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Farewell, Jonathon Simmons, We Hardly Knew Ye

Reflections on a Spurs cult hero and what his departure means for San Antonio

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Plucked from the D-League, the undrafted forward Jonathon Simmons became a cult hero in San Antonio over two seasons and one memorable playoff run. On July 15, Simmons agreed to a three-year deal with the Orlando Magic.

I. Small Picture

During Game 1 of April’s Spurs-Grizzlies first-round series, Wayne Selden, a backup guard for the Grizzlies, stole a pass thrown by Jonathon Simmons, a backup guard for the Spurs, and then broke off down the court toward the Grizzlies’ basket. There were less than six minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and it was a big-daddy blowout (the Spurs were up by 31), so it’d have been very easy (and understandable) for Simmons to just jog back on defense for show and let the play dissipate into the ether. That’s not what happened, though. Instead, what happened was a murder.

As Selden dribbled up the court, he was able to wiggle around enough to render Bryn Forbes, the only defender between him and the rim, useless. Selden gathered the ball, then raised up for what he thought was going to be an uncontested, unimportant, uninteresting layup. Selden hadn’t seen Simmons trailing the play behind him, though.

Selden jumped, and Simmons, who was frustrated because he’d been grabbed across the arm when he tried to make the pass and no foul was called (which is why it was stolen), jumped too. Selden flipped the ball at the rim very gracefully, and Simmons, his body full of hate, tracked the ball in the air, cocked his arm back, then smacked it against the backboard so violently that it ricocheted all the way back out past the 3-point line and out of bounds. He smacked it the way Regan smacked her mom in The Exorcist when she was possessed by the devil, or the way Daniel Plainview smacked Eli in There Will Be Blood when Eli asked Plainview for his family’s money back, or the way Maximus threw that sword at the people watching the fight in Gladiator during the "Are you not entertained?!" scene — which is to say he did so with real venom and anger and contempt.

This is a screenshot of the microsecond after Simmons blocked the shot:

Look at his face. Even just a glimpse of his profile is enough to see that it’s very much a You Fucking Thought face. And he holds it the whole way through the block and its aftermath, too. Look:

(I’d also like to point out his left hand here. Simmons is making a "0" by connecting his index finger and thumb together. He’s holding up a zero because that’s exactly how much he cares about Selden’s feelings or life during that block on a scale of a zero to a billion.)

There are a bunch of Jonathon Simmons Moments from his tenure with my beloved Spurs that I enjoy thinking about. There was his performance in the 2015 summer league, which was the first time I got to see him flying through the atmosphere during games. There was a tiny play he had in a regular-season game in 2015 where Kawhi Leonard threw him an alley-oop on a fast break, and if you squinted hard enough you could see them doing that same thing in the Finals together a couple of years later. (Another great Kawhi-related thing was the time Simmons said that it was easy to make Kawhi laugh, all you had to do was "talk about music and women.") There was the way he casually chewed his gum during games, which was something he did so mesmerizingly that it became a thing people talked about in San Antonio. There was that time in the first game of the 2016–17 season when he tried to dunk the rattail off the back of JaVale McGee’s head, and then there was that time later that season when he dunked Meyers Leonard into another time zone:

(I was in Portland the night of this game for some work stuff, so I went. I was sitting right behind the rim when this happened. I had an erection for, like, about two days straight afterward. It was very embarrassing.)

So, again: There are a bunch of great plays and moments like that. But if I had to pick a single favorite Jonathon Simmons thing, it’d be that Selden block. It was the best parts of his story — how he bounced around junior college; how he declared for the draft after playing a season at the University of Houston and never heard his name called; how he had to pay $150 just to try out for the Austin Toros, the D-League team tied to the Spurs; how he played the best basketball of his life when it mattered the most (I’m talking about the way he showed out in Games 5 and 6 of this year’s Spurs-Rockets second-round series), and so now next season he’s going to make 10 times what his average salary had been for his first two uncertain years in the league — all rolled up into a single thing. It was him caring desperately in a moment when he maybe didn’t need to, and certainly when no one else was going to.

I’m going to miss him. I’m glad he got paid, though.

Jonathon Simmons (AP Images)
Jonathon Simmons (AP Images)

II. Big Picture

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Spurs letting Simmons float away without so much as even pretending to reach out for him (Orlando signed him to a three-year deal for $18 million, which is far lower than most were anticipating he’d get), is what it means for San Antonio, because really it can mean several different things.

Is this an instance when the Spurs misread the situation?

That seems unlikely, given that Simmons’s agent told a news station in San Antonio that the Spurs never made even a single offer during free agency, which would seem to indicate that they were fully prepared for (and expecting) him to leave. Simmons had a fantastic showing in the playoffs, particularly during the aforementioned Rockets series, which made it easy to forget that there were 31 different times during the regular season when he was either inactive, didn’t play at all, or played fewer than 15 minutes in a game.

Are the Spurs tanking?

LOL.

LaMarcus Aldridge (Getty Images)
LaMarcus Aldridge (Getty Images)

Was this a hint that the Spurs are planning on punting the 2017–18 season?

Right near the end of the 1999–2000 season, Tim Duncan tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee. He sat out the final games of the season, but felt like he was fine to play in the playoffs after the nine days off he’d gotten between the injury and the start of the postseason. Gregg Popovich decided against it, though, and the Spurs ended up getting bopped upside the head by the Suns in that series, losing 3–1 (this was back when the first round was a best-of-five thing). I’ll remind you here that the Spurs had won the championship the season before, and also that they’d swept the Lakers (who ended up winning the 2000 title) in doing so. If we take Tim’s word that he was good to go (and I have no reason not to believe him, given that he is a perfect and infallible human), then they’d have for sure beaten the Suns, very likely beaten the Lakers (this was before Kobe and Shaq had gotten a real taste of winning, so they weren’t the unstoppable duo they’d become in 2001), and also very likely gone on to win another championship. The risk, though, was that nobody knew what Tim’s knee was going to do. Recounting the events around the injury to ESPN in 2012, Popovich said, "He was young, a franchise player. He wasn’t just a no. 1 pick. With him, you’ve got an opportunity to win multiple championships, if you don’t screw it up. I didn’t know if [the injury] could get worse, or get chronic."

Popovich played the long game there. And while this isn’t exactly like that, you could absolutely talk me into the idea that, rather than make any real moves this summer to prepare for the coming season, Pop and the Spurs are instead plotting for the summer of 2018 instead, which will feature a massive class of big, big, big free agents. (There’s LeBron, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, and more.) (It’ll also feature LaMarcus Aldridge likely leaving the Spurs, assuming they aren’t able to stitch together a trade package for him during the season.) (Tony Parker will be an unrestricted free agent, too.) (And who knows what’s going to happen with Manu.) (It’s all in play, is what I’m saying.)

Do the Spurs know something that everyone else doesn’t?

The best line I read about this angle came from Henry Bushnell at Yahoo Sports. Guessing at what might happen this season, he said, "The Spurs roster won’t necessarily look different six months from now, but we’ll think about it differently." I was at Game 3 of the Spurs-Rockets series, after Tony Parker got hurt and was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs. Popovich started Dejounte Murray in Parker’s place, and Murray, god bless him, looked absolutely terrified. Patrick Beverley, probably the best defensive point guard in the league, made those first few minutes a total disaster for him. By the next game, though, Dejounte looked far better, and then by the Golden State series he looked all the way capable. It felt a lot like watching Tony Parker those first couple of years he was with the team. What if Pop turns Dejounte into the new Tony Parker? What if Brandon Paul turns out to be eventually incredible? What if Derrick White makes a big push? What if Pop spends the whole season talking guys into believing they’re unbelievable, same as he did with Kawhi, and then what if one of them actually ends being unbelievable, same as what happened with Kawhi?

What if it doesn’t mean anything at all?

LOL. Everything means something.

For real, though: What if it doesn’t mean anything at all?

This might be right. I don’t know. I’m hoping it’s the The Spurs Know Something That Everyone Else Doesn’t thing, though.