When the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia 76ers matched up with the Los Angeles Lakers at the end of January, Ben Simmons was tasked with defending Lebron James, undoubtedly one of the hardest defensive assignments to draw in the entire league. Two weeks later, when Philadelphia did battle with the Portland Trailblazers, Ben Simmons had the job of defending Damian Lillard, easily one of the most lethal offensive players of this generation. Simmons did a tremendous job with both of these assignments. It’s unrealistic that superstars like James and Lilliard will be completely shut down, but Simmons displayed an uncanny ability to slow down the production of both of these players down the stretch of these contests.
The above anecdotes allow us to take a step back and realize how impressive Simmons’ defensive versatility is. Lebron James is a 6’9, 250 lb. forward that was likely sent from a distant planet (where aging doesn’t exist and hairlines can change on the fly) to conquer the sport of basketball. He typically bullies defenders with an unmatched combination of speed and strength. Damian Lilliard meanwhile, is a 6’2, sub 200 lb. guard who routinely torches defenders forced to account for both his lightning quickness and historically efficient outside shooting.
Ben Simmons is one of only a handful of players in the entire league that can reasonably defend both of these diverse offensive juggernauts. This ability undoubtedly begs the question: Is Ben Simmons the Best Defender in the NBA? Let’s take a look at some of the other candidates for the coveted distinction of top defender in the league.
Most figured the Utah Jazz would be good this season, but no one predicted the astonishing results that Gobert and company have found so far. The Jazz currently have both the best record and the best point differential in the NBA by a wide margin. Rudy Gobert, already a two-time DPOY winner, is a huge reason for their success as the lynchpin of their suffocating defense. His frightening interior presence results in teammates’ being able to guard the three-point line closely as they know that Gobert is consistently a reliable salve around the rim. Consequently, the Jazz are at or near the top of the league both in three point shots allowed and opponent’s field goal percentage around the rim.
Gobert is currently sporting averages of 2.8 blocks and .4 steals per game, giving him a total of 3.2 stocks per game (a statistic invented by Bill Simmons which combines steals and blocks to give a fuller picture of defensive disruption). Stout defensive play translates to team success and Gobert is making his case for best defensive player in the league as the Jazz continue to rack up wins.
Similar to Gobert, Kwahi Leonard has also collected two DPOY awards across his career. However, his impact on the defensive end is markedly different as he often stifles the opponent’s best perimeter player far away from the basket. Once almost exclusively known for his defensive prowess, Leonard has evolved over the years into one of the absolute best all-around players in the league. Yet his defensive ability persists to be among the very elite. A huge reason for this is the sheer size of his hands which could reasonably be mistaken for flying saucers when they are travelling at high speeds around the court intercepting passes.
This season the Clippers forward is averaging 1.7 steals and .6 blocks per game, for a total of 2.3 stocks per game. The Clippers only rank towards the middle in terms of defensive efficiency this season but Leonard is doing all he can for the team, always drawing the toughest perimeter assignment on the opposing team.
And who could forget both the reigning MVP and DPOY. When Antetokounmpo took home both trophies last season, he became just the third player ever to achieve those feats in the same season, joining the very prestigious company of Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. Giannis sports a body that might very well be created in a lab if one were attempting to construct the premier NBA defender. He has both terrific size and length, allowing him tremendous potential to wreak havoc on opponents’ offensive schemes. Last year, he was the most important reason the Bucks had the best defense in the league. Milwaukee has not achieved that level of success this season but Giannis has still been an invaluable defender averaging both 1.3 blocks and steals per game for a total of 2.6 stocks per game.
How Simmons Stacks Up
The above players have all been great defenders this season. Having said that, I do think Ben Simmons has a case for being at the very top of the defensive pyramid. The Sixers have been a better defensive team than all of the above squads except for the Jazz, ranking sixth in the league thus far. Joel Embiid is a huge reason for the Sixers dominance on that end, but Simmons remains their most significant defensive piece. He’s averaging 1.6 steals and .8 blocks per game, for a total of 2.4 stocks per game. At this point, I think the race for DPOY is a tight one with Gobert and Simmons leading the pack. So is Ben Simmons the best defensive player in the year? Not definitively but I’d wager that he is certainly the most versatile and the Sixers will count on his ability to guard multiple positions when matching up against opposing players like Giannis, Durant, and Kyrie Irving. Simmons can match up with all three.