Martin Rogers: The other side of the bizarre Ben Simmons situation, as he sits out NBA playoffs

Ben Simmons is a true NBA enigma and his latest actions are drawing immense criticism. MARTIN ROGERS examines the strange situation and offers his best defence of the Australian star.

Ben Simmons watches on as the Brooklyn Nets faces the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs. Picture: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Ben Simmons watches on as the Brooklyn Nets faces the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs. Picture: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The easiest column of all to write today is one that rips Ben Simmons. My goodness, it would be so easy. There is so much ammunition. It is all there, a genuine slam dunk, the most wide-open target imaginable.

We would also be in good company. You don’t have to look very far to find blistering criticism of the Brooklyn Nets guard, with virtually every outlet you can think of taking aim after he was ruled out of Game 4 of the team’s nosediving series against the Boston Celtics.

So, how about this? How about a little challenge? As the howls of derision come flying in the Australian’s direction, how about we try to buck the trend and try to see both sides of the Simmons tale? Why not give it a shot? Or, more accurately, how about we pass up the open look (ouch)?

First of all, it is important to understand that the knocks against Simmons, who forced his way out of his Philadelphia 76ers contract and was central to a trade that sent James Harden to Philly in February, are borne of frustration.

As in, frustration that his undeniable talent is not being — and mostly has not been — fully realised. Anyone who enjoys professional basketball has long been able to identify Simmons’ potential to be a transformative contributor at the very highest level of the game. If he was a second-round pick of marginal ability, there wouldn’t be this kind of outcry.

Ben Simmons looks on from the Brooklyn Nets’ bench during Game 3 against the Boston Celtics. Picture: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Ben Simmons looks on from the Brooklyn Nets’ bench during Game 3 against the Boston Celtics. Picture: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

His 6-foot-11 frame, ball handling and superior defence have been enough to make him a three-time All-Star since being drafted No.1 overall in 2016.

On the surface, that’s the kind of player you want on your team. If you’re neutral, that’s the kind of player you want to feature in the playoffs, squaring off against the best of the best.

Instead, after a season that essentially amounted to little more than a tease, Simmons won’t play Monday, with the Nets down 3-0. Just days after it was announced he was ready to suit up, Nets team officials said over the weekend that he wouldn’t, their annoyance scarcely disguised.

Cue the incoming flak.

NBA legends lined up to blast Simmons. Media pundits did the same. “A punk move,” said Shaquille O’Neal. ”Zero competitive fire,” tweeted Reggie Miller. There were jokes upon jokes.

The last time Simmons played an NBA game was in the 76ers’ Eastern Conference semi-final Game 7 defeat to the Atlanta Hawks last season when he infamously passed up an open dunk and was openly criticised by Joel Embiid. Doc Rivers offered the thinnest of supportive comments.

Simmons didn’t like that and didn’t want to come back. So, he held out and started getting fined, before the fines stopped when he said he was suffering from mental health issues.

After the trade, he wasn’t ready to play for Brooklyn due to a herniated disc in his back. Never far away from the news, it was first revealed he was getting closer to full fitness, then that he was taking part in most drills, then 4-on-4 rotations in practice, and then that he was ready.

Until he wasn’t.

The vitriolic reaction, if we are being honest, was a response to all the build-up, and the drawn-out nature of the saga. If any other player was ruled out of a postseason game, there wouldn’t have been anything like the same noise.

But with Simmons not willing to say much, the narrative was all from Brooklyn’s side. Their offerings built up the drama a little, making it seem like Simmons was edging closer and closer to a return.

Because of that, when the Game 4 news hit, many people feel that the whole thing was a waste of time, that a season was spent talking about a guy who probably now won’t take part in a single minute of it.

Ben Simmons with Kevin Durant during Game 3 against the Celtics, in his the Nets dropped to 3-0 in the first-round playoff series. Picture: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Ben Simmons with Kevin Durant during Game 3 against the Celtics, in his the Nets dropped to 3-0 in the first-round playoff series. Picture: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

But, in Simmons’ defence, that may be unfair. Unless the new back complaint is a pure fabrication and he is really turning up and faking being hurt to avoid playing, then it deserves our consideration. Having not played for so long, it would make little sense to go into a game against a rampant opponent at less than 100 per cent.

The outrage in part came because of the optics. It kind of looked like Simmons was finding yet another way to duck out of class. He’s coming back, he’s coming back, he’s coming back … oh wait, actually, no, he’s not.

But let’s try to look at the human side of it. If it really is the case that Simmons is finding any convenient reason to avoid court time then his issues run deeper than “he’s not a good team player.” Or that his motivation isn’t where it should be.

If a young man, 25 and with innate ability, doesn’t feel ready to step onto the hardwood, he probably deserves some sympathy and perhaps needs some help.

It is entirely inappropriate to speculate on someone’s mental state and we won’t try to start here. All we will say is that only one person truly knows Simmons’ motivation and how he’s feeling, how severe his back injury is, and whether he genuinely wants to be out there.

Ben Simmons handles the ball prior to Game 3 against the Boston Celtics, though he did not play and intends to miss Game 4. Picture: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Ben Simmons handles the ball prior to Game 3 against the Boston Celtics, though he did not play and intends to miss Game 4. Picture: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

That’s our best effort at defending Simmons. Truthfully, he didn’t provide a lot to work with. He is a mystery and will remain so going into the off-season.

One thing that is clear is that he has struggled with the mental burden of playing in the NBA recently and that casting him as the villain of the Nets’ tortured campaign isn’t going to help him much.

Who knows whether he will be back and rejuvenated and able to show some version of his best. Or whether his career will continue to spiral as his confidence plummets further. Or even whether we will see him again at all.

He is a true NBA enigma, his tale still one of the league’s biggest talking points. His young career filled with critical voices, his future anything but certain.

– FOX Sports US