While Rudy Gobert is the clear front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, Ben Simmons isn’t going quietly into the night.
At the halfway mark of the 2020-21 NBA season, Rudy Gobert is the overwhelming favorite to win his third Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s anchoring a Utah Jazz team that boasts the league’s third-stingiest defense, and opponents are averaging a comically low 103.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Philadelphia 76ers point guard Ben Simmons isn’t conceding the DPOY race to Gobert just yet, though.
“I don’t think there’s a question who’s in it as far as Ben and also Rudy,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said Wednesday before his team took on Gobert and the Jazz. “Those two are probably 1, 2, and I’m biased, but I would put Ben [at] 1, I think because Ben plays everyone. Ben doesn’t just play 5s. Ben plays 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. He’s played every position on the floor, and when he’s played those positions, he’s been able to come up with stops. There’s very few players in the NBA that can do the things that Ben does defensively.”
Rim protectors tend to have an inherent advantage over wing defenders in the DPOY conversation. As the last line of defense, they make more of an obvious impact on a possession-by-possession basis, whether they’re contesting shots around the rim or deterring shot attempts in the first place.
What is Ben Simmons’ case for Defensive Player of the Year?
Although Simmons’ defensive impact is less pronounced, he’s similarly disruptive. He’s holding opponents to only 40.9 percent shooting, which is 4.3 percentage points below their typical average.
One year after leading the league with 2.1 steals per game, Simmons is again wreaking havoc in passing lanes and against ball-handlers. He’s swiping 1.6 steals and is tied for the league lead in both deflections per game (3.9) and loose balls recovered (1.4).
Simmons’ versatility is what sets him apart from Gobert and the other leading DPOY candidates. Whereas Gobert, Joel Embiid and Myles Turner spend much of their time defending other bigs and protecting the rim, the Sixers sic Simmons on a wide array of star guards and wings.
Among those who have played at least 500 minutes this season, Simmons ranks seventh leaguewide in BBall Index’s positional versatility metric, which measures how often a player defends each position. He’s also in the 99th percentile in matchup difficulty, per BBall Index, as he spends a majority of his time guarding some of the NBA’s highest-usage players.
When the Sixers faced the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 11, Damian Lillard spent more than 60 percent of his floor time being defended by Simmons, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. He shot 3-of-9 (including 0-of-5 from two-point range) during those minutes, including this late-game possession in which Simmons relentlessly harassed him:
“I take pride in guarding the best player on the floor every night,” Simmons told reporters after that game. “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, or shooting guards, point guards, whatever it is. And I love that. I love the fact that my teammates can look at me and tell me, ‘You got to go out and lock this guy up.’ There’s nights that guys go off, it’s gonna 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.”
Simmons backed that boast up two weeks later against Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic.
He held the MVP candidate to 3-of-7 shooting and four turnovers, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. The Athletic’s Derek Bodner had Doncic at seven points on 3-of-9 shooting and five turnovers against Simmons compared to 12 points on 3-of-4 shooting against any other Sixer.
“He’s picking up guards, he’s playing bigs, he’s playing 1-5,” Sixers center Dwight Howard said about Simmons after that game. “A couple games ago, he was playing against Rudy Gobert. Now he’s playing against Luka [Doncic]. He’s taking the idea that I can play anybody, I can check anybody on defense. I believe he’s the best defensive player in the league right now.”
However, most advanced metrics don’t agree with Howard’s rosy assessment of Simmons.
Gobert has a commanding lead over the field in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus — he’s at 4.55, while Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela ranks second at 3.88 — and he trails only San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl and Capela in FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR. Simmons ranks 241st and 65thin those metrics, respectively.
Gobert ranks second league-wide in shot contests per game (15.0), trailing only Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez (17.6). The Jazz designed their defense to funnel shots toward their 7-foot-1 center, whose 7-foot-9 wingspan helps him contest an array of layups, jumpers and floaters in the paint.
Opponents are shooting 42.6 percent with Gobert as their primary defender this season, which is 7.0 percentage points below their average. That differential is the third-best mark among players who have defended at least 250 shots this season, trailing only Poeltl (minus-8.6) and Brooklyn Nets center DeAndre Jordan (minus-7.5).
Simmons also may face an uphill battle against Gobert from a narrative perspective. Whereas the Jazz defense revolves around Gobert, Simmons gets to play alongside another elite defender in Embiid. The Sixers allow only 106.3 points per 100 possessions with both of them on the floor, but they give up 117.0 with Embiid off and Simmons on.
Most of Simmons’ non-Embiid minutes come in bench-heavy lineups, which helps to explain those defensive struggles. But the Jazz are allowing 6.5 points per 100 possessions more with Gobert off the court than on, whereas the Sixers’ defensive rating is slightly better with Simmons off the court.
On/off splits are often noisy, and voters shouldn’t use them as the sole basis of determining Defensive Player of the Year. But given how dominant the Jazz’s defense is, Gobert’s lead in a host of defensive metrics and the lack of elite defenders around him, it’ll likely be tough for Simmons to make up enough ground to overtake him in the DPOY race.
He may just have to settle for a first-team All-Defense spot for the second straight year instead.
All statistics via NBA.com, Basketball-Reference or PBPStats.com unless otherwise noted and are current through Wednesday, March 3.