The Philadelphia 76ers have put Ben Simmons and that saga in their rearview. With James Harden now leading the attack, their minds are solely focused on winning one of the next two games up in Toronto. They’d love to put Nick Nurse’s group down for the count by taking an insurmountable 3-0 lead on Wednesday night.
But elsewhere in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Ben Simmons is eyeing his return-to-action.
The former first overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft has yet to play at all since the fateful Game 7 vs. Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks last season. That summer he made clear he wanted to be traded and cited mental health issues for why he couldn’t play for the Sixers ever again. The Sixers tried to persuade him to put his issues aside and vie for a title alongside Joel Embiid. But the 2021 runner up Defensive Player of the Year’s mind was apparently made up.
Daryl Morey and Elton Brand shipped out Simmons, along with Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and first round picks in 2022 and 2027 to land Harden and Paul Millsap.
But the Nets haven’t gotten as much production out of that blockbuster as Philly has yet. Reports were that Simmons, who had spent so much time away from the game, experienced a flare up of the old back issue (the nerve impingement issue which plagued him back in 2020) while ramping up to play for Brooklyn in late Feb. 2022.
It’s been reported he sustained a herniation of the L-4 vertebra. For all of the jokes fans in Philly have made about him not wanting to play, Nets fans see it much differently.
The Nets see a player who’d love to help his new team but hasn’t even been remotely close to healthy yet. The Nets have referred to him as more of an onlooker at practices, and no one has seen him do much of anything high-intensity since arriving. That casts a reasonable pale of doubt around the whole idea of him returning. Having not played since June, he’s going to what, step in and slow down Jaylen Brown? Bang bodies with Marcus Smart?
Simmons received an epidural back in mid Mar. to diminish pain radiating in his lower body from the L-4 issue. Apparently that allowed him to get to this point, now suddenly cleared for contact.
Skipping the usual high intensity individual work, the 1-on-1, 2-on-2, 3-on-3 the Nets typically progress a rehabbing player through, Simmons has jumped to four-on-four work per ESPN’s Nick Friedell.
Clearly the Nets are willing to compromise a bit on their usual conservative performance protocols facing must-win playoff games.
Steve Nash says Ben Simmons has been cleared for contact. He got some 4-on-4 work in yesterday. Nash said he came through it well.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) April 19, 2022
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that Game 4 now looms “as a realistic target for his Brooklyn debut:”
Based on Ben Simmons’ progress in practices this week – and the anticipation of him further accelerating in the coming days – Game 4 vs. Boston on Monday is looming as a realistic target for his Brooklyn debut, sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) April 20, 2022
That echoes reporting from both ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and The Athletic’s Shams Charania, who have suggested Simmons is hoping to play as soon as Game 4.
According to Kristian Winfield, of The New York Daily News, Nets coach Steve Nash made clear it’ll ultimately be Simmons call if he feels well enough to play:
“There’s no other way than him to say, ‘I’m ready,’ especially after an absence this long,” Nash said at the TD Garden. “So whenever he is ready, it’s gonna have to be on him to say, ‘I feel comfortable,’ ‘I feel ready to go,’ ‘I want to play,’ ‘I want to contribute.’ We can’t push him places when you have been out this long. It’s gotta be something where he’s definitely comfortable and ready to play.”
Nash added that it will be “a collective decision” including the team’s performance staff, but ultimately, Simmons will call his own shot.”
As noted the Nets have been a very cautious team in recent history. Kevin Durant, in his first season returning from Achilles surgery, only played about half of the team’s regular season games. They took a formulaic approach to load management. It was indicated earlier this season that Durant may have been ready to roll before he actually returned from an MCL sprain; that issue cost the two time NBA Finals MVP 21 games. Nets coaching staff wanted to make sure KD came back comfortably.
But now there isn’t time to take that approach. So it makes sense they’re expediting their process and putting a bit more responsibility on the player. If Simmons did suffer a setback, he would have a full offseason to deal with it. If he didn’t have a setback, he figures to provide plenty of what that team needs. They had their hands full slowing down Jayson Tatum in Game 1. JT drained a game winner at the buzzer, finishing with 31 points on just 18 attempts. A healthy Simmons could theoretically decrease some of that hyper efficiency.
Since this is a Sixers blog, you can enjoy some of this stuff:
Ben Simmons getting some post practice shooting form work in with Kyle Korver. pic.twitter.com/vfyQk7iQ1F— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) April 19, 2022
It appears here that Sixers legendary sharpshooter Kyle Korver is trying to verbally walk Simmons through some shooting drills up at Harvard. It gives the entire interaction the feel of a computer engineer explaining to a noob how to code in C++ in just a few moments.
The Nets are on the opposite side of the bracket from the Sixers. But there is a world where Philly gets to host Simmons for a Conference Finals match. Root for that.