Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Ben Simmons holds top spot as Joel Embiid recovers from injury

The Sixers will be challenged over the next 2-3 weeks without Embiid, who falls out of this week's ranking of the Top 5 defenders.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Ben Simmons will get the chance to show his full defensive prowess with Joel Embiid sidelined.

Joel Embiid has more pressing challenges at the moment than his spot on this Ladder as an indicator of his shot at winning the NBA’s 2021 Kia Defensive Player of the Year Award. But it’s there nonetheless, and for a rare reason.

First, of course, the Philadelphia 76ers’ center needs to heal from the bone bruise in his left knee he suffered against Washington last week. That has him on a 2-3 week hiatus. That means Embiid isn’t available to help the Sixers maintain their lead atop the Eastern Conference. Though they’ve won three blowouts since the All-Star break, the Sixers are 3-5 this season without Embiid, heading into their game against New York Wednesday.

Then there’s Embiid’s front-runner status in the Kia MVP race. Based on the estimated layoff, the big man could miss another 6-9 games, which could mean 17 of Philadelphia’s first 48. Even if he didn’t miss any more after that, Embiid then would max out at 55 games in the 72-game season (76.3%). Only 1978 MVP Bill Walton (58 of 82, 70.7%) ever won the award while playing less than 80% of his team’s games.

That brings us to the issue Embiid – who has stated he wants to win the DPOY award – faces here. His Sixers teammate, Ben Simmons, is considered an equal or greater candidate for the honor. And that could split some votes when the media panel filling out ballots tries to apportion their contributions to their team’s No. 2 ranked defense.

NBA TV discusses how the loss of Joel Embiid could be silver lining for Philadelphia.

Simmons is a versatile wing defender capable of shadowing everyone from point guards to power forwards. He routinely gets assigned to opponents’ most potent scorers. Embiid is a load in the middle who plants himself in the minds of rim attackers everywhere, while dealing with other teams’ bigs.

As a tandem, they’re terrific and another example of the “it takes more than one” philosophy Utah’s Rudy Gobert spoke about here last week. But this is an individual award.

Teammates have appeared in the past in the final tally. Last season, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo won it while center Brook Lopez placed 10th. In 2018, the Top 10 featured four sets of teammates: Embiid (2) and Robert Covington (8), New Orleans’ Anthony Davis (3) and Jrue Holiday (7), Golden State’s Draymond Green (6) and Kevin Durant (9), and Boston’s Al Horford (5) and Jaylen Brown (10). None of those pairs, even with their vote totals combined, was a threat to runaway winner Gobert.

But twice in DPOY voting, teammates split enough votes to allow a third candidate to win. In 2015, Green (317 balloting points) and Andrew Bogut (31) split credit for the Warriors’ defensive excellence as San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard (333) won his first of consecutive awards.

In 1994, it happened with the Spurs’ David Robinson (22 votes) and Dennis Rodman (8) drawing votes from each other. Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, while a worthy winner of his second straight DPOY, finished with 23.

Embiid’s availability might be the biggest hurdle he faces in consideration for the NBA’s major awards. That actually might boost Simmons’ chances, though, as voters sort through arguments on behalf of the Sixers guard and a different dominant big man (Gobert).


(All stats through Sunday, March 14)

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: 1

Even Justin Kutcher, the Washington Wizards’ play-by-play announcer on NBCSports Washington and the latest, greatest critic of Simmons’ game (judged by social media overreaction last week), immediately clarified his opinion to tout the Philadelphia guard’s defensive prowess. An extended stretch of games without Embiid – but with Dwight Howard and Tony Bradley Jr. as solid surrogates – might test Simmons’ numbers and spot atop the Ladder.


2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Last week’s ranking: 2

In two games since the All-Star break, the Jazz center has blocked a total of 10 shots against Houston and Golden State. But wait, there’s more: With his 24-point, 28-rebound and 4-swat performance in the loss to the Warriors Sunday, Gobert became only the sixth player to reach those thresholds in a game since the league began tracking blocks in 1973-74, a.k.a., after both Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were retired. The most recent guy to do it was four-time DPOY winner Dikembe Mutombo in December 1999.

Rudy Gobert rejects Kelly Oubre Jr. during his 28-rebound, 4-block performance against Golden State.


3. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Last week’s ranking: 3

There’s some interesting defensive-tandem action going on in Indianapolis, where center Myles Turner leads the NBA in blocked shots (122) and blocks per game (3.4), while backup point guard T.J. McConnell leads the league in steals (66) and steals per game (1.9). McConnell is doing that at 25.1 minutes per game. On a per-36 basis, he’d be up to 2.7, the most since Chris Paul led the NBA with 2.77 while averaging 38.5 minutes in 2008-09. But this is a Turner entry, so we’ll end with Lakers coach Frank Vogel on the Pacers’ big: “Myles is obviously the league leader in shot-blocking so we have to be smart about how we attack him there.” Turner blocked only two shots vs. L.A., fewest in a five-game stretch in which he got 18 of them.


4. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week’s ranking: 5

Big man Anthony Davis has been out a month now, yet there the Lakers sit atop the league in defensive efficiency (106.0), a sizable edge over Philadelphia (108) and Utah (108.3). And there’s James, leading all players in defensive win shares (0.183) by an equally impressive margin. The 36-year-old future Hall of Famer has a defensive field goal percentage of 40.6% compared to the 46% they normally shoot. That 5.4% difference ranks seventh among players who have logged at least 30 games and face 9.5 shots or more per game. And that makes James the top-ranked non-center.

LeBron James dominated on both ends as the Lakers shut down Stephen Curry and the Warriors on Monday.


5. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

Last week’s ranking: N/A

We’ll go with a placeholder here this week for the injured Embiid or, for that matter, any other player hoping to grab one of the top rungs on this Defensive Ladder. Green, who was named DPOY in 2017 and has been a five-time All-Defensive Team selection, touted his worthiness for consideration again this season after the Warriors beat Gobert’s Jazz Sunday. “We gotta win more games,” said the undersized leader of Golden State’s No. 7 ranked defense. “We win more games, climb the standings, I think there’s no question that I’ll be Defensive Player of the Year. There’s no defender better than me. So there you have it.” It’s good to keep defense linked with winning – no one from a sub-.500 team has won DPOY since San Antonio’s Alvin Robertson in 1986. As far as analytics, Green’s 6.1% difference in defensive field goal percentage isn’t far behind Gobert’s 6.9 and Turner’s 6.4.

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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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