Brett Brown’s young, developing Philadelphia 76ers catapulted into the playoff mix this season, thanks in large part to their defensive mastery. The Sixers currently have the fifth-best defensive rating in the league at 103.3 points per 100 possessions, and rookie sensation Ben Simmons is a crucial catalyst for their success.
The 6-10 Australian newcomer often generates highlights with creative passing vision and explosive drives. He is unquestionably a must-see player on offense. However, he is even more valuable and impactful as a defender.
Whereas his offensive rating (107.8) and offensive points added (31.0) are in the middle tier of the league, his defensive rating (102.6) and defensive points saved (137.5) are on the top rung. In fact, only Andre Drummond and Russell Westbrook have more defensive points saved this season. Simmons’ opponents are shooting 41.3 percent against him, which is nearly five percentage points worse than their average against the rest of the league (46.2).
Before Philly drafted him in 2016, I admittedly wondered whether Simmons could be an elite defender. He had a middle-tier wingspan (7-0) for a 6-10 forward, and he was inconsistent at LSU. The neophyte quickly rendered those concerns foolish this season with an impressive combination of strength, agility and sharp instincts.
Simmons has stymied a wide assortment of challengers this season, from swift guards and wings to post-up bigs. He owns exceptional footspeed for someone with the body of a power forward. Thanks to his closeout acceleration and leaping, he’s holding opponents to 28.8 percent shooting from 3-point range. There’s usually some randomness with this stat, but it lines up with the tape.
His combination of size and springiness allows Brown to put him on several different players over the course of a single game. For example, during the Sixers’ matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, Simmons guarded three different players for at least 14 possessions: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. He also spent time on Jabari Parker and Thon Maker. He actually fared best on the diminutive Bledsoe, holding the 6-2 speedster to 2-of-7 shooting (29 percent) in 27 possessions.
Simmons’ switchability was also evident in Philly’s recent home and away victories against the Charlotte Hornets. He checked Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on most possessions, but also guarded Kemba Walker and Dwight Howard a couple of times.
Perhaps the most emblematic moment for Simmons’ defense, however, was his performance against LeBron James and the Cavaliers last Thursday. LeBron got his way a few times, and Simmons had to resort to fouling him, but he flashed some defense on The King that’s normally reserved for guys like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Jimmy Butler. He held LeBron to a decent 5-of-11 shooting in the matchup, forced a couple of turnovers, and steered LeBron into some tough shots.
Here are a few sequences that illustrate how Simmons was a handful for James. He forced LeBron into a fallaway jumper, thwarted his spin-move drive, and stole an inbounds pass from him:
Forget about whether Simmons will become a megastar on offense for now. He has a long way to go, especially in the shooting department. But Ben Dowsett of Basketball Insiders thinks he has a chance to be the next Swiss Army knife on defense:
"Next LeBron" stuff with Simmons has always been a bit silly to me…on offense. On defense? You could maybe sorta talk me into it. Easily the most impressive part of his game for me still.
— Ben Dowsett (@Ben_Dowsett) March 2, 2018
Simmons’ knack for defending at different speeds and against different-sized players is invaluable. The switchability is a tremendous asset for Brown, who already has a couple of multi-positional defenders on the roster in Joel Embiid and Robert Covington. In many situations, Covington and Simmons are interchangeable and can swap back and forth onto guards and forwards.
Speaking of Covington and Embiid, playing alongside both talented stoppers has undoubtedly raised Simmons’ game. Their penchant for corralling drivers and protecting the rim is rubbing off on the rookie. From a strategic standpoint, knowing Embiid is in the middle has emboldened Simmons to play aggressively, spring traps on the perimeter, and dig down to harass post players.
Simmons still has plenty of polishing to do as an all-around defender. Sometimes he doesn’t quite finish plays, and he is prone to sporadic, avoidable fouls when he gets greedy on reach-ins. He also gets foiled by spin moves occasionally when he overcompensates to shut down one side. He needs to learn to trust that his footwork and positioning will contain slashers.
However, his natural gifts and instincts point toward a bright future. Simmons has uncommonly effective timing when cutting off opponents and disrupting them at the perfect nano-second.
Check out his lateral agility and quick hands against MKG:
Simmons has also shown good timing and instincts as a help defender. He knows when his teammates need a bit of assistance in the post, as evidenced by these well-timed blocks against Enes Kanter and Giannis Antetokounmpo:
His sense of timing also translates to the boards. Simmons is snatching 6.1 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes, and he has a defensive rebounding percentage of 17.9. While he’s not overwhelmingly tenacious as a defensive rebounder, his agility and hands beat most challengers to the ball. He has a great nose for the ball when it comes off the iron.
Even though he still has loads of untapped potential, Simmons’ defensive command on both the perimeter and interior already places him on the league’s top shelf of stoppers. It also sets him apart from the rest of the 2017-18 rookie class. His 137.5 defensive points saved is almost twice as many as the next-best rookie (Lonzo Ball, 68.9). Defense is a huge reason why Simmons may still have the edge to win Rookie of the Year over surging Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell.
Give Brown’s system and Simmons’ teammates ample credit. The rookie is certainly in a situation that’s conducive to his talent. But the Sixers wouldn’t have made the leap from 17th in defensive rating in 2016-17 to fifth in 2017-18 without the youngster’s agility, savvy and interchangeability.