They play for the first-place teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences. Both of those clubs, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Utah Jazz, have ranked near the top defensively all season (as have the Los Angeles Lakers, who just haven’t translated that end of the floor into comparable W-L success). Whatever the Sixers and the Jazz hope to achieve in the postseason, defense – and their most dedicated practitioners of it – will play indispensable roles.
Is it any wonder Ben Simmons and Rudy Gobert have been vying for the top spot on the Defensive Player Ladder since the 2020-21 season began?
Statistically, Gobert has put up better defensive numbers in almost every category other than out-on-the-floor activities such as steals and 50/50 ball recoveries. He is the rim protector, rebounder and helper on whom the Jazz’s defense is based, with teammates such as Mike Conley, Royce O’Neale and others contributing to but especially benefiting from Gobert’s impact.
Simmons, meanwhile, has a different task. Unlike Gobert, who handles his individual matchups but also faces anyone who dares to enter his “house” (the lane), the Sixers’ wing gets assigned to his primary defensive responsibility on a night-to-night basis. Maybe it’s James Harden. Or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Or Kyrie Irving. Different foes, different styles, but what they have in common is the potent offensive threats they pose.
And, as a result, Simmons shadowing them.
The mobile 6-foot-10 disruptor routinely spends time guarding the opponents’ top scorers, either locked in for the game or in pivotal stretches. These are the type of matchups in which slowing the man down rather than stopping him is the more realistic ambition. That can tilt Simmons’ individual defensive numbers.
How will this week’s ranking shake out next week, when the regular season has ended and the Ladder essentially reflects one voter’s ballot for Defensive Player of the Year? Well, it will depend more on the candidates’ body of work in 2020-21 than on the remainder of the schedule. The Sixers have four games left, beginning at Indiana Tuesday. Utah has three to go, with Portland in Salt Lake City Wednesday.
Given how effective both players have been in 2020-21, it also will come down to the chocolate vs. vanilla choice between great big man and great on-ball defender.
Here are the Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Defensive Player Ladder:
(All stats through Sunday, May 9)
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
It’s not easy reconciling the different chores associated with rim protectors and wing defenders when lumping them into a single ranking. But one area of overlap is transition defense, where Gobert has improved steadily to bolster his repertoire of stoppage skills. As Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after a game last week in which his center pre-empted repeated San Antonio forays: “Him being able to get back on defense just solidifies our defense to a whole other level. … Rudy’s able to contest a shot, get back on the glass, contest a second shot. He’s able to close out and run across the court to block a shot. His ability to make multiple plays I think is unique, really for any player, but particularly for a center.”
He's…that…guy…@rudygobert27 | #TakeNote pic.twitter.com/RVZQGFyB2O
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) May 9, 2021
2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Most defensive stats (dubious as some are) favor Gobert over Simmons, in the apples vs. oranges comparison of guys handling vastly different defensive roles. But Simmons’ coach Doc Rivers gives no ground to Utah’s Snider in touting his guy. After Simmons messed up the Bulls’ late-game offense last week, the Sixers coach told reporters: “You don’t see me campaigning and I’m not going to, but I’m just gonna say it again, there’s not a better defender in this league. That last side out of bounds play, they ran a great action, Ben blew it up completely, they couldn’t get the ball in, he gets a steal, and the game’s over.”
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) May 8, 2021
3. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Here’s an indication of Adebayo’s defensive versatility: In its game notes highlighting the 23-year-old’s prowess at that end, the Heat talk about his success against guards, limiting them to 38.9% shooting this season, including 31.8% on 3-pointers. Among the players held below their usual production when Adebayo has been matched up with them – per NBA.com tracking info – have been Steph Curry (1-of-5), Bradley Beal (1-of-7), Devin Booker (3-of-11), Kyrie Irving (4-of-14) and LeBron James (2-of-8).
You heard him… @JimmyButler is on the #BAMDPOY train 💥 @Bam1of1 pic.twitter.com/yZaeZmIpQg
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 8, 2021
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are happy with the progress so far of their “Big Three” – Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday – but their growing chemistry isn’t just noticeable on offense. Defensively, the trio is every bit as tenacious. They have a 103.4 rating when playing together, a significant improvement over Milwaukee’s 110.3 overall. As for the reigning DPOY, Antetokounmpo is one of seven players averaging at least one steal and one blocked shot, leading that group with a 106.7 defensive rating and 0.136 defensive win shares.
5. Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks
Last week’s Ladder: N/A
We’ve had Capela on the Ladder repeatedly in the past, but his value to the Hawks in their 22-11 post-All Star stretch has been undeniable. The 6-foot-10 Swiss center tops Atlanta with a 6.0 net rating. He leads the NBA in rebounding overall (14.4 rpg) and while that includes a league-best 4.8 on the offensive glass, his 9.6 defensively ranks third and he is tops in rebound percentage (23.0) among qualified starting bigs. As a rim protector, he is this team’s Gobert. “He’s a complete difference-maker,” teammate Kevin Huerter said recently. “Just a different feeling when he’s in the game.”
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) May 4, 2021
The Next Five
(In no particular order)
Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers
- Makes defense entertaining on the perimeter for Sixers.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
- QB of defense that ranks 3rd in defensive FG% (45.0).
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
- Routinely knows, calls out other teams’ plays in sync with them.
Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
- Creates (3.5 deflections) and snags (2.1 steals) opponents’ mistakes.
Jakob Poeltl, San Antonio Spurs
- Facing 15.8 DFGA per game, making foes shoot 5.3% worse (43.5%).
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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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