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Ben Simmons Is Back In Hell

Ben Simmons sits on the bench.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Here's something that seems impossible: At the start of this very NBA season, over a stretch of five consecutive games, Ben Simmons played some good basketball for the Brooklyn Nets. He hadn't overcome his dread of shooting the ball, and his terror of the free-throw line was just as paralyzing as ever. But there is a theory of a successful Ben Simmons—a deranged one, burning an eternal flame in the hearts of a shrinking cohort of genuinely unwell basketball fans—that accommodates his reluctance to engage in basketball's defining act, which is putting the ball into the basket. A healthy Simmons does enough other good things on an NBA court, goes this theory, that socking him into a solid offense is simply a matter of finding the right combination of shoot-first teammates. Not even superstars! Just some guys who can zip around and make shots while Simmons screens and dishes and drives and kicks.

That will have to remain a theory, and not only because the number of franchises who would still be willing to tinker with orienting their roster entirely around Simmons's strangeness has dropped all the way down to zero. Simmons went down with a pinched nerve in his lower back on Nov. 7, missed the next 38 games, then returned in late January for some intermittent, minutes-capped, and generally low-wattage appearances as a reserve. He's been in street clothes since playing 14 sad minutes in a road win in Memphis on Feb. 26. He may not have understood this at the time, but that was the end of Simmons's season: The Nets announced Thursday that Simmons will be shut down "to consult with specialists and explore treatment options" for the same nerve impingement that knocked him out back in November. The timing is awful: Simmons has one year left on his existing contract, at a whopping $40 million salary. When he comes back from this latest flare-up—if he comes back—he'll be playing not only for his next contract but for his NBA future.

For all the extremely fair talk of Simmons having been brain-boomed by his failures in the 2021 playoffs, back pain has almost certainly been a larger factor in the decline in his performance over the past few years. He lost three weeks to lower back pain—described as a nerve impingement—starting in February of the shortened 2019–20 season, after he'd spent a few games lumbering around uncomfortably. Simmons was still inactive on the night that Rudy Gobert wiped plague slime on the microphones at a post-practice press conference and triggered the suspension of that regular season; he returned for the bubble but didn't look right and was eventually shut down with a knee injury. Simmons was diagnosed with a herniated disc in March of 2022, after being traded to Brooklyn but before he'd played a single game; then-Nets head coach Steve Nash said that Simmons had received an epidural to help manage the pain, which strikes me as a totally normal and fine procedure for a 25-year-old professional athlete. Nash soon ruled Simmons out for the remainder of the regular season; Simmons hoped to return for the playoffs, but was ruled out for Game 4 of Brooklyn's series against the Celtics due to persistent back pain.

Another now-former Nets head coach, Jacque Vaughn, announced in March of 2023 that Simmons had "inflammation in the back," when Simmons was already six games into an inactive streak that would eventually eat the remainder of that season. Simmons tried to get back to on-court work that month but was soon shut down with the dreaded impingement. The man's nerve has been impinged this entire damn time! Simmons has a decent if idiosyncratic set of skills and the vision and playmaking instincts of a point guard, but much of what makes him a force on a basketball court is that he runs much faster and leaps much higher than most people his size; a back injury that makes it painful for him to move around and the management of which requires that his spinal cord be bathed in analgesics removes pretty much every advantage Simmons brings onto an NBA court. Simmons was a janky but fun and ultimately productive player when he came running and leaping into the league; it seems now that all his injury history and temperament will allow him to be is a stiff who hates to shoot and dreads the stripe. The NBA stopped having any use for players like that a long time ago.

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