Although his offensive game is perplexing at times, there is no doubt that Ben Simmons has emerged as the best perimeter defender on the 76ers. While Joel Embiid’s rim protection is impossible to replicate, removing Simmons from the floor puts the team in a position from seasons past; with no player to stop perimeter dribble penetration. For someone who came out of college with question marks about his defense, Simmons has taken those question marks and answered with what some would consider a Defensive Player of the Year campaign to date. He didn’t charge into the league as a top-tier defender, instead, he’s improved each year and has firmly entered the “elite” category this season.
Simmons’ defensive prowess is not limited to one position; he can effectively cover 1 through 5. Before the start of the season, Simmons boldly proclaimed he wanted to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. While some took him seriously, most of the national media laughed him off at the time. Now at more than Two-thirds through the season, no one’s laughing anymore. While his recent back injury likely put any real chance at DPOY to rest, Simmons was certainly deserving of the conversation up to that point.
This season, Simmons has posted a defensive rating of 103.9, which is good enough for 14th in the NBA. He also plays more minutes per game than everyone ranked above him, meaning he is on the court for more defensive possessions. The key to his defense? He’s a terror in the passing lanes. One lazy pass or loose dribble, and he is already going the other way for a big dunk and a 😤. He leads the NBA in steals per game with 2.1, as well as leads in total steals.
Simmons is seventh in steals per 48 minutes, but all the players above him play less than 25 minutes per game (including budding young thief Matisse Thybulle, who is second with 3.4 steals per 48 minutes). Additionally, Simmons’ defensive assignment is always changing this year to whatever the team needs, which makes his improved numbers even more impressive. This season he has consistently lined up across from the opponent’s best offensive player. In all of those crucial matchups, Simmons has managed to limit the damage done by his opponent.
Saying Simmons has risen to the challenge of being matched up against the opposing top player every night is an understatement. These lock-down performances often come in big games, either against division rivals or national spotlight games.
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum: Simmons has guarded Tatum for a total of 90 possessions. During that time, Tatum is shooting only 26.7 percent from the field, over 18 points lower than his average for the season.
Raptors forward Pascal Siakam: Next is the reigning Most Improved Player, who has been guarded by Ben for 70 possessions. Siakam has posted a 26.3 FG% while normally shooting over 46 percent for the year. Additionally, Siakam is shooting just 11.1 percent from deep with Simmons on him.
Lakers forward Lebron James: In a win over the Lakers in January, Simmons held Lebron to shooting just 22.2 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from deep.
Hawks guard Trae Young: Offensive wunderkind Trae Young is not immune to Simmons’ clamps, as even he has been slowed down by the Fresh Prince. With Young shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 37 percent from deep this year, he has been held to just 18.2/25 percent when guarded by Simmons.
The list of Ben’s victims goes on and on, swallowing up some of the best offensive players in the NBA
With Simmons is expected to miss extended time with a back injury, the Sixers will miss many facets of his game. While they will obviously miss his creation abilities and transition offense, I’m most curious to see how the team adjusts defensively in his absence. Everyone will have to step up, but even with their elevated game, the team will be hurting without him. Who guards Kawhi? Who guards LeBron? These are all questions that Brett Brown and Ime Udoka will have to answer if the Sixers are going to continue to gain ground in the standings while Simmons is out. The injury slowed the momentum the Sixers had generated, as well as damaged Ben’s case for some defensive accolades. Luckily, this injury comes at a time that the team has the second-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA (editors note: this was written PRIOR to losing to Cleveland AND Embiid leaving with an injury), though there is never a good time to lose your star point guard.
The season’s final stretch just became a lot more interesting.
Follow Process Potables contributor Torin Vanin on Twitter (@torin_vanin)!