Simmons for Defensive Player of the Year? He's happy to make the case


Is Ben Simmons the NBA’s No. 1 defensive player?

He doesn’t mind making the argument for himself.

“I take pride in guarding the best player on the floor every night,” he said after defending Damian Lillard, who shot 6 for 21 from the floor in the Sixers’ 118-114 loss Thursday to the Trail Blazers. “It’s not a one-off thing; if you watch me, I’m typically guarding the best player, and typically the best players are guards … and I love that.

"I love that my teammates can look at me and tell me, ‘You’ve got to go out and lock this guy up.’ There’s nights that guys go off — it’s going to happen — but most of the time I feel like I’m doing a good job and making the right plays. I feel like I’m the best defender in the NBA.”

Because Simmons does indeed guard the opposition’s biggest offensive threat just about every game, perhaps his defensive qualities are occasionally an afterthought for regular viewers of the Sixers, something taken for granted as part of what he brings to the table the same way Joel Embiid being 7-feet tall or Matisse Thybulle having attended the University of Washington might be. However, Simmons' claim that he's the league’s top defender is likely worthy of closer examination.

If one is inclined to make that argument, there are ample statistics to support the case. Simmons is eighth in steals per game, second in defensive box plus-minus, first in deflections per game and seventh in defensive win shares. Opponents are shooting 42.3 percent on attempts guarded by him.

Not all of Simmons’ value is captured by the numbers. He can credibly defend point guards through power forwards, which is rare despite the NBA’s growing love of versatility and “switchability.” Lineups with him at center do appear light on rim protection, though Simmons shouldn’t be faulted for head coach Doc Rivers’ desire to explore opportunities to use his diverse skills. 

Statistics can be twisted, of course, and someone skeptical of Simmons’ Defensive Player of the Year candidacy might point to the Sixers’ defense only allowing 1.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. His defensive impact in that sense has never been as dramatic as Embiid’s; the team’s defense is rated five points better this season when Embiid is on the court than when he's off, which would actually be a career-worst figure. Simmons has been included in a slew of low-minute lineups that haven’t fared well defensively and feature Dwight Howard or Tony Bradley at center, a fact that helps explain why the raw impression of his defense as being brilliant doesn’t match the on/off numbers. 

Judging elite defense is obviously a subjective exercise. Myles Turner and Rudy Gobert will likely earn defensive accolades this season for their excellence protecting the rim. Anthony Davis has continued to pick up steals and blocks at well above-average rates for his position on the league’s No. 1-rated defensive team. Though the differences between Simmons and a subpar defender are clear, it’s somewhat a matter of taste in the highest tier. In most cases, it’s a stretch to say a player was “snubbed" for Defensive Player of the Year.

Returning to Thursday’s game, Lillard’s production tailed off after a 19-point first quarter. The Sixers’ approach of blitzing him throughout the night contributed to his (relative) struggles, along with his hot hand dissipating. As usual, though, Simmons had a key role. He guarded Lillard well beyond the three-point line, forced him to relinquish the ball on pick-and-rolls and slid his feet sharply when isolated.

A second-half scoring flurry by Carmelo Anthony pushed Portland to victory, however, leading Rivers to face the postgame question of whether he considered putting Simmons on the 36-year-old in the fourth quarter.

“Ben was busy guarding Damian Lillard. … You can always take Ben off and let the other guy get going, if you like,” Rivers said. “You can’t have him guard everybody.”

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