NBA Sources Dish on Ben Simmons Turmoil, Steve Nash's Future in BrooklynApril 26, 2022
The Nets entered this regular season as the odds-on favorites to win the NBA title. Tuesday morning, Brooklyn woke as the only playoff team swept out of the first round.
The Nets roster that dropped four consecutive games against Boston was far from the juggernaut that general manager Sean Marks assembled entering training camp. Kyrie Irving forfeited his ability to play much of this 2021-22 campaign by choosing not to comply with New York City's vaccine ordinance. Irving's status was one of many factors that influenced James Harden to request a trade from the franchise in February. Nets figures are also quick to point out the critical loss of floor-spacer Joe Harris, who played just 14 games thanks to an ankle injury.
Ben Simmons' absence from this postseason has garnered the most glaring spotlight of all. Before the Celtics series began on Easter Sunday, league sources told B/R the 25-year-old three-time All-Star and Nets personnel were confident he was on track to play as early as Game 3. Then his purported timeline became Game 4. That is until Sunday, when Simmons informed Brooklyn staffers he was experiencing back soreness, one day before Monday's fateful Game 4 defeat.
Simmons, in theory, could have risen Monday morning and determined his back felt good enough to play. There had been various people close to him encouraging him to retake the floor, even under limited minutes, to establish a deeper connection with teammates ahead of next season, sources said. By all accounts his ailing back is not 100 percent healthy, but few NBA players at this stage of the playoffs are free from some form of nagging pain. Members of his representation and other close contacts even advised Simmons to at least sit on Brooklyn's bench in his uniform and team warm-ups rather than the gaudy outfits that became a spectacle.
Instead, the Nets ruled Simmons out of Game 4 altogether, sources said, as a sense of fatigue from the situation and general disappointment seemed to permeate the franchise. After visiting the floor for pregame warm-ups prior to Game 3, Simmons did not partake in any pregame work Monday and was not present on the bench alongside his teammates for Game 4, which one source told B/R was because of his lingering back discomfort. Simmons certainly wouldn't have debuted on the road in front of a hostile Boston crowd for Game 5. Could he have appeared in Game 6? We'll never know.
But for all the ramp-up concern and rightful consideration of back issues that have plagued Simmons for multiple seasons, it's quite clear that the mental aspect of Simmons' return to game action is the biggest hurdle standing between him and an NBA court.
Throughout the tumultuous season, Simmons shifted his explanations for sitting out—the vitriol from Philadelphia's fanbase, Doc Rivers' post-Game 7 comments, wanting to be the centerpiece of his own team, back soreness—but consistently balked when any moment to rejoin the floor arrived.
Sixers officials made repeated efforts to welcome Simmons back into their program, and it was clear to members of Simmons' representation that returning to the court would have boosted his trade value, and therefore the likelihood of his wish for a trade being granted. But Simmons was still resistant, sources told B/R, and seemed dead set on sitting the remainder of the season if Philadelphia hadn't moved him before the deadline.
Similar patterns of uncompetitive behavior date back to Simmons' collegiate days at LSU, when draft evaluators wondered if he was a better bet than Brandon Ingram for the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Simmons' current case, a distinct mental block of some capacity, has now become the subject of discussions in graduate-level sports psychology classes across the country.
Any front office ousted from the first round, especially for a team that failed to win a single game, has to consider wholesale changes. Naturally, there is already speculation around the league on whether Brooklyn would entertain trading Simmons this summer. But if teams were lowballing Philadelphia to acquire Simmons, viewing him then as a distressed asset, it's hard to fathom any interested suitor offering Brooklyn the same packages after this postseason debacle.
Minnesota was considered the most aggressive team in pursuit of Simmons, but the Timberwolves have since found success elevating Anthony Edwards with more on-ball opportunities. Sacramento consistently called on Simmons, only to pivot to acquire Domantas Sabonis from Indiana. Would the Cavaliers still stomach a Simmons addition after dealing for Caris LeVert and soaring to the top of the Eastern Conference before injuries curtailed a breakout year for the franchise?
"Brooklyn just has to play it out a little bit. You don't really have a choice," one general manager told B/R. "I just don't think [Simmons] has any real trade value. He hasn't been accountable for two franchises. He hasn't played an entire season due to a back injury. How can you do a trade with the chance he reports and then says he can't play because of the back again?"
How Simmons approaches this offseason will be telling: If he remains in Brooklyn at the team's sprawling Industry City practice facility, rehabbing his back and working on-court with Nets staffers, or if he spends the summer away from the franchise enjoying a celebrity vacation mindset, as he was prone to do during his tenure in Philadelphia. It's obvious which scenario the Nets would prefer.
When healthy, the ceiling of a Durant-Irving-Simmons trio would still seem quite high. Last year's runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year should provide much-needed reinforcements on that side of the ball. Nets staffers have further envisioned the added playmaking Simmons could provide both in transition and the half court, either facilitating on the ball or morphing into a devastating pick-and-roll partner for Durant and Irving, like a supersized, better-passing Bruce Brown. Boston's defensive scheme grinded Brooklyn's once-high-octane offense to a halt, and the Nets struggled to get into much half-court action before much of the shot clock had already disappeared.
Second-year head coach Steve Nash has received the brunt of criticism for Brooklyn's failings to free Durant for easy looks. Questions have indeed circulated around the league about the two-time MVP's staying power helming Brooklyn's bench. But Nash harbors a deep relationship with Durant and was stamped by the Nets' centerpiece just two seasons ago. Marks consults Durant on every major decision within Brooklyn's basketball operations. There's been no indication that Durant's opinion on Nash has changed, and he first bristled when asked about his faith in the coach on Monday night.
"Yeah, Steve has been dealt a crazy hand the last two years," Durant said. "He had to deal with so much stuff as a first-time coach: trades, injuries, COVID, just a lot of stuff he had to deal with. I'm proud of how—his focus and passion for us. We all [will] continue to keep developing over the summer and see what happens."
And so there's little expectation that Nash's job is truly in jeopardy from Brooklyn's side of the equation. The event that could lead to a change in the Nets' head coach may be Nash deciding to walk away from the situation himself. Speculation about that possibility has also begun to churn in league circles, even inside the Nets' facilities. A decorated former player doesn't exactly need the dramatic trappings of a superteam and all the time away from family that coaching demands. Nash has had to sing the franchise's public tune during every media availability, even claiming before the deadline they were not trading Harden. But so far, the coach has conducted himself as if he plans to be a part of Brooklyn's imminent future, sources said.
"I love doing this," Nash told reporters following Game 4. "Love these guys. Love my staff. Love all the departments. [I] really had a great working environment, really enjoyed it. I want to continue doing it."
The only safe assumption entering this offseason is that Brooklyn will look different in some significant capacity. The Nets have a first-round pick and the tax-payer mid-level at their disposal and will need to address their frontcourt shortcomings. It seems unlikely LaMarcus Aldridge or Blake Griffin will be back with this unit, and Nic Claxton faces an interesting restricted free agency after Brooklyn gauged his trade interest dating back to last June's draft.
But the north star of the Nets franchise has not wavered since July 2019. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, competing for a championship will be the only measure that deems any Brooklyn season as satisfactory—especially if Simmons can return to full strength.
Jake Fischer has covered the NBA for Bleacher Report since 2019 and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.