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After a back injury and a knee injury Ben Simmons started slowly, but he’s now beginning to sizzle

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Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Maybe our expectations were too high. After all, Ben Simmons is a 24 year old two-time All Star, and players like Simmons, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, young players who have achieved so much truly raise the bar for themselves. It’s even become some sort of perverse media or Twitter axiom to suggest Ben hasn’t improved much since he came into the league. But I can assure you, rookie year Ben Simmons was not one of the five best defenders in the entire league like he was a season ago. If a player makes a seismic leap on the less sexy half of the sport, it’s easy to overlook. Sliding and contesting a shot without fouling or getting a steal isn’t nearly as fun to watch as a pull-up triple. But make no mistake, this kid has come a long way since LSU.

It’s true, Simmons has had a slow start to this NBA season. However, should we have been concerned? He has only played a handful of games over a calendar year due to a combination of back injury, a pandemic, a knee injury requiring surgery, and an offseason spent rehabbing.

And while his overall numbers may look sort of fine, it was really his last two games against Boston and Detroit, which offered fans hints of where he left off before all of the major setbacks.

Of course injuries took their toll

Let’s take a step back for a moment. About a year ago today, Ben Simmons was absolutely scorching hot:

It was unequivocally superstar-caliber play; the type of play that should challenge our thinking about what a superstar must do to thrive in the modern era. The same way that slight and slender shooters like Steve Nash or Steph Curry once challenged the notion of what a modern day MVP needs to look like physically, Simmons’ play necessitated we reassess at least some of our opinions and shift some of our values.

Is a player who never personally takes a 3 as flawed as our eyes tell so many of us he is?

The back

But then Ben got hurt. Seriously hurt. His former head coach Brett Brown talked about how severe the back injury, diagnosed as nerve impingement, was back on May 15th, 2020:

“For those of you who remember in Milwaukee … for me that was as disturbing a memory as it relates to a player that I can think of. He’s lying on his back, he’s vomiting primarily because of pain. Trying to get him back on the plane and build him back up to some level of health where he can play basketball again with us. That timeline was always an interesting one. As the head coach, you ask the question: ‘What do you think?’ His health obviously rules the day. The effort that he has put in, getting [from] where he was, and the significance — he hurt his back in a real way — the effort that he has put in under the restrictions that are all on top of us.”

If it weren’t for the pandemic that changed the world as we knew it and put the season on pause, Simmons would have simply been out for the year. But a layoff between March and August allowed him to rest and rehab and attempt to suit up for the bubble. Brown almost makes the easy-to-overlook point that rehabbing during a pandemic isn’t simple.

Brown admitted he wasn't sure if Simmons would be available for the bubble as late as June. Per Chris Mannix reporting for SI:

“My opinion, and this is not confirmed yet, is that we are going to be able to inch him back into this,” Brown said. “Is he going to be 100%, I don’t expect that. But I think he is going to be available.”

Simmons was available in his first bubble game, and logged a whopping 38 minutes (so much for inching him back in). But he received criticism for his defense and effort as T.J. Warren went nuclear on Philadelphia, dropping 53 in a Pacers’ win. It simply wasn’t the same Ben who’d done such a great job on so many of the game’s best players before his injury:

Some of this defense he was playing doesn’t show up in a box score. It didn’t land him triple-doubles. You may only have seen it come in the form of a steal or deflection or two. But make no mistake, it produced significant points for his team. And not surprisingly, he wasn’t instantly back to that level when he first took the court again after the nerve issue.

Partial kneecap dislocation

Perhaps it was a complete coincidence. Perhaps it was somehow related (one broken link destroys the whole chain?) but Ben only lasted another full game last August. In his third match, against Washington, he suffered a patellar subluxation of the left knee, or in layman’s, a partial dislocation of the kneecap. He underwent surgery for loose bodies in the knee soon after and his bubble campaign ended along with the team’s realistic playoff hopes:

Like I mentioned at the top: it’s now been just over a year from the last time Simmons was playing the best basketball of his career.

Simmons has now only appeared in 18 games since injuring his back against Milwaukee, in February of 2020. Contrast that with someone like Tobias Harris (33 games) or Danny Green (53 games) and there’s an important difference. Not only did those players get to maintain a rhythm, they enjoyed off seasons either resting or working on their skills without rehabbing injuries.

Simmons left knee reportedly experienced swelling following the team’s loss to Brooklyn. I wondered if it was something to worry about:

He didn’t miss much time, and some of us even wondered if the swollen knee was simply a convenient excuse to allow him to avoid a potential COVID outbreak, when Seth Curry received a positive diagnosis. But even after he returned, and even after James Harden was traded to the Nets (another theory for his shaky play was a lack of confidence stemming from the looming threat of being traded to Houston) he didn’t look quite right:

Here was what The Athletic’s Senior Writer Derek Bodner had to say following a loss to Memphis:

“During Simmons’ rookie year, he attempted 6.2 shots per games off of drives, per NBA.com’s tracking data. That’s down to 3.7 attempts per game this year, a near 40 percent drop. He now has an effective field goal percentage of just 46.9 percent in the half court, compared to 52.1 percent as a rookie. He turns the ball over on nearly a quarter (23.4 percent) of his half-court possessions, per Synergy. Out of the 252 players who have used at least 50 half-court possessions so far this season that is the eighth highest rate. Most of the other players near him are big men, like DeAndre Jordan (35.1 percent), Marc Gasol (28.3 percent), Howard (27.4 percent) and PJ Tucker (23.4 percent).

Simmons is so little of a threat to attack the rim right now that defenders are seemingly willing to let him drive into the paint, because he so rarely takes advantage of it. As long as Simmons doesn’t blow by his defender, he passes up the scoring opportunity, kicking the ball out rather than attempt a shot over the contest. And since teams aren’t worried about Simmons scoring over a defender, there’s no reason to double down on him and leave the Sixers’ perimeter shooters open, so the “do a 180” game that Simmons likes to play as he passes out of the paint to shooters isn’t even as effective as it once was. All too often, it’s just eating up valuable time on the shot clock.”

Back in September, I spoke to Bodner on my Podcast, “No Particular Hurry” about Ben’s injury situation. Here’s how it went:

Bodner:....[of all the injuries he’s had] the back is probably the most concerning long term, they’re not super high concerns. He seems like he’s either an ironman, or ‘oh he’s gone for four months.’ And it’s tough, because those injuries are concerning.

DE: would you consider reducing his minutes moving forward?

Bodner: Oh sure. In order to do that you need at least one other player who can at least dribble and pass which the Sixers have largely ignored,...so yes, you don’t want a player playing 35, 36, 38 minutes per game but I don't think he needs to be playing under 30 ...but yeah I think usage is a concern for sure....

DE: ....I guess what starts to become a long term concern is if he’s not going to develop as a shooter, what happens if he loses a step?

Bodner: For sure, I mean look he could lose a step or two and still be in the elite class of athletes for his size but yeah...we’ve seen so many times now where, look I don't want to say regular season wins aren’t important, you would have liked to have seen them get a top two or three seed, but you need players ready for the playoffs, and if that means playing players 33 minutes instead of 36 minutes, I think that’s a reasonable trade off.”

Maybe Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey are listeners, Ben is averaging 33.3 minutes per game as of today down from 35.4 minutes last season.

Where do we stand now?

Even when the game tape screamed to many of us who have now watched Ben’s entire career “he’s not quite right!” His numbers weren’t awful. He was still a good player. But he wasn’t playing like a star. It wasn’t until, perhaps the most recent pair of games where I though to myself “thereeeee he is.”

So over the last few games, Ben has looked healthier, and he’s made a big impact on both ends of the floor. If my hypothesis is correct, the back, then the time off used to rehab, then the knee, then a rehab, and an offseason (not to mention the standard pandemic anxiety the entire world is likely feeling), were all major major setbacks for Ben. And he may not be out of the woods yet if he was recently dealing with swelling.

But it just makes sense he needed some time to rest, rehab, then slowly reintegrate, reacclimate, and ramp up. And yeah, I’m guessing the trade rumors didn’t help either.

His last two games included big-time defensive impact as well as some relentless pressure in transition and at the rim offensively:

I’m excited. It feels like he’s about to sizzle. They may need a stretch five backing up Joel in order to truly unleash the guy he was before the back issue, as Dwight Howard can sometimes clog the paint, but if Simmons is finally healthy, and comfortable, it’s going to be a problem for teams who already trail the Sixers in the standings.