Ben Simmons hasn’t climbed to the top rung of the Defensive Player Ladder simply by speaking it into existence. He did so by earning it on the court for the Philadelphia 76ers – and then talking about himself as the NBA’s best defensive player.
In mid-February, after some stellar defensive work against Portland Kia MVP candidate Damian Lillard, Simmons said: “It’s not a one-off thing. If you watch me, I’m typically guarding the best player. … I feel like I’m the best defender in the NBA.”
Two weeks later, it was Dallas’ Luka Doncic getting stymied in the minutes Simmons matched up with him. Doncic shrugged it off – “I don’t really pay attention to who’s on me” – but Simmons didn’t. “It’s a mismatch nearly every time when I step on the floor,” he said. “I do feel like I’m the best defensive player in the league.”
"If you can hoop you can hoop… it's a mismatch nearly every time when I step on the floor… I do feel like I'm the best defensive player in the league."
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) February 26, 2021
If it’s versatility on defense you favor, if it’s the ability of one man to lock onto and lock down everyone from point guards to power forwards – or what used to be known as that before this era of so-called “position-less basketball” – then Simmons probably is your man.
He can focus on (as part of coach Doc Rivers’ defensive game plan) or switch onto (in the heat of a Sixers defensive possession) at least 80 percent of the players in the NBA. And the pride he takes in those tasks go well beyond self-promotion, contributing to Philadelphia’s climb this season in defensive and net ratings.
Rivers recently compared Simmons to a starting pitcher and a closer in baseball for his ability to pester top scorers from tipoff or throw a net on a problem player down the stretch. “Ben is a chameleon,” the Sixers coach said. “We’re not scared to put him on 1 through 5 on needed possessions.”
Across the first half of this season, according to NBA.com stats, Simmons has been the primary defender on the opponent’s top scorer 11 times for nine different players. That includes threats such as Lillard, Doncic, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell and LeBron James.
In Thursday’s game against the Mavericks, Simmons guarded Doncic for 7:28, more than 70 percent of Doncic’s offensive-matchup time. He held the Dallas star to six points on 3-of-7 shooting, including 0-of-3 from the arc. He forced four turnovers to just one assist. (Matchup numbers between players can be found here. In the dropdown, change traditional to matchups.)
That’s All-Star defense – maybe Kia Defensive Player of the Year defense – producing something less than All-Star offense.
Teammate Dwight Howard, a three-time DPOY winner, gushed afterward about the point guard who can stand eye-to-eye with him. “A couple games ago, he was playing against Rudy Gobert, and now he’s playing against Luka,” Howard said. “He’s taken the idea that ‘I can play anybody,’ that ‘I can check anybody on defense.’”
With his flip-flop atop this week’s Defensive Ladder, Simmons has worked and campaigned himself to the No. 1 spot, with half a season to go.
The Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Defensive Player Ladder:
(All stats through Monday, March 1.)
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
He'll take care of it on both ends.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 2, 2021
Even when things don’t go well for the Sixers’ defense, Simmons seems to do his part. Rivers blistered the team’s transition D after its overtime loss to Cleveland last weekend, in which Cavs guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland combined for 53 points. But when Simmons was matched up with them, they managed just eight of those, per NBA.com stats. Simmons is tied for the league lead in deflections (3.9) and loose balls recovered (1.4), and his net rating (14.0) over the past week was better than Gobert’s (11.3).
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
— utahjazz (@utahjazz) February 23, 2021
We covered the hamburger vs. hot dog nature of NBA defense last week — there are perimeter defenders and there are rim protectors, and it’s all a matter of your taste or need. The Jazz big man still is the class of the latter, and his team wouldn’t have it any other way. Never mind that he rarely is called on to guard an opponent’s top scorer. Gobert stifles and discourages entire offenses with his presence and help. Utah is 14.4 points better in the 30.5 minutes he’s on the floor, including 7.8 points better defensively.
3. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) February 28, 2021
Right behind Gobert in rim protection, the Pacers’ 6-foot-11 center has been facing 17.9 shot attempts per game and bothering the shooters into 41.8 percent accuracy (remember, these are largely 2-pointers). That’s 6.7 percent better than what those players normally shoot. Indiana ranks third in blocked shots and Turner accounts for 72.2 percent of them.
4. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Retweet for @KingJames all defensive team ❗️
— kuz (@kylekuzma) March 1, 2021
The Lakers still boast the league’s top defensive rating (105.1), with Anthony Davis sidelined since Valentine’s Day, and rank in the Top 5 in blocks, defensive rebounds, opponents’ field-goal percentage, opponents’ free throw attempts and opponents’ effective field-goal percentage. James leads the NBA in defensive win shares (0.178) and ranks fourth in defensive rating (102.6), with a 9.2 net rating.
5. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) February 24, 2021
If it’s perimeter defense you want, you might want to pay attention to Murray. The Denver guard is responsible for closing out on 6.8 shots per game of 15 feet or more, and his impact on those shooters is great. Normally accurate 37.7 percent of the time from that range, Murray has them down at 28.8 percent, a gain of 8.9 percent.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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