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NEW YORK – On Feb. 8, Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks said some words about Ben Simmons. They were semi-optimistic. It was halftime of a game between the Nets and the Cleveland Cavaliers, nine minutes into a press conference about that afternoon's trade deadline.

"Yeah, I mean, look, we talk about the pace that Ben plays with, and I think it's pretty clear to see how his teammates enjoy playing with him," Marks said. "And the big thing for him is going to be health, and as we build up his minutes and take off minutes restrictions and so forth, I hope, again, for the next 32 games, you see a Ben that can go out there and really contribute at a high level and get back to form. But it's been really promising, what we've seen so far."

The next question was about coach Jacque Vaughn. Marks was semi-complimentary. He acknowledged that injuries had not made things easy on Vaughn this season. "I think it's part of coaching, right, when you never quite know who your roster is going to be. But I look at how he's connecting with these guys both on and off the court, and I see the sweat equity from not only Jacque but from his coaching staff on a daily basis, and that's absolutely to be respected beyond belief." He also said that Vaughn "knows what's at stake," and that "our jobs are here to go and put a sustainable product on the floor and give the fan base something to cheer and root for."

Brooklyn was down by eight points against the Cavaliers as Marks spoke and went on to lose by 23. Vaughn coached three more games for the Nets, including a 136-86 loss in Boston without Simmons, before the team fired him. Simmons played five more games, bringing his season total to 15, before the team announced Thursday that he'd miss the remainder "while he consults with specialists and explores treatment options for the nerve impingement in his lower back."

Since Simmons arrived in Brooklyn in February 2022, all three of his seasons here have ended with a similar announcement. He has played 57 games for the Nets, 65 if you include the preseason. Initially, Brooklyn hoped he would bring balance to a win-now roster that included Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Then it hoped he could return to form on a new, more future-focused iteration of the team, alongside Mikal Bridges and Nicolas Claxton. Where he fits in now, with one season and $40.3 million remaining on his contract, is hazy at best. Vaughn, at least, has clarity in that respect. 

To understand the position Simmons and the Nets are in, you must understand how this season went sideways. Five months ago, at media day, guard Spencer Dinwiddie said, "I think this team goes as far as Ben and Mikal take it. We know who Ben can be when he's healthy and right and in a good space, and that's what we hope for." Simmons was perhaps the best individual defender in the entire league in 2020-21; with Bridges, Claxton, Dorian Finney-Smith next to him, the Nets wanted to establish a top-tier defense. Unlike the previous few seasons, nobody was talking about winning a championship, but they believed they could be the kind of team that opponents hate playing against. 

Simmons did nothing to tamp down expectations. Before training camp even started, Simmons told Andscape that it would be great to "come back and dominate people" and told Fox 5 New York, "I owe it to everybody, the fans and everybody, to get back to where I need to be." He said at media day that he was ready to take hits and get to the free-throw line, and he appeared to back that up when the preseason started. He told Esquire Australia that he felt "amazing" and wanted to be "better than an All-Star," adding, "I'm never like, 'Well, hopefully, maybe I get a couple votes in an All-Star game.' Nah, if that's the case, I might as well be fishing." In an interview with the New York Post, he said he was going to be "better than I was" before the back injury.

After a win in Chicago on Nov. 3, Vaughn said Simmons would sit out the next day against Boston as a precautionary measure. The Nets were 3-2 and every game had been tight, save for a 12-point win in Charlotte, Simmons' strongest performance. In 157 minutes, though, Simmons had only taken a total of four free throws, the same amount as he'd taken in 14 minutes in the preseason opener. Simmons showed several glimpses of his former self, but did little to dispel the notion that he doesn't want to get fouled, a criticism that has grown louder and louder since the 2021 playoffs. Skipping the second night of a back-to-back didn't seem alarming, but, four days later, he missed a game against the Clippers with hip soreness. 

The team announced on Nov. 14 that an MRI had revealed a nerve impingement in Simmons' back, and he didn't play again until late January. For a while, Brooklyn did fine without him – the day after Christmas, following a 118-112 win against the Detroit Pistons, it had a 15-15 record. The Nets were a totally different team than they planned on being – above-average offense, below-average defense, awesome spacing – but, given the circumstances, they'd take wins however they could get them. Then, on Dec. 28 against the Bucks, Brooklyn ruled out several players and sat three starters after the first quarter, a decision that led to a $100,000 fine for violating the NBA's player participation policy. That was the beginning of a 12-losses-in-14-games stretch that effectively sunk the Nets' season. In that stretch, they scored 110 points per 100 possessions (the equivalent of a bottom-five offense). 

Simmons gave the Nets a boost when he returned on Jan. 29, coming off the bench to score 10 points, dish 11 assists and grab eight rebounds without missing a shot in a 147-114 win. Postgame, Vaughn raved about Simmons like never before in his tenure, saying, "Other people played so well tonight because of Ben Simmons, it's that simple." When a reporter noted that Brooklyn had a fast break almost immediately after he checked in, Simmons interrupted: "It's always a fast break when I have the ball." Simmons hurt his knee when he blocked a shot late in the game, though, and missed the Nets' next game against Phoenix. He played eight more games, but his minutes never exceeded 24 and Brooklyn never became the fast, unpredictable, defense-first team it envisioned

Dinwiddie and Royce O'Neale were traded at the deadline. On the season, Simmons and Claxton only logged 99 minutes on the court together, spread over eight games. The Nets were outscored by 21 points per 100 possessions during that time, with an offensive rating of 95.8.

Twenty games remain on Brooklyn's schedule, but in some ways, the season has been over for some time. Simmons hasn't played since Feb. 26, and, while the play-in is technically not out of reach – at 25-37, the Nets are three games behind the 10th-place Hawks for the final spot – the front office is surely evaluating everybody with next season and beyond in mind. Under interim coach Kevin Ollie, can they establish some sort of momentum and identity? This will be challenging, but, given that Simmons is a tricky player to integrate in the first place, if he can't be an every-game player right now, it's likely easier without him.

The complicated part is what happens next. Bernie Lee, Simmons' agent, told SNY this week, "We continue to try and find non-surgical options to allow Ben to move forward on a permanent basis and that is where this is my responsibility and I am (the) one to blame." In other words, despite all the time Simmons has spent trying to get healthy, and after sounding extremely confident that his back issues were behind him, Simmons is in a frustratingly familiar situation.

Ever since the Nets acquired Simmons, the best-case scenario for both parties has seemed simple: He gets healthy and gets his career back on track. He's still 27 years old, and this remains in the realm of possibility. That this hasn't come close to happening yet, though, means that Brooklyn cannot plan for a future that involves Simmons as part of its core or move on without incentivizing another team to trade for him.

The Nets, who are neither in win-now mode nor ready to bottom out, haven't gotten all that much out of this season. It's not just Simmons' career that is in an uncomfortable place; it's an entire franchise.