Green's defensive role (and capacity) a key pre-camp question for Sixers


The Sixers’ 2021-22 season is loaded with hypotheticals, and far more than usual for a team less than two weeks away from opening training camp.

Among the near-infinite volume of questions created by the uncertainty over Ben Simmons’ status is this: How exactly would Danny Green be impacted defensively by a Simmons trade?

On the surface, it’s not an especially troubling topic. Green embodies “3-and-D.” He comes across as a low-maintenance, steady player who will grasp his job quickly and get it done on most nights. Parting with Simmons would likely put more on Green’s plate, though.

The 34-year-old pondered that possibility last month.

“… Defensively, I'd probably become the primary defender,” Green said to Howard Beck on Sports Illustrated’s The Crossover NBA Show podcast last month. “Not saying it's an issue or problem for me, but we have one less wing defender without him. Now it's me and Matisse (Thybulle) — not saying other guys don't play defense, but you're talking about main defenders. Ben’s a big part of that."

Like most competitive personalities, Green enjoys matchups against stars. However, his age and health are notable factors. He went from winning the NBA title with the Lakers in the NBA’s Disney World bubble to playing 69 of the Sixers’ 72 regular-season games last year, then suffered a right calf strain in the second round of the playoffs against the Hawks. Sticking Green on the opponent’s top scorer every night and expecting pristine results is not realistic; he’d tell you the same. 

“I think it depends on the night,” Green said on April 30. “It depends on how I’m feeling; it depends on how fatigued I am. But I think every night … a lot of us want to guard the star player. That’s what we’re here to do. Obviously I’m not a featured guy on the offensive end of the floor, so for me to feel involved, it’s on the defensive end. To be able to guard a star, try to change the game, be active, get deflections and help my team on that end of the floor is key for me. Some nights it’s always good to help off the ball and know what’s needed, whether it’s shifting or double teaming or rotating or rebounding. 

“Sometimes if you just don’t have the energy  — or you have it — it also helps to get a rest here or there, too. Not saying anybody’s taking a rest in this game, but to not have to be as active is always a plus when you can. … But yeah, I always enjoy guarding the stars and taking on the challenge.”

Which sorts of players is Green best suited to defend? Based on last season, the Sixers might not have a clear answer. 

Asked after the Sixers’ May 13 loss to the Heat why he put Simmons on Duncan Robinson and used Green on Jimmy Butler, head coach Doc Rivers said, “We just don’t like Danny chasing. He tends to struggle in that.”

Green also had problems in the first half of Game 1 against Atlanta and Trae Young, allowing the shifty guard to reject ball screens and drive downhill too often. He looked every one of his 34 years. 

Green guarded an eclectic mix of players ranging from big, high-scoring wings like Paul George and Jaylen Brown to 6-footers Chris Paul and Fred VanVleet. His multi-positional ability is a positive, and yet it might exacerbate the Sixers’ short-term scrambling for defensive answers in the wake of a Simmons deal.

If Simmons ultimately moves to a new team and Thybulle stays in Philadelphia, the 24-year-old bronze medalist and All-Defensive Second Team selection would be vital. And Green, with a deep understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses, surely wouldn’t mind Thybulle easing the burden on him by guarding the Zach LaVines and Bradley Beals of the world.

At some point, should Thybulle make strides offensively, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him take Green’s starting small forward spot and/or close games over him for defensive reasons. Thybulle is a better overall defender than Green right now, though he can of course learn many nuances from his veteran teammate.

Most analysis about roles and starting spots is very theoretical these days, however, as so many things are with the Sixers.

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