The Lost Season: Bobby Simmons, 04-05

 

With the threat of a shortened or even cancelled season upon us, there is very little we can do to restore a shred of basketball into our lives. What we can do, though, is reminisce over other “lost” seasons. Seasons which saw players or teams achieve extraordinary things that go beyond titles or awards, only to fade back into the background one year later. Here we will bring the tale of these lost seasons, the ones that touched us on a personal level, the ones we will never forget, though history itself might.

The first edition was Noam Schiller’s documentation of Boris Diaw’s 05-06 season. Read it here. This is about Bobby Simmons. 

At the center of the picture above is a young mountain goat peering down at the world at an immeasurable height. Things look different from that high up; positively foreign. We at ground level face the depths of sea below and the towering mountains above — a constant check and balance for our egos and a reminder of our insignificance in a broader scope. But atop a mountain looking down at one blurred, obscured mass of everything, life compels you to let out a heaving sigh of freedom. When you’re seemingly on top of everything, it’s hard to imagine being back at ground level ever again. This is a mountain goat, though. It was born with the necessary tools to scale slopes. These immeasurable heights are where mountain goats make their permanent residence. If only some of us were so lucky.

Bobby Simmons was arguably the second most important player for the Los Angeles Clippers in 2004-05. In his second season as a Clipper, he eclipsed every single one of his per-game statistics, becoming a dependable soldier in an ever-improving (and ever-changing) army. It was never supposed to happen, but a bit of luck and a snowball of circumstance brought together Simmons’ unbelievable season.

Recap: A Summer of Hope, and the Big (Plan) C

The city of Los Angeles held its collective breath on July 16, 2004.

Kobe Bryant was a free agent. The Los Angeles Lakers had just recently lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals. Phil Jackson was stepping away from the game, and Shaq was traded to Miami for Brian Grant, Caron Butler, and Lamar Odom. A dynasty had just collapsed, and amid the wreckage, Bryant had a decision to make.

He could resign with the Lakers. They were devoted to him since day one. But the team that stood before him was a band of strangers, and with so much uncertainty regarding the player and coaching changes, perhaps it would be best to bolt for a team with more of an identity. He could sign with the Clippers. After all, according to Hoopshype’s Gery Woelfel, he was much more familiar with the Clippers, having good relations with both their players and staff. Technically, he wasn’t going anywhere. He’d be walking storming the halls of Staples Center regardless. But on July 16, he solidified the message. He really wasn’t going anywhere. More specifically, he wasn’t going to the Clippers.

Behind the Kobe ruckus, the Phoenix Suns put six years and $50 million on the table for restricted free agent Quentin Richardson, who had a breakout season with the Clippers in 03-04. It was the Clippers’ move.

Two weeks later, they made their decision. They didn’t match the contract. Instead, they took advantage of a New Jersey Nets team desperately looking to cut costs. The Clippers acquired versatile swingman Kerry Kittles for a future second round pick. The team was young enough. It needed veteran experience, and more importantly, playoff experience. Plus, the Clippers were worried about Richardson’s back injury sustained at the end of the 03-04 season, forcing him to miss 17 games. Kittles on the other hand, played all 82.

Of course, Quentin Richardson’s back was fine in Phoenix, where he played 79 games in 04-05. Kerry Kittles only managed to play 11 games in the season, the final games of his NBA career. He would eventually cave to a degenerative disk in his back. Oh, the tragic irony.

Kittles didn’t play in the Clippers’ season opener. But Bobby Simmons did. He dropped 30 points, six rebounds, and six assists, shooting 86.7% against the Seattle Supersonics. And that’s where this wild story begins.

Sights Unseen

When I first decided to write about Simmons, my initial thought was to start researching with a YouTube mixtape or two. A “Bobby Simmons mixtape” search on YouTube yields exactly one relevant result, and it’s a mix of his mediocre years as a Net. Somehow, his seasons as an albatross were more worthy of two-and-a-half minutes than the season that won him the Most Improved Player award.

After hours of clicking next, I found a 04-05 Clippers season recap mix. Simmons had one play in the 3:27 mix. A layup. His jersey number also made four appearances. (Maybe.)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5d6AxAH0yw]

Disgusted at myself at this point, I stumbled upon this video of a Clippers-Lakers showdown from the 04-05 season. Hidden behind some masterful offensive displays from Kobe, a billion Mikki Moore dunks, and Chris Kaman doing his best Magic Johnson impression (at 2:12), Simmons manages to grace the screen for a grand total of four offensive plays (all in the fourth quarter):

  •  (7:53) Baseline jumpshot (2 pts)
  • (8:18) Fast break and-one opportunity (3 pts)
  • (8:36) Baseline jumpshot (2 pts)
  • (9:26) Baseline three-pointer (3pts)
  • And for an added bonus, starting at 8:45, there are two consecutive plays where Simmons gets schooled by Kobe.

So there you have it. Four plays in an 11 minute video. In the infinite reaches of the internet, Bobby Simmons’ best season as a basketball player can be seen for a few fleeting moments. It’s depressing, really. I mean, YouTube has more video coverage of the signing of the Declaration of Independence – and that happened in 1776.

The Player 

Simmons finished with 22 points and eight rebounds.

“He’s one guy,” Clipper Coach Mike Dunleavy said, “that if you can get him some clean looks, you can be pretty sure the ball is going into the hole.”

via Little Things Big for Clippers | Los Angeles Times (12/30/04)

Before Bobby Simmons was the Most Improved Player of 2005, before his lunch date with Bill Simmons, and before his five year, $47 million contract, he was just another player. That is to say, Bobby Simmons was a player before he was some other team’s burden.

At the height of his abilities, he was the prototypical 3. Simmons was not very quick, and he wasn’t very athletic, but he did what he could to maximize his time on the court. He was a good rebounder for his size, and knew how to use his strength and his seven-foot wingspan to find openings. While he wasn’t known as an offensive threat at DePaul, on the Clippers he became a fantastic off-the-ball scorer. His off-the-dribble game wasn’t as outstanding, but he did show some success, even if it was more out of necessity than anything else.

With his feet set, Simmons was automatic from pretty much everywhere. The 46.6% he shot in 04-05 would be the highest field goal percentage in his career, and on some nights, his offensive efficiency was shocking. Much of his damage came from the baseline, where his 20-footer was deadly when left unguarded. While he wouldn’t become a prolific three-point shooter until after his stint with the Clippers, Simmons was still a high percentage shooter from long distance. His 43.5% from three would be the second highest in his career.

Defensively, Simmons wasn’t a stopper by any means, but he was competent, which was enough. With good physicality and long arms, he made up for his athletic limitations and played sound defense, and did a good job denying entry into the paint.

He wasn’t a star, but he was a perfectly complementary scoring option at the wing, and a neutral-to-plus defender. Of Clippers players who received consistent playing time, Simmons’ net plus-minus was second only to Elton Brand’s. The Clippers were a band of fantastic athletes, but what they lacked was the type of shot creation that someone like Kobe or even Kerry Kittles would’ve provided. Maggette had become one of the go-to scorers, but his jumper wasn’t as reliable as his forays to the hoop. Simmons provided offensive balance and spacing that admirably filled a void.

A Mountain, A Myth, A Mistake

* Simmons lost the entire 06-07 season to an ankle injury.Â

As evidenced from this sweet graph I made, Simmons’ offensive production — and by extension, his career — resembles a mountain. It took years for Simmons to climb the valley and reach the peak of his career. But Simmons isn’t a mountain goat. And he wasn’t meant to find home at the top.

Simmons’ apex in 04-05 is so dramatically better than any other stage of his career, it makes a person wonder if it happened at all. Sure, the dropoff from 04-05 to 05-06 wasn’t as sizable as the ascent from Simmons’ first year as a Clipper to his second, but there was a dip in every major statistic in his first year with Milwaukee, including a drop in PER from 16.1 to 13.8. Simmons would only hold an above average PER for that one season. So, again: did this actually happen?

[flash http://vimeo.com/26792365 w=500 h=400]

Maybe somewhere along the upward trek, the air got too thin. Somewhere along the way, the mountain became an escalator, that led to a travelling ram, which brought him into the arms of a yeti which placed him on a lever that pushed him into a bubble that took him up, up, up! And then some time the following year, the bubble burst. Maybe it was one big Simpsons reenactment. Maybe Simmons’ season was just one big altitude-induced hallucination. But if he was hallucinating, then so were we.

What makes Simmons’ career arc so unbelievable is just how sudden everything occurred. In an instant, his numbers skyrocketed, and in the next, they were already in the midst of freefall. And yet somehow, wedged in between those two infinitesimal moments, Simmons found himself nearly $50 million richer. This isn’t to say Milwaukee made a bad decision in offering such a juicy contract. They found a need and addressed it. But offering close to $10 million annually for a player with so little context and so little history — that was worrisome. And had they known of the chain of events that brought Simmons to prominence, maybe they wouldn’t have been so eager to pull the trigger. But Simmons’ stats were seductive, and Milwaukee was smitten. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

A Dubious Place in History

Simmons’ rise to temporary prominence came at an awkward time for the Clippers. They were in a state of flux, leaving behind their youth movement in Odom, Darius Miles, and Richardson for a more solid core around Elton Brand. Simmons’ success played a key role in the Clippers’ improvement in the standings at 37-45, but it didn’t match the 01-02 season (39-43) where the Clippers were on the outside looking in as the ninth seed. Simmons’ prosperity also came a year too early, as the 05-06 Clippers became the most successful iteration in the franchise’s modern history. While Simmons would never see that same level of team success for the rest of his career (unless you count the two games he played for the Spurs last year), he amassed a fortune as an individual, which is probably a fair trade-off.

Ultimately, YouTube doesn’t lie. As unlikely as 04-05 Simmons was, he holds no real relevance in Clipper lore. He proved himself an adequate two-way player for a season, but he was little more than a stopgap for a brighter tomorrow. Today, his glory days don’t have the same effect on teams as they used to. His lucrative contract has run out, and he’s back to toiling at the end of the depth charts. In fact, the biggest favor his contract has done for him (other than give him tens of millions of dollars) was giving him a confounding role of NBA All-Star in the terrible 2010 movie Just Wright. (In 2010, Simmons played 23 games and averaged 5.3 points.)

Mountain goats are naturally equipped to scale great heights, but they aren’t above error. Accidents happen, and some find themselves slipping and plummeting to their doom. But if a mountain goat slips off a mountain and nobody is there to witness it fall, does it actually happen? Simmons’ best season as an NBA player was spent on an irrelevant team. His immediate decline occurred on equally irrelevant teams. But for 75 games in 2004 and 2005, Bobby Simmons was a rising NBA player. For that season, he showed the league that he might be worth an investment. One day, history will wash this fact away. But if Simmons leaves any legacy, let it be this: He was the product of a perfect storm — a Plan C that worked better than anyone could have expected.

Seth Carstens