Dissecting Ben Simmons' back injury, and why the Brooklyn Nets missed him in the playoffs
Simmons curiously sat out the entire 2021-22 NBA season, before finally undergoing back surgery. Could he have made a difference for the Nets?
After pushing the eventual championship-winning Milwaukee Bucks to the brink of defeat in the 2021 NBA playoffs, few would have expected the Brooklyn Nets to be swept so meekly in 2022, 4-0 by the Boston Celtics. Former Philadelphia 76er Ben Simmons was a notable omission from the Nets’ playoff roster, as they struggled to contain Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, while Kevin Durant’s jump shot deserted him at the other end.
Shrouded in smoke and mirrors, Simmons’ back injury was first reported by the Athletic’s Shams Charania, as part of his reconditioning regimen after being traded to Brooklyn. The ailment was initially downplayed as a day to day concern, before Simmons ultimately required an epidural in mid-March for pain relief. There was optimism that he could participate in Brooklyn’s final regular season game on April 10, but the goalposts quickly shifted to the NBA playoffs, as the epidural failed to provide sustained relief.
The anticipation reached a climax when Boston amassed a 3-0 lead over Brooklyn, and Simmons emerged as a point of difference ahead of game four. The 6’11 point guard refused to rule himself out of the elimination game, indicating that it was “reasonable” to expect him to play. When he ultimately didn’t take the floor and the Nets were swept without him, the pitchforks came out for Simmons. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith described it as “one of the most pathetic situations” he had ever seen, while NBA legend Reggie Miller blasted Simmons for having “zero competitive fire”.
In the absence of Simmons, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ran riot against a hapless Nets defence. The former averaged 29.5 points and 7.3 assists on 42% shooting from downtown (7.8 attempts per game), while Brown did his damage inside the arc, averaging 22.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on 49% shooting from the field. While it’s presumptuous to assume that Simmons would have contained Tatum, he is a rare player who possesses both the size and foot speed to match up against the Celtics star.
As per NBA matchup data from the 2019-20 regular season, Simmons spent more time matched up against Tatum than he did against any other player, except Jimmy Butler. The Aussie held Tatum to six of 22 (27%) shooting across four games, with a total of 29 minutes where they directly matched up. If Simmons could have replicated even half of this effort in the recent NBA playoffs, we may have witnessed a longer series at the very least. As soon as he steps onto the floor for Brooklyn, Simmons is the team’s most credentialed defender by some distance, and the obvious candidate to guard their opponent’s best player.
Moreover, Simmons’ absence was felt on the offensive end, where Durant was forced to shoulder a sizeable offensive workload, and endured one of his poorest playoff shooting performances. The two-time NBA finals MVP shot a paltry 39% from the field, and made just seven of 21 three point field goals at a 33% clip. A lack of ball movement likely played a part, as only 46% of Durant’s buckets were assisted. This is a significant decrease from his first season with Golden State, where 56% of his playoff baskets were assisted, unlocking career best efficiency which led to finals MVP honours. Durant shot 56% from the field and 44% from beyond the arc in the 2018 playoffs, while attempting 5.7 three pointers per game - a farcry from his numbers in 2022.
Durant also averaged a team-high 6.3 assists against Boston, while Irving chipped in with 5.3, suggesting that the Nets were in dire need of a dominant playmaker. Irving previously helped the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers win an NBA championship, with LeBron James calling the shots as a primary ball-handler. Simmons would have been a perfect offensive fit on this Nets roster, surrounded by credentialed shooters including Durant, Irving, Seth Curry and Patty Mills. Brooklyn’s three-point prowess could have masked Simmons’ one glaring weakness, which is shooting, while giving him the freedom to do what he does best - dish out the rock.
Simmons’ availability also would have given Nets coach Steve Nash a small ball centre option. Nash was instead forced to call upon 23 year old Nicolas Claxton, who averaged 24.5 minutes a game and functioned as the team’s primary big man. Claxton put up solid averages of 10.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, on 79% shooting from the field, but this was overshadowed by his woeful free throw efforts. The 23 year old shot an abysmal four-of-22 from the charity stripe, and this 18% clip would make Simmons - a career 60% free throw shooter - look like Steph Curry. Nets’ starting centre Andre Drummond similarly failed to make an impact, averaging 15 minutes and 3.0 personal fouls per game.
It’s nothing new to suggest that Simmons could handle the centre position in a small ball lineup.