CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While it remains to be seen when new Brooklyn Nets swingman Ben Simmons will be able to make his season debut as he continues to deal with a back injury, Nets coach Steve Nash said Simmons will join up with his new team in Philadelphia on Wednesday and will sit on the bench with the team Thursday.
Simmons, who was acquired from the 76ers last month along with Andre Drummond, Seth Curry and two future first-round picks in exchange for All-Star guard James Harden and Paul Millsap, is expected to be roundly booed Thursday after requesting a trade from the Sixers after last season, citing mental health concerns. Nash was quick with his answer Tuesday when asked if he thought it would be good for Simmons to be in that environment in Philadelphia.
“It’s great,” Nash said. “He’s on our team, he needs to be with his teammates and get the whole Philly thing out of the way a little bit. Maybe it never goes away, but the first time it’s always nice to kind of deal with it and move on.”
Nash said he would be “happy to talk” to Simmons about the reception he’s expected to get, but he said he is confident the 25-year-old former All-Star knows what’s coming.
“I don’t think he’s naive [enough] to think he’s not going to get some boos,” Nash said. “I hope he enjoys it. It’s a part of the game I miss.”
Nets star forward Kevin Durant, who went through his own emotional return after leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder following the 2015-16 season, said he would not be saying anything extra to Simmons in advance of his return to Philadelphia.
“Absolutely not,” Durant said. “That’s one of those things he’s going to have to experience for his self. I can’t go over there and nobody’s going to hold his hand. I’m sure it’s going to be some personal attacks, some words that may trigger you personally, but that’s just how fans are. They’re going to get under our skin. And they’re going to let their voices be heard. I think part of the experience of coming to an NBA game is to heckle.
“Some people don’t even enjoy basketball, their lives are so s—-y that they get to just aim it at other people. So it’s easy to kind of get that release at a basketball game. Ben understands that, and I’m sure some stuff may be funny. You never know. But at the end of the day you realize that life is amazing, we play the game of basketball for a living and a little bit of trash talk is what it is.”
Durant said Simmons didn’t ask about his experience playing against the Thunder in Oklahoma City as a member of the Golden State Warriors.
“It’s one of those things you just got to experience for yourself,” Durant said. “Embrace it. All the greats have been through being called the worst names in the history of the book. The good thing about it is that we get a chance to perform and shut the people up. It’s a fun dynamic with fans and players because they really do love us at the end of the day. But a part of their job is to be fans, be fanatics and be radical about the game and about their team, so we all understand this as professionals. Some of the stuff may go overboard, but at the end of the day, ain’t nothing going to happen to us, I feel.”
Durant feels that the circumstances that surrounded his Oklahoma City return are different than the ones Simmons will walk into Thursday, because Simmons still isn’t able to play due to injury.
“It’s a different situation because I got to play and shut the people up every time I hit a jump shot,” Durant said. “And then — win. It was good to [quiet fans]. But Ben doesn’t have that opportunity right now, he’s got to just sit there and just take a bunch of people being childish. Throwing insults at his way because he didn’t want to play basketball for them no more. I mean, it’s funny when you look at it in the bigger picture, you see what it really is, but that’s just the sport we play.
“That’s the profession we’re in. We’re out making 40 million dollars a year, you can take that [criticism] for 48 [minutes of a game], for a couple hours. I’m sure Ben has that approach.”
As far as when Simmons might be able to play again, that is a question that still does not have a clear-cut answer. Simmons was optimistic about playing in Philadelphia during his introductory news conference, but he has been dealing with back soreness over the last 1½ weeks as he tries to get closer to playing again for the first time in over nine months. Simmons still hasn’t been cleared to practice, and it is unclear when he will be able to do so.
The Nets’ next formal practice is scheduled for Saturday in Brooklyn.
“It’s to be determined,” Nash said. “I think he’s progressing this week, but I don’t know what that means as far as Saturday. So he’ll see us [Wednesday] in Philly. I don’t think he’s ready for 5-on-5 basketball but he’s improving, working out, and he’ll join us in Philly, and a few good days of rehab.”
Veteran Nets guard Goran Dragic knows the atmosphere in Philadelphia will likely be intense, but he said he doesn’t think Simmons will have an issue with it.
“It’s probably not going to be pleasant,” Dragic said. “The same as in Toronto [for me], but it is what it is. We’re all professional athletes. At the end of the day it’s only boos, so you just go out there and perform and try to do your best. But as long as it’s nothing serious, no throwing things and just be verbal, I don’t care.”
Drummond echoed a similar sentiment in regard to being back in Philadelphia.
“It will be a playoff-like atmosphere,” Drummond said. “I think just based off the trade and us playing them again and obviously with the Ben situation it’s just two teams that have a good chance of seeing each other in the Eastern Conference finals. So it’s going to be a good game.”
Drummond figures to play a little more than usual over the next few games given that Nash said center LaMarcus Aldridge will be out for at least the next two games after having an MRI on his right hip. The Nets come into Tuesday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets with a 32-33 record, tied with the Hornets for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. They have lost 17 of their past 20 games.
Despite what’s going on in the standings, Nash knows much of the focus Thursday will be on Simmons’ return to Philadelphia.
“Your first time back in any city after a trade is always a little different and awkward,” Nash said. “And obviously there’s a history there, so it is what it is, he’ll be fine. He’s a big boy and he’s excited to join our team and all that stuff. He wants to be there on the bench with his teammates.”