Discover more from The Sports Column
IN A LEAGUE OF QUITTERS (SIMMONS) AND FOOLS (NETS), SALUTE CELTICS AND WARRIORS
Thankfully, the NBA has two real contenders built the right way, while an ill-fitting construct in Brooklyn marks the end (let’s hope) of a superteam era defined by Ben Simmons’ pathetic work shutdown
If white-collar criminals are incarcerated for stealing mega-millions, why not send Ben Simmons to jail, too? Or, at least, sue him for the $33 million he’s trying to embezzle this season and the $113.7 million remaining on his contract the next three years. In a long trail of malcontents in sports, has a star athlete ever ripped off his employers so openly and unashamedly?
From the moment he passed up a dunk in a playoff game and incurred Philadelphia’s ire — and NBA Twitter’s mockery — Little Ben has redefined the meaning of quitting. First he cited his “mental health” issues, until the 76ers traded him to Brooklyn, where he suddenly decided he wasn’t so depressed — but was bothered by a herniated disk condition. He said his back started bothering him in late February. Tonight, two months later, the Nets hoped Simmons would make his debut to assess his worth while trying to keep alive one of the most chaotic, tragicomic seasons in sports history.
And once again, he is refusing to work, blaming back soreness. For the malingerer who hasn’t played in a league game since June 20, it means 16 months will have passed before he returns to action, assuming he shows up then. The Nets have only themselves to blame for an unprecedented sham, which began when they allowed Kevin Durant to play general manager and invite Kyrie Irving to join him. As he is wont to do, Irving hijacked the title fantasy with one poison pill after another, declaring that the Nets “don’t really need a coach,” then missing most of the season as an anti-vaxxer sidelined by New York City’s mandate. His self-absorbed stance chased away James Harden, who’d been summoned to create a Big 3 superteam, and a trade required the Nets to take on another migraine in Simmons.
Now, buried in an 0-3 playoff hole against the blissfully cohesive Boston Celtics, the Nets — they really should be renamed the Nuts — are stuck with an embarrassing offseason conundrum. Even if they cut their losses with Irving — and why wouldn’t they, after he fasted for Ramadan (of course) and left himself drained in the current series? — they would receive nothing back for him in free agency; what team would be crazy enough to trade for him? And Simmons? They have to deal with his piece-of-workism unless they buy him out for a ridiculous sum. As it is, Simmons is challenging $20 million in fines imposed by the Sixers, which sets a stage for NBA owners to demand new protective language in the next collective barganing agreement.
He was roundly slammed Sunday on social media, with the words of Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Reggie Miller harsh enough to knock the rose-tinted sunglasses — which he wears indoors at courtside — off Simmons’ visage. Wrote Miller, speaking for the masses: “Cmon MAN!!! Out for Game 4 when it was rumored you were going to make your debut. This dude has ZERO competitive (fire emoji). As small a chance as the Nets have to come back in this series, you still have KD and Kyrie, all you need is to win ONE game and take it from there.. #ManUp.”
Wrote ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins: “Ben Simmons has officially completed the biggest heist in NBA history. He really sat out an entire season!”
All of which has left Durant, whose bittersweet career may end sooner than later, looking like a feeble shell of his all-timer self. He didn’t score a basket in the second half of Game 2 and failed to attempt a shot in the final 11 minutes of Game 3. Think he regrets leaving Golden State?
As for Steve Nash, who was leading a stress-free life in Manhattan Beach when he accepted a haunted gig, he’s looking at a pink slip when, in truth, a hybrid of the sport’s most accomplished coaches couldn’t make this mess work. “Kyrie's fasting, and Kevin has had to play 40-plus minutes for five, six weeks after missing six, seven weeks,” said Nash, referring to Durant’s midseason knee injury. “Fasting can’t be easy, you know? If I go play tennis and I haven’t eaten, I feel like I’m going to fall over. So I can’t imagine how he feels in an NBA playoff game. And we needed Kevin to play 40 minutes (per game down the stretch) or we wouldn't be in the playoffs. So, I'm sure that's taken a big toll on Kevin.”
Thanks to Irving, who missed 53 regular-season games. Yet there he was after the Game 3 loss at Barclays Center, wishing he’d had more time during the season with his teammates. Uh, whose fault was that?
“We're all just trying to jell," Irving said. “And usually you're jelling at the right time. And that team in the other locker room is jelling at the right time. They've been jelling since Christmas. So for us, we're in a new experience as a group and we just got to respect that and just bring everything we can to this next game and just do one possession at a time. I don't want to be too cliché, but I don't have a lot of answers from how you make up time from October until now when usually teams would be jelling and things would be feeling good. You could put it on me in terms of playing better, controlling the game better, controlling our possessions, being more in a stance, not turning the ball over as much — so you could put it on me more of just doing more. And holding the guys accountable, same way I'm held accountable."
Or, we could put it on him for rejecting the vaccine jabs and putting his beliefs ahead of the team’s goals. Does Nash realize how Irving sabotaged a season and, most likely, his coaching career? “I don't think about it,” he said. “That's not realistic. It's not a worthy exercise. We deal with what's in front of us. We deal in reality. And our reality is the one we're facing and if you don't face that reality with honesty and presence you're not going to get anywhere.”
Could a situation be more disjointed? This is what happens — as seen in Los Angeles, where the Lakers let LeBron James run the front office — when gullible owners succumb to the Adam Silver-encouraged concept of player empowerment. The power plays backfire. This is where I reference Rich Paul as the common denominator between the Nets and Lakers, as the agent who has advised Simmons through his shameful sitdown and urged the Lakers, via longtime buddy James, to make the fatal Russell Westbrook deal. How do we know Paul and James aren’t plotting to poach Simmons … as the Nets cling to postseason life?
Wouldn’t that be just a slight integrity breach? The NBA already has a consumer issue when star players are missing too much time — as Silver recently put it, “a trend of star players not participating in a full complement of games.’’ Health problems — real or imagined — are a major part of the crisis. The playoffs already have been impacted by a flurry of injuries to Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, Luka Doncic, Kyle Lowry and, perhaps, Joel Embiid. Include Simmons, whether he’s faking or otherwise. Without Paul George, sidelined after a positive coronavirus test, the L.A. Clippers were eliminated in a play-in game. If you think COVID-19 won’t be a continuing problem this postseason, you don’t follow the news.
“I’m not standing here saying I have a great solution,” Silver told ESPN. “Part of the issue is injuries. One of the things we have focused on at the league office and we’re spending — we had begun to spend a lot of time on pre-pandemic — are there things we can do in terms of sharing information, resources around the league to improve best practices, rehabilitation?”
With 94 feet of hard maple wood as the canvas, basketball remains the one sport measured by joyful artistry. A revealing postseason is separating the master classmen from the hacks. We are reminded that the best teams are those building wisely, from within, emphasizing the ideals of cohesion, development and long-term vision.
We’re also realizing, oh so refreshingly, that the smart architects are making the league’s superteam craze fade in ignominy. A billionaire owner can’t just run to the luxury car dealer and buy a championship, and if you still think otherwise, consider an upcoming quarterfinal round without Durant, Irving, Simmons, James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook. Also feel free to project a Finals matchup between the Celtics and Warriors, who have emerged as title favorites because front-office leaders used brainpower to create TEAMS, not collections of ill-fitting and aging superstars.
“I can/will NOT miss the postseason again for my career!’’ James tweeted from his cave. “This shit HURT. OK back to watching these games.’’
He’s observing a possible Eastern Conference champion in the Celtics, who didn’t let control freaks dictate the plan as Durant did in Brooklyn and James did in L.A. Instead, new boss Brad Stevens — no one misses Danny Ainge — found a brilliant successor for his coaching seat in Ime Udoka, a Gregg Popovich disciple who has maximized the superstar potential of Jayson Tatum, the defensive bulldogging of Marcus Smart and the talent he inherited. The Celtics are the most complete team left, priding themselves on defense more than offense, and don’t be shocked if they topple defending champion Milwaukee in the next round and go on to win a championship. Celtics great Paul Pierce made news when he tweeted this after Game 3: “I think Tatum may be surpassing Kevin Durant right before our eyes in the NBA hierarchy.”
When Tatum quickly deflected the praise, it was all we needed to know about the Udoka Effect. Tatum isn’t drinking the superstar juice. He’s not rejecting the vaccine or fasting. He wants a championship. “Honestly, that’s not something I’m thinking about,” he said of Pierce’s words. “I’m certain it’s what Twitter and TV will say, but myself and all the guys in the locker room, we’re just worried about one game at a time and winning. I’m not trying to make it a one-on-one thing, or a matchup thing. For me, just trying to go out there and play as hard as I possibly can, give it everything I’ve got on both ends, and do whatever I can to make sure we get a win. And everybody on our team is doing that, sacrificing, competing, being on the same page. As long as we win, that’s all we care about.”
Said Udoka: “I feel like we’re a complete team.’’
Who else in the playoffs can say that?
Another good idea: Become reacquainted with the Warriors, who already had Maseratis in the garage but had to take them to a body shop for multiple years of work. It sparked the organizational priority to reload with youth, a difficult chore when most of the salary cap is squeezed by Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. A real and very adept GM, Bob Myers, unearthed Jordan Poole, a free spirit at Michigan whose shooting stroke simply needed some radar. Who better to study than Curry?
Now look at the Splash Brothers. Curry and Thompson aren’t 100-percent healthy but now they have a Poole. The newcomer’s recent joyride slowed Sunday in Denver, where Curry — serving as the best sixth man ever while recovering from foot problems — combined with Thompson to take 43 shots … to Poole’s 10. It’s a reminder of the pecking order, but when Steve Kerr’s new Death Lineup is humming, it’s a heavenly experience. Up 3-1 over the Nuggets, the Warriors are positioned to take advantage of Booker’s injury, if it lingers, and upend the struggling Phoenix Suns for the Western Conference title.
“Without him,” Thompson said of Poole, “we wouldn’t be where we’re at.”
“He’s been watching Steph a lot,” Green said, “and he’s doing his best impression. And it is incredible.”
Said Curry: “The maturation of his game has been unbelievable. Just his confidence in himself to be able to take it up another notch at this stage, it’s extremely impressive. You can give the direction, and the X’s and O’s, and the approach and all that. But the player has to go out there and do it. That can’t be taught. That’s something that you either have or you don’t. And I’m glad that he has it.”
Michael Malone, the Nuggets coach, reached into his Wikipedia bag for a comparison to Curry, Thompson and Poole, who could be the first guard trio in five decades to average 20 points each in a playoff series. “What's a three-headed monster in Greek mythology? It's like Cerberus,’’ said Malone, referring to the gatekeeper of Hades.
The Monday headlines, such as the one above this column, will include the gutlessness of Simmons and the idiocy of the Nets. Thankfully, for the sake of a league that doesn’t need more asylums, the playoffs are ruled by teams with well-oiled equilibria. People assumed a Bucks-Suns runback was ahead in the Finals.
If you love basketball, you know why Warriors-Celtics is the dream that would bring amnesia to all the sinister vibes.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.