Ben Simmons’ NBA career is slipping away as he struggles for minutes in Brooklyn – and it’s all a reminder of a majorly failed experiment.
The remarkable part — honestly, the sad part — is that younger basketball fans know Penny Hardaway primarily as the head coach of the Memphis Tigers. He’s a very good coach; he’s on the doorstep of a fifth 20-win season in five years at the university for which he once starred as a player.
But there was a moment — so fleeting — when Hardaway was one of the biggest basketball stars in the world. His first four years with the Magic went this way: All-Rookie first team, All-NBA first team, All-NBA first team, All-NBA third team. The Magic, with Shaquille O’Neal and Hardaway paired, were the best show in the NBA during Michael Jordan’s sabbatical. Even after Jordan returned and Shaq fled for L.A., Penny was poised to be a marquee player for a decade to come.
And then he tore his left meniscus. “And you could see it in him,” his old teammate, Nick Anderson, said on the terrific ESPN 30-for-30, “This Magic Moment.” “He wasn’t Penny Hardaway anymore.” Hardaway stuck around. He became a journeyman, roaming from the Suns to the Knicks to the Heat.
In his two All-NBA first-team seasons, he’d been good for 21.3 points, 7.1 assists and two steals per game, shooting 51.3 per cent from the floor; his last 10 seasons, he averaged 11.8, 3.8 and shot .428. “I should’ve retired eight years sooner than when I did,” Hardaway admitted in that documentary. “It made it worse for people to see me in that light but I loved the game so much I played through the pain.”
It’s hard not to think about Hardaway when you see Ben Simmons scuffle for the Nets, and for the same melancholy reasons, the New York Post reports. Simmons wasn’t nearly the total offensive weapon Hardaway was, but at his best, with the Sixers from 2018-2021, he sure was one of the most fun players in the NBA: unselfish, a hawk on defence, good with the ball.
He was never a high-volume shooter and to this day has taken only 36 3-pointers in his career — but that, too, was part of his appeal. He knew his limitations. He knew he had other guys to shoot the 3, and a beast underneath in Joel Embiid. And he is still a remarkable 56.5 per cent career shooter on 2-point attempts. “He knows what it’s like to be a great, great player,” Pat Williams said of Simmons a few weeks ago. “There aren’t a lot of people who can say that.”
Williams was Hardaway’s general manager in Orlando and he’s now a keen observer of the league, in which he worked for 51 years, as a radio commentator in Central Florida. He has seen his share of players — Hardaway and Derrick Rose to name two — whose careers were forever altered by injury at a painfully young age. “It’s heartbreaking,” he said during a break in his radio show. “It really is.”
Heartbreaking is a kind way of putting where Simmons is right now. For the Nets, he is a high-end enigma, due US$77.9 million. For their fans, for now, he is a constant reminder of the big-name experiment the Nets invested in the last four years. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden — traded to the 76ers for Simmons — are all elsewhere now.
Simmons — or the impostor wearing No. 10 — remains. He earned that contract based on early speed similar to Hardaway’s. He was Rookie of the Year. He was third-team All-NBA once, first-team All-Defense twice. He and Embiid — like Penny and Shaq a generation earlier — were going to be a force to be reckoned with forever.
Except forever turned out to be four years, and the end for Simmons in Philly was as ugly as any star’s departure has ever been. Now he fights for backup minutes behind Nic Claxton. In 20 quiet minutes in Wednesday’s 116-105 Nets win over the Heat at Barclays Center, Simmons took two shots and scored two points. “Trying to figure out what line-up fits around Ben, what position fits for Ben, how we can make him look good at every opportunity,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said of his expensive spare piece. “That’s the goal and I’m still trying to figure that out. That’s on me to figure out.”
Like Hardaway, physical injuries have played a part in Simmons’ plunge, though there is also an added mental-health component to it and that makes you wonder if he could ever channel Hardaway — “I loved the game so much” — because locked somewhere inside Simmons is something other than a second-string centre. Fifteen minutes ago — or thereabouts — he was a foundational player on a contender. Has that really all just vanished, at age 26? If so, Pat Williams had the right word for it. It really is heartbreaking.