green spoke about Simmons on Paul George’s podcast, attributing Simmons issues to a loss of confidence as others nodded...
"You've seen people lose confidence in their game... Like Ben Simmons... He's still the same Ben Simmons we watch dominate in Philly. The only difference... is confidence... I know how it feels to lose confidence."— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) July 3, 2023
But that sentiment, as positive as it sounds, doesn’t take into account the effects of his back surgery. It was never just about his mental health, despite the bleating of Philly fans. His back issues have been very real. For two years, it should be noted, he tried to avoid going under the knife, being willing to endure pain. Of course, not being physically right can tax the player’s mental health.
Will he be that athletic player who so dominated the Nets and the NBA back in 2019? After his physical issues arose this year, word was that it can take up to 18 months to fully recover from back surgery. So, hopefully yes.
Then, there’s the issue of where on the court he should play. It was something that frustrated Jacque Vaughn, as he noted after a particularly vexing performance in the Nets loss to the Knicks shortly after the trade deadline.
“It’s going to be some work that we have to do,” said the head coach. “Because, you just take a look at what the lineups could potentially look like. You put another big next to Ben, then you got to figure out what the spacing is around him. Then, if you put another playmaker next to him, then you got to figure out what Ben looks like without the basketball. Then, if you go small with Ben, then you have to figure out can you rebound enough with him?”
There were suggestions last year that Simmons could play the 1 on offense, the 4 on defense, but with him hurt or unavailable, that experiment was never really run.
Simmons won’t have the pressure he did last year, playing with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, being part of a championship contender. As he works to get back to his old form — or close enough, Ben Simmons will have a broader comfort zone, a lesser light.
Yes, there’s always the possibility that the Nets could move him this summer. He’s been mentioned as a potential piece in a three-team deal that would send Damian Lillard to Miami, Tyler Herro to Brooklyn, and him to Portland but those rumors are just that and from what NetsDaily can learn wildly exaggerated.
So like so much of this off-season, Nets fans will wait and see. Of course, it’s always good to be skeptical about Simmons chances. Too much has happened since 2019 for there not to be. Then again, if he can play to his full powers, it could very well change the Nets trajectory. It’s not just about the money — $78.2 million over two years. Simmons is the only Nets player to ever suit up for the All-Star Game and could be, along with Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton, the core of a very, very good defensive team. He could, under some circumstances, also help with the Nets height deficit. He has, after all, averaged eight rebounds — from the point — over the course of his career.
He is also still only 26, three months younger than Cam Johnson, one month older than Mikal Bridges, well within the Nets timeline. We had hoped we’d see him play in August at the World Cup, but now we’ll have to wait till at least October 9 when the Nets play their first preseason game in Las Vegas. That’s okay. We’ve waited a long time already.
- Draymond Green points to one thing holding Ben Simmons back from Nets success - Christian Arnold - New York Post