The Brooklyn Nets ruled out Ben Simmons for the remainder of the season Tuesday, officially ending the three-time All-Star's underwhelming 2022-23 campaign.
Simmons was diagnosed with a nerve impingement in his back Friday after 15 consecutive absences post-All-Star break. The 26-year-old sat out all of last season while citing a back injury and mental health issues before undergoing a microdiscectomy on a bulging disk during the offseason.
The shutdown comes after Simmons missed three extended periods during the first half of the season with knee, calf and back ailments. When on the floor, the first-year Net looked like a shell of his old self, averaging 6.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 6.1 assists in 42 appearances. Following the trades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, a precarious string of events has cast doubt over Simmons' future with the franchise.
After the big man exited a Jan 28 matchup vs. Detroit with knee soreness, head coach Jacque Vaughn appeared to roll his eyes when clarifying Simmons' injury status:
Jacque Vaughn rolls his eyes after talking about Ben Simmons "Knee Soreness" 🤣 #Netsworld pic.twitter.com/ZlztIdnvsE
— Jeri Tsai (@JeriTsaiNets) January 27, 2023
Vaughn proceeded to give an interesting answer when asked if there was concern about Simmons continuing to play back-t0-backs:
“The goal in my eyes is for everyone to play every game and to do what’s necessary to be prepared to play every game,” the coach replied. “There’s a certain amount of minutes that each individual played (last night) in Philly, some played equally tonight. So the preparation that it takes going into that, you just have to give credit to the guys who were prepared to play, ready to play, did what was necessary to get their bodies ready to play.”
Upon his return from a five-game absence, Simmons was demoted from the starting five to the bench, at which time Simmons said he had “no idea” what his role with the team would be moving forward.
“I have no idea. Everything’s been changing all year so it’s hard to really understand what’s going on,” he said. “But hopefully we find some rhythm and consistency. It’s different. It’s a different experience (coming off the bench).”
When asked if the role change, which coincided with a minutes reduction, was received positively by Simmons, Vaughn offered a vague but telling response:
“As I said before, I’ll be honest with the message,” he replied. “You might not like the message, anyone that I give the message to, but 10-15 years from now you’ll know that I was honest and upfront with you.”
During the same press conference, the coach openly shared Simmons' uncertainty regarding his fit with the new-look roster:
“It’s gonna be some work that we have to do,” Vaughn said of Simmons’ role. “You put another big next to Ben, then you got to figure out what the spacing is around him. If you put a playmaker next to him, then you have to figure out what Ben looks like without the ball. Then if you go small with Ben, you’ve gotta figure out can you rebound enough with him… So challenges are ahead of us.”
Brooklyn played the Miami Heat the day after the pair of exchanges. It would be Simmons' last game of the season. All of this begs the question:
Will he ever play for the Nets again?
Simmons is due $78 million over the next two seasons, making his deal arguably the league's worst contract. In any trade, the Nets would need to attach draft compensation to dump Simmons to a team with cap space. Brooklyn has no shortage of picks following the Durant and Irving trades, but would such a move make sense for a team that just reset its timeline?
The answer depends on several factors.
The first is whether the team has confidence that Simmons can return to anything resembling his old form. Any belief would be rooted in the hope that the Aussie's ailing back can make a full recovery.
The microdiscectomy Simmons underwent last offseason has been performed on numerous NBA players including Brook Lopez, Michael Porter Jr. and Dwight Howard. A study by the National Library of Medicine found that players who had the surgery “played significantly fewer games the following season and had a larger decrease in Player Efficiency Rating” as compared to those with the injury who did not. However, it found that players who had the procedure typically return to their normal level of play in the second post-operative season and have longer careers.
Vaughn said Tuesday that another surgery has not been discussed as Simmons moves into a rehabilitation period.
The LSU product did show flashes of his old self during a six-game November stretch in which he averaged 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists on 82 percent shooting. However, he was quickly forced out by a calf strain soon after. Simmons' impact throughout his career has been predicated on strength and explosive athleticism, two attributes that were severely lacking as he battled injury this season.
Ben Simmons put up a season-high 22 PTS while shooting 84.6% from the field to lead the @BrooklynNets to victory! #NetsWorld
🔥 @BenSimmons25: 22 PTS (11-13 FGM) | 8 REB | 5 AST pic.twitter.com/ELBiNYsZFw
— NBA (@NBA) November 21, 2022
If the Nets don't believe Simmons can return to form both physically and mentally, a trade would only serve to get them out of the luxury tax. Offloading Simmons does not project to open cap space next season. Any perceived benefit – outside of owner Joe Tsai's pockets – would stem from eliminating the distraction of constant questions surrounding an egregious lack of production from their highest-paid player.
Is such a benefit worth first-round draft compensation? That question will be a top storyline as general manager Sean Marks moves into his first offseason of the Nets' new-look era.