Updated: Jul 20
In the aftermath of the Brooklyn Nets’ Game 2 loss in their first-round series against the Boston Celtics, it was only natural for fans to play the finger-pointing game. The one question that loomed was: where is Ben Simmons? Well, Nets' fans finally got their answer Friday afternoon, when ESPN Senior NBA Insider Adrian “Woj” Wojnarowski announced that Simmons plans to play in Game 4 of the series barring any setbacks. Simmons has not played a game for the Nets this season after being traded from the Philadelphia 76ers right before February’s trade deadline.
Prior to being traded, Simmons refused to play in the 76ers’ pre-season and regular season games, and also sparingly participating in their training camp activities. Simmons cited his mental health as the reason for his limited participation and refusal to play in games.  In the offseason, Simmons received a $16.5 million advance of his $33 million salary. Philadelphia insists that Simmons breached his contract under the CBA and had the right to recoup the money advanced to Simmons before the season.
Starting with Simmons’ first paycheck, the 76ers deducted the $360,000 per-game salary for each game he missed this season. Now, Philadelphia has been withholding almost $1.3 million of Simmons’ salary in each of his paychecks, minus the amount for escrow that the NBA withheld. This has continued since he became a Net. Since the last paycheck is scheduled for April 30, the same deductions are set to carry over after the end of the season.
Simmons and his representatives attempted to resolve this matter without arbitration, but no agreement was reached, leading to Simmons filing a grievance to challenge the roughly $20 million that the 76ers are withholding from him. Simmons and the 76ers had disagreements over the amount of accessibility that the team and its medical staff were given to diagnose and affirm his mental health. The NBA’s CBA states that a grievance must be initiated within 30 days from the date of the occurrence, or within 30 days from the date when the facts of the matter became known to file the grievance.
Shortly after Simmons began to comply with the team and meet with a team-recommended medical specialist to discuss his mental health, Simmons’ agent Rich Paul told The Athletic’s Shams Charania that the 76ers imposing fines and negative publicity were furthering the damage to his mental health. Philadelphia never questioned Simmons’ mental health claims, they just wanted to receive more information about his progress. The 76ers told Shams that they believed Simmons should partake in all team activities until there is information revealed that would preclude Simmons from playing.
There will be an arbitration hearing in the coming weeks to attempt to resolve this matter, but if Simmons succeeds on his claim, it can have a rippling effect on the rest of the NBA. Although mental health has been more of an open topic in the NBA in recent years, this arbitration could set a precedent on the handling of mental health and contract matters in the future. There are multiple factors to this case that make it even more interesting, such as Simmons citing back discomfort a week after Philadelphia suspended him for the regular-season opener for conduct detrimental to the team. According to Woj, Simmons underwent brief treatment before the medical staff cleared him to work out. Without participating in any basketball activity the next day, Simmons told the 76ers that he “wasn’t mentally ready to play to his expectations and needed time to step away,” per Wojnarowski.
There have been rumblings throughout social media that Simmons is using a back injury as an extra layer of cover. If Simmons returned to play for the Nets shortly after he was traded, how would that be viewed in his arbitration? If an arbitrator rules in Simmons’ favor, would that open the door for other disgruntled star players to simply cite mental health as the reason why he cannot play for his current team any longer? A ruling in Simmons’ favor could give players a new method for getting out of their current team situation, so the NBA must take that with a grain of salt. Expect these talks to heat up as we approach Simmons’ season debut in Game 4 of the Nets’ first-round series.
Zachary Koenig is a 2L at New York Law School and is the NYLS Sports Law Society's Co-Events Chair. You can follow Zachary on Twitter @koenigz18.