Ben Simmons less of a flight risk with recent back progress

The Brooklyn Nets might be able to win the championship with their currently available roster. But what if they could introduce a third All-Star to their lineup? What if that third star specialized in defense, this Nets team’s biggest weakness? It sounds like Ben Simmons is feeling a little less pain back right now. But we still don’t know what his timetable is to return.

First, let’s rewind to Feb. 2020 in a pre-pandemic world and look back at the history of this troubling back injury keeping the the point-forward out of the Nets’ lineup.

Simmons seemed totally healthy heading into the 2019-2020 All-Star game, his second. He was leading the NBA in steals and playing at a pace that eventually earned him All-NBA Third team honors. But he missed the Sixers’ first game coming out of the week off.

Per Paul Hudrick, reporting for NBCS-Philly, at the time:

“All-Star Ben Simmons is out for Thursday’s game against the Nets with lower back tightness. Simmons reported discomfort at practice Wednesday and received treatment, per a team source. He woke up Thursday morning and was still experiencing discomfort and received treatment at the team’s facility. His status for Saturday’s game against the Bucks will be updated Friday.”

Trying to play through the initial tightness, he suited up in that big showdown game vs. the Milwaukee Bucks but had to depart after logging just 4:44.

But there was a little confusion on what exactly happened and when. More per NBCS Philly:

“Initially, Sixers head coach Brett Brown said Simmons hurt his back going up for a rebound at the team’s practice on Feb. 19. On March 11, Simmons himself said he didn’t suffer the nerve impingement in his lower back until Feb. 22, when he was forced to leave the Sixers’ game against the Bucks in the first quarter.”

The fact that there was any confusion at all combined with the mere fact it happened during All-Star break, had some fans at the time, wondering if the injury happened during the 2020 All Star game.

Fans zapruder’d the heck out of this play in particular, although Simmons kept chugging along after the awkward fall:

Nevertheless, whatever brought the injury on in the first place, it sounds like something very bad happened in Milwaukee.

Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, reporting a couple year ago: “Sources had described Simmons as emotional upon leaving the X-ray room at the Fiserv Forum late Saturday.”

Here was the play that sent Simmons straight to the locker room where he was reportedly nauseas with pain:

Simmons was eventually ruled out by the Sixers med staff indefinitely with “nerve impingement” of the lower back.

In a weird twist, the pandemic halted the 2020 season and pushed everything back until August. An injury that would have cost Simmons half a season plus the playoffs, only wound up costing him eight games.

Former head coach Brett Brown, described the scary scene that night in Milwaukee, per Noah Levick:

“For those of you who remember in Milwaukee … for me that was as disturbing a memory as it relates to a player that I can think of. He’s lying on his back, he’s vomiting primarily because of pain. Trying to get him back on the plane and build him back up to some level of health where he can play basketball again with us. That timeline was always an interesting one. As the head coach, you ask the question: ‘What do you think?’ His health obviously rules the day. The effort that he has put in, getting [from] where he was, and the significance — he hurt his back in a real way — the effort that he has put in under the restrictions that are all on top of us.”

Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it was a compensation thing, in just his third game back, when played resumed in August in the bubble, the phenom out of Melbourne dislocated a knee-cap in the bubble. That issue, a subluxation of the left patella, needed a minor surgery to clean up some loose bodies.

Here, Jason Blevins, of The Painted Lines, who covered the Sixers in Philly that season, contends the back and the knee issue were related because of the IT band, an interesting theory.

Still, Simmons appeared to recover fully from both issues.

By late Jan. 2021 he was back to playing the type of ball he was playing before the initial back issue. He surged into the forefront for the DPOY race and made his second All-Star team, demoralizing the eventual DPOY, Rudy Gobert:

Simmons missed a couple games last season (2021) with knee swelling, and a handful of games with non-COVID illnesses. He played all but 14 out of 72 games, and while he did pop up on the injury report with back tightness by May, it only cost him one game that seemed like more of a scheduled rest game. Philadelphia was running away with the one seed at the time and giving their key players a day off by then.

Fast forward. Simmons reported back tightness when he arrived at Sixers training camp in Oct. 2021 after a summer off. But he only missed games in Philly citing mental health reasons.

Upon the trade, the Nets reportedly did their due diligence and gave him an MRI and physical. Steve Nash recently noted Simmons worked out hard for those five or six months he was away from Philly, for about five or six days a week. The point was he was good to go prior to the big swap. But got hurt afterwards.

It wasn’t until his ramp up in Brooklyn the team contends that he triggered this current flare up, a flare up of an old issue.

We don’t know if Simmons suffered a herniated disc specifically that night in Milwaukee, now just over two years ago. But he does reportedly have a herniated disc now. But the phrasing most reports have used is that this is a flare up of the same issue.

The Athletic, back then talked to a specialist (who did not treat Simmons) who commented generally on the possibility of a herniated disc.

That brings us to today. Simmons had an epidural about a week ago. The team did not even want him flying on airplanes. That’s how bad this was. So he only showed up for some Nets home games, or games at Madison Square Garden or Philly (where the arena was within driving distance).

But he’s with the team in Miami now, apparently feeling a bit better, per Brian Lewis of The New York Post, signs of progress:

According to the Nets head coach, Simmons is feeling “a lot less pain.”

He still hasn’t practiced with the team, Lewis notes. That has been made clear, Simmons hasn’t done anything intense with his new team yet. He’ll have to go through a series of workouts progressing from solo work, to one-on-one, to two-on-two, all the way up to a series of high-intensity five-on-five sessions. If he has no setback after all that, he’ll be cleared.

But now we have more context that he’s feeling less pain and hopefully he can continue to turn that corner. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported days ago that the team is still optimistic he can play for them this season. Now that Kyrie Irving is full time again, perhaps he and Kevin Durant can keep the season going long enough for Simmons to get back out there. They sure can use what he brings to the table. But they’ll want to keep the lessons of the past in mind. Maybe Simmons pushed his return for the bubble and maybe the knee issue was somehow related. Who knows….

The bad news is that the team is still so careful Simmons is only just flying and this issue goes back a couple years now. The good news is that he largely had his best season to date the season after he sustained this injury. So if he put it in the rear view once, maybe he can do that again. Fans can only hope for the best.

James Wiseman, Warriors

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