The Brooklyn Nets’ roller-coaster season ended in surprising fashion Monday night, to sweep at the hands of the boston celtics. The campaign began with championship aspirations around Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and james harden and finished with questions surrounding the roster and everyone around it.
One of the Nets’ biggest questions of the offseason is can they work three-time NBA All-Star Ben Simmons back onto the floor — healthy in body and mind.
with the Nets Facing elimination on Monday in Game 4 against the Celtics, Simmons pulled himself from his expected season debut, with sources saying he informed team officials on Sunday that his back felt sore. Everyone around the Nets organization had been given the impression that Simmons had zeroed in on Monday’s Game 4 as his debut date, and the franchise certainly was left searching for answers because of his inability to step on the floor in Brooklyn and what transpired in the first round.
Sunday’s events triggered frustration and disheartenment throughout the organization, multiple sources said. The fallout of Simmons being ruled out Sunday led to a meeting among franchise officials, Simmons and his agent, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul, on Monday in Brooklyn. According to sources, Simmons told those in the room that a mental block exists for him, dating in part to last summer’s postseason, which is creating stress that could serve as a trigger point for his back issues from him. He added that he does want to play basketball and play for the Nets as he works on solutions in regard to his well-being of him.
Nets officials informed Simmons that the franchise is willing to do whatever is needed to support him and provide him with any necessary resources. Brooklyn needed the 25-year-old on the court this season, but now both sides have an entire offseason to work through his situation and find a way for him to provide himself on the floor again. Both sides are expected to stay in communication and continue to work toward Simmons, who has three years and $114 million remaining on his contract, feeling ready to play again.
The Nets acquired Simmons in the blockbuster Harden trade with the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 10, and what followed were setbacks with his back, delayed returns and confusion over what was truly holding him out. Simmons – a two-time first-team All-Defensive player and one-time All-NBA team member – possesses special gifts on the floor, most notably his playmaking, defense and rebounding abilities from him. He has been viewed as an ideal fit alongside Durant and Irving, and his potential debut had been one source of optimism in a Nets season that did not go according to plan and ended much earlier than many had hoped. At his NBA peak, Simmons has the perfect skill set to be a cornerstone of the Nets’ future.
The entire Simmons saga has been an unprecedented situation in the NBA. Simmons requested a trade from the 76ers last summer, and after skipping the start of training camp in October, he informed his Philadelphia teammates, coaches and team executives that he was not mentally ready to play and needed time to get right.
After the trade, Simmons said in a news conference that he hoped to return before the Nets’ March 10 game in Philadelphia. That did not happen. Then a planned March 18 game against Portland, according to sources, was scratched. A couple of days earlier, head coach Steve Nash told the media Simmons received an epidural injection for a herniated disc in his back while the team played in Orlando on March 15. Nash also revealed at that time that Simmons had an MRI weeks earlier that confirmed the back injury. Finally, as his on-court workouts elevated from stationary shooting to sprinting to one-on-zero all the way to four-on-four play, Simmons and the Nets planned for his debut in Game 4 against Boston. But ultimately, I have missed the entire season.
Simmons had been described as pain-free for the majority of the past month but began to cite soreness in his back on Friday, and a scheduled scrimmage was pushed back, multiple sources said. Simmons conducted two full-court scrimmages last week on Monday and Wednesday, in which there was low intensity displayed, those sources said. Throughout Simmons’ rehab, both Durant and Irving, for their part, publicly downplayed their expectations for a Simmons return and said the goal is to get him healthy.
Simmons had another workout on Saturday, after which Nash said Simmons had no issues. On Sunday, Simmons informed the team his back of him was sore. For Nets players, the confusion was not centered around Simmons’ ailment from him, but with the perceived lack of attempt to play, effort to be in uniform and push his body from him in these high-stakes playoffs, sources said. Nets players and coaches wanted to see Simmons show resolve and enter this series to start his on-court Brooklyn tenure, even if it was for limited minutes on Monday or none at all while still dressing for the game.
On Sunday, Nash was asked about the pros and cons of playing Simmons at that stage of the season, given Brooklyn’s situation, and said the decision to play Simmons ultimately lies with the man himself.
“I said it recently that part of the decision has to be Ben’s,” Nash said. “I think that he has to be all in, so that is part of the question. That’s fair. It’s not all on Ben. it’s not like, ‘Oh come on. I didn’t play.’ No, this is a unique situation. He’s never played with his teammates and to go into a playoff situation after a long period of inactivity and injury, it’s not straightforward. So there shouldn’t be any conclusions made either way.”
Across the NBA playoffs, players have battled injuries and fatigue. Boston Celtics center Robert Williams returned to the lineup in Game 3 on Saturday, just over three weeks removed from surgery on a torn meniscus. Philadelphia 76ers All-NBA star Joel Embid has a torn ligament in his right thumb and is continuing to play through the injury. Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins returned for Game 1 of his team’s series against Miami while dealing with a plantar fascia tear and a damaged finger. Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry suffered a sprained ligament and bone bruise in his foot in mid-March and returned for Game 1 of the playoffs.
Many had hoped Simmons would find a way to make his debut amid a back issue as well. He made all of the necessary progressions in rehab and showed optimism about joining the team on the floor. That’s why, after a recovery process of starts, stops, delays and questions, the Nets and Simmons finally felt he was on the doorstep of a return. And it didn’t happen.
Around Christmas Day, the Nets found themselves competing for first place in the Eastern Conference, despite deciding in October to hold Irving out due to New York City’s vaccine mandate, which made for a chaotic training camp. The team allowed him to play in road games beginning in mid-December, with him debuting on Jan. 5 at Indiana and eventually returning full time on March 27 when New York City Mayor Eric Adams lifted the mandate for local athletes and entertainers. Through it all was a storm of ill-timed circumstances, including an MCL sprain to Durant sidelining him six weeks and Harden sitting his final few games as a Net as he awaited a trade to Philadelphia.
“To be honest, I feel like our season was derailed by my injury,” Durant said on April 4.
Beyond the Simmons situation and everything else that transpired, the Nets will have to go back to the drawing board on their roster makeup. Durant cited the Celtics’ size as an issue in the first-round series, making that a clear need for Brooklyn along with more hard-nosed, rugged players on the wing. As far as the status of the team’s front office and Nash, there are no signs that either is in jeopardy. By all accounts, Nash has maintained the support of the Nets’ front office as well as Durant’s.
“Yeah, Steve has been dealt a crazy hand the last two years,” Durant said on Monday when asked about whether Nash is the right coach for the team. “He’s been having to deal with so much stuff as a head coach for the first time. I’m proud of his passion for us.”
“This summer is going to be a very, very important summer for our organization,” Durant said after Game 4 on Monday night.
(Top photo: Brad Penner/USA Today)