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The Ben Simmons Stalemate, Part 2

Yet another rant about the most notorious player in the NBA.

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Last summer, The Ben Simmons Stalemate, Explained detailed how the relationship between Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers fell out. The chaotic series of events included tons of side eyes and subtext, leading to an unprecedented holdout that extended well into the 2021-22 NBA season. I was originally going to pen this sequel in the aftermath of the trade that sent Ben Simmons to Brooklyn. Then I realized, the story doesn’t end when Ben’s traded – it ends when he plays. And that still hasn’t happened.

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With the Nets season officially over, it felt like the perfect time to revisit the status of the reclusive former All-Star and try to make sense of this increasingly strange situation. Did the holdout prove advantageous for Ben? Would his presence for Brooklyn have actually made a difference against the Celtics? More importantly, will we ever see Ben Simmons play in an NBA game again? Let’s dive back into Ben’s bunker to get a better idea.

THE END OF THE STALEMATE

Ben Simmons sat out the first 54 games of the season, comfortably biding his time awaiting a trade out of Philadelphia. The 76ers showed no urgency whatsoever in getting him back on the court. In Ben’s absence, second-year guard Tyrese Maxey emerged as a talented scorer capable of running an offense alongside superstar center Joel Embiid. Still, Philadelphia knew they were one key piece away from a run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. 

As rumors of James Harden’s unhappiness in Brooklyn circulated, 76ers GM Daryl Morey saw an opportunity. On February 10th, Simmons, along with Seth Curry and Andre Drummond, was traded to the Nets for Harden, thus ending the stalemate between Ben and his former team. At the time of the trade, the 76ers were 32-22, just 2.5 games back from the top spot in the Eastern Conference. That doesn’t sound like a team that desperately missed their second-best player. The 76ers were able to add a former league MVP and scoring champ for a bench shooter and backup center. However, had the James Harden deal not presented itself, Daryl Morey would have held his ground all the way through the playoffs. 

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Regardless, after nearly eight months, Ben Simmons managed to force his way out of Philadelphia. Several analysts instantly lauded the Nets’ acquisition. They were, of course, assuming that Simmons was going to actually play for Brooklyn. 

SLOW ON THE DRAW

The Nets envisioned Ben Simmons as the missing piece to put them back into championship contention. From a lineup standpoint, he is a much better fit than James Harden. The Nets severely lack size and skilled two-way players. Bringing in a two-time All-Defensive First Team player certainly suffices as a defensive upgrade. Offensively, even if Ben still can’t shoot, his size and playmaking ability relieve some of the pressure from Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. 

When Ben arrived in Brooklyn, he ramped up his training process to return to the court. This didn’t last long, however, as Simmons experienced a back injury during the process. Turns out, it’s a bit difficult to ramp up basketball activity for a playoff run after willingly sitting out the majority of the regular season. Who would’ve thought? The back injury, along with ongoing mental health issues, lead to him not taking the floor once for the Nets in the regular season.

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Simmons did, however, manage to find time to file a grievance against the Philadelphia 76ers for withholding $20 million of his salary. The 76ers did not pay Simmons for the games he missed during the regular season. They also fined him $360,000 for each game he was away from the team, which was deducted from the funds withheld. The grievance is pending a ruling from an arbitrator, and it’d be shocking if Simmons actually had a chance at recouping that salary.

[A Brief Note on Athlete’s Physical and Mental Health]

As sportswriters, sometimes it’s easy to play doctor from our keyboards. If a player is hurt, it’s tough to look at them and say “no, you’re not hurt” – which I’m not here to do. Further, when athletes discuss mental health, it’s a time to listen rather than give a hot take. We might never fully “get” why a player is struggling. It’s important to applaud them for being honest in the hopes it makes it easier for others to be heard. When individuals become comfortable questioning the validity or extent of an athlete’s injury or mental health issues, it sets a dangerous precedent for sports media. 

I will reiterate that the core issue with Ben Simmons is a matter of effort and apathy. Once again, it dates back to a previously cited pre-draft scouting report from Jonathan Givony of Yahoo! Sports

“Simmons’ lack of competitiveness in some crucial games has raised questions about his character as a basketball player. Simmons has displayed an apathy for defense, contact, and delivering winning plays in crucial moments.”

THE SHAMROCK SHUDDER (featuring The Sideline Showman)

In the playoffs, the Nets were matched up against the best defensive team in the league, the Boston Celtics. Ben Simmons was in attendance, often wearing an impossible-to-miss outfit on the Nets’ bench. Sleek green Prada jacket one game, bright orange pants with pink sunglasses the next. I mean come on, just look at the drip. 

With the Union Dunk Lows? Ben’s out here throwing two types of fits now. His Nets teammates, meanwhile, lost the first two games in Boston by a combined 8 points. Surprisingly, reports began to fly in claiming that the swagged-out Simmons was gearing up to make his return in Game 4. 

Pardon my language, but that is and always was absolute bullshit. Ben was never going to play in Game 4. If you can be ready for Game 4 on Monday after several months away from basketball, what’s stopping you from being ready for Game 3 on Saturday? More importantly, why couldn’t you have used the last twenty-plus games in the regular season to prepare to come back at the start of the playoffs? Whether the Game 4 talk really was Ben’s intention or just a fabricated timeline thrown out by Nets’ brass is anyone’s guess. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst says Nets’ management was ‘exasperated’ when word came that Simmons would not be playing in Game 4.

“They were just like, ‘He woke up, and his back hurt, and he wasn’t able to play.’ And there wasn’t much more to say.”

Once his team went down 3-0, perhaps Ben wasn’t too privy to the idea of being the first player in NBA history to play in back-to-back season-ending playoff losses. With the Boston Celtics’ first-round sweep over the Brooklyn Nets, Ben Simmons officially sat out an entire NBA season.

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Let’s take a moment to dive into a bit of a hypothetical. Had Ben Simmons returned for this first-round series against the Boston Celtics, what would his impact be? Across each of the four games against Boston, it was clear the Nets had absolutely zero answers for defending Jayson Tatum. The blooming superstar averaged 29.5 points and a career-high 7.3 assists in the series. It didn’t matter who was defending him, Tatum made the entire Nets roster look foolish. Surely Ben’s elite defensive prowess could have helped.

Realistically, if Ben does return in Game 4, does Brooklyn go on to win the series? Probably not. In NBA history, no team has ever blown a 3-0 lead. On only three occasions did teams in that hole force a Game 7, all to no avail. But at this point, nobody expects Ben Simmons to have an All-Star comeback and instantly lead a team to a championship. The Nets management simply wanted to see whether Simmons could show resolve.

FEEDING THE WRONG POST

In Chris Harring’s new book Blood in the Garden, there’s an interesting story involving former New York Knicks coach Pat Riley. When Charles Smith walked into a team meeting in street clothes before a game, Riley asked him a simple question. If everything was on the line, could he give the team five minutes, if he absolutely had to? Smith said yes, to which Riley responded something along the lines of ‘then what are you doing here in your street clothes?’ 

Even if he’s not at 100%, Ben Simmons’ length and defensive instincts alone could’ve helped mitigate the offensive onslaught brought on by Tatum. So what if he couldn’t put up his usual 16/8/8 stat line, at least he would be trying. To put it bluntly, would it kill Ben to show so much as a semblance of effort to help his new teammates? Stephen A. Smith (shockingly) said it best.

“He ain’t going to war, he ain’t going in the Octagon, he ain’t going in a boxing ring. It’s pulling teeth to get this man to play basketball. It’s pathetic.”

If you’re Ben Simmons, at some point you have to gain an understanding of how these narratives are constructed. Sports media, particularly around the NBA, is ruthless. If there’s one thing athletes can do to subvert these narratives, it’s to never feed into them. Ben decided to give us spoonfuls. 

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Prior to Game 1 against the Celtics, Ben Simmons had an important message to reporters at Nets practice. “Make sure you get this,” he told them. Then he dunked and said, “there you go.” Was this an ill-fated attempt at showing he’s still capable of playing basketball? Because there was never any doubt that Simmons could still dunk – it’s the shooting that’s drawn criticism. Moreover, Ben’s actions at practice in front of the media just made them further question the severity of his back injury. After all, the back is the toughest thing to diagnose. More often than not, medical staff finds themselves at the mercy of the player.

Regardless, if there is an injury, you must at least have the mental fortitude to give the team a fraction of minutes. If the basketball community saw Ben trying to fight through these difficulties to help his team, it would shift the narrative around him. He’d probably even get a standing ovation from the home crowd. Instead, his petty practice performance shows a man embracing the narrative around him. Ben Simmons has reached a point with his antics where players are wondering if they can count on him. Fans and the media are always going to be presumptive fair-weather folk, but when your teammates start to question your commitment to the ultimate goal, that’s when you have to look at your reflection in those tiny pink shades.

The one thing Ben Simmons proved against the Boston Celtics is that he might have the most drip in the entire league. However, Ben has a thing or two to learn about optics. In other words, you can’t be the guy wearing a green Prada jacket and matching shorts while suing your former team for $20 million you didn’t even earn. When you see the media digging you into a hole, don’t ask for a shovel. 

THE BEN SIMMONS RULE (or, Player [dis]Empowerment)

“If Ben Simmons wins, it’ll create an entirely new dynamic of player empowerment within the NBA.” 

That was my exact takeaway seven months ago. If Ben Simmons managed to force his way out of Philadelphia, players around the league would gain full control over their situations. Admittedly, I was very wrong. The actions of Ben Simmons will end up affecting players in the NBA for years to come. 

When the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the owners and the Players Association ends, the owners will have one specific item atop their list of demands – a pay-for-play stipulation. Ben Simmons’ antics, Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status, and the rise of “load management” have the owners wondering why they’re paying full-season salaries for guys that only play half the time. Or, in Ben’s case, not at all.  

In the next CBA, owners will demand the salary they pay a player to be directly correlated to the number of games played. For example, if Kawhi Leonard misses 20% of the games due to non-injury load management, he’ll only be paid 80% of his total salary. If Kyrie’s vaccination status forces him to miss 60% of the games (or, if he goes on sabbatical again) his paycheck will reflect such. This is The Ben Simmons Rule in action.

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Initially, I thought Ben Simmons’ holdout would open a new route for player empowerment in the NBA. It’s clear now his actions will have consequences for his fellow players. But something tells me Ben doesn’t really care about that, so long as he gets his bag. This time around, my takeaway is a bit different. Ben, if you don’t want to play basketball – for whatever reasons that may be – don’t. 

So where do we go from here? The expectation will be for Simmons to be a full-time player next year. According to sources, Simmons told Nets management that he believes a mental block exists for him dating back to last postseason. Essentially, his mental health issues are creating stress that could serve as a trigger point for his back issues. If such is the case, I wish Ben be open-minded enough to seek the proper help from sports psychologists and physical therapists. For the Nets, they could still utilize him to boost the defense and playmaking around their two stars, or they could trade him for someone more reliable. In either case, I have a feeling we’ll be back here for a Part 3. 

Enjoy the rest of the NBA Playoffs. Lastly, in case you missed it, Tracy McGrady is Creating a 1-on-1 Pro Basketball League.

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