The Defensive Evolution of Ben Simmons

Rudy Gobert was the recipient of both the 2017 and 2018 NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards by overwhelming majorities. In 2017, when Gobert was 64 blocks shy of the league-leading Anthony Davis and amassed fewer defensive win shares than his teammate Donovan Mitchell, he received 131 more voting points than the runner-up. 

The next season, Gobert played 25 more games and amassed more steals, blocks, rebounds, and defensive win shares than the previous year. That translated to a consecutive, yet almost uncontested, Defensive Player of the Year award. 

The prototypical Defensive Player of the Year is usually a dominant, rim-protecting center. In fact, dating back to the award’s emergence 36 years ago, a center has won all but ten times. Just a few seasons ago, however, Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green contributed to setting a new precedent for the Defensive Player of the Year award.

From 1996 through 2013, the only player to win the award that was not a center was Ron Artest. Leonard won the award two seasons in a row (’14 and ’15). Green beat Gobert in 2016 by 165 voting points. Ironically, Gobert blocked a career-high 214 shots that season, grabbed his thencareer-high 721 defensive rebounds, and held his opponents to just 41.8% from the field.

Setting a New Trend

With the offensive evolution of basketball, the defense is naturally forced to adapt and evolve. The spacing of the floor, the shot selection, and the pace associated with a modern brand of basketball empower multi-positional defenders such as Leonard and Green. While defensive contributions from a dominant center are good enough to serve as a team’s identity, versatility has grown equally as valuable.

Of course, centers are required to fulfill more defensive responsibilities in a modern game but normally defend just one position. Take Gobert’s back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year seasons for example; he defended a center for 832.3 of 1,492.82 minutes played. Further, Gobert defended a guard for only 195.5 minutes in both seasons combined, whereas the 6’6″ Green defended a center for 312.97 minutes over that span (while guarding forwards and guards, too). 

The league average 111.4 points per game this season is the highest mark since 1970 and a continued emphasis on three-point shooting seems like the new norm. Having said that, a back-to-the-basket center can still exist and dominate in modern basketball, but that is usually not enough to combat offensive juggernauts. Instead, multi-positional defenders with the range to step out to the perimeter, switch, and apply constant ball pressure are the most vital defensive players on the floor.

Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers’ unorthodox guard, has blossomed into one of the league’s most versatile defenders. Although Simmons lacks enough recognition to win Defensive Player of the Year for the 2019-20 season, he has cemented himself among the best defensemen in basketball.

Ben Simmons’ Versatility 

His unique combination of speed and athleticism allows him to cover plenty of ground. His 6’10” stature means he can match up against any position. Simmons is almost always defending the opposition’s primary scorer, but his weak-side defense is excellent, too. Of 1930 minutes played this season, Simmons defended “core players” or “a player [that] has played at least 35 clutch possessions in the regular season and has been on the floor for at least 75% of his team’s clutch possessions in games in which he was available that season” more than anyone in the league. 

Krishna Narsu elaborated on a concept created by Patrick Miller of Nylon Calculus, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive versatility. According to their description, “A player who guards all five positions at 20% each will have perfect equality while a player who guards one position 100% of the time will have perfect inequality.”

 

 

 

Simmons has defended four of the five positions, usually at 20% or more, for all three of his seasons in the NBA. Because of this defensive versatility, Simmons has scored an 84 or higher since 2017 and led the league in his rookie year. Despite earning a career-low 84.4 versatility score in 2019, it was good enough to thrust Simmons into top-10 league-wide for the third straight season. 

2017 – Ben Simmons leads NBA

 

 

 

 

 

 

2018 – Ben Simmons ranks 2nd among qualifying players (min. 1,000 possessions)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Simmons’ Versatility 

In comparison to Leonard, Davis, and Gobert, three of the NBA’s most renowned defenders, Simmons’ versatility scores are superior. Leonard is the only one of those three to score close to Simmons, but did not spend enough possessions defending opposing guards. 

Kawhi Leonard – Career High 80.6 Versatility Score 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Anthony Davis – Career High 67.3 Versatility Score 

 

 

 

 

 

Rudy Gobert – Career High 54.3 Versatility Score 

 

 

 

 

The reason Simmons’ versatility is crucial for Philadelphia is because of the matchup flexibility it offers. In 2019, Simmons defended the opposing team’s “Option 1” for 27.6% of his minutes. Of players to log at least 1,000 minutes this season, Simmons defended the opponent’s number-one option the third-most in the league.

In addition, Simmons defended the secondary option on opposing teams for 16.3% of his minutes this year. This means that he spent more time guarding “Option 2” than Paul George, Jaylen Brown, D. Green, and LeBron James spent guarding opposing teams’ 1s or 2s. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both Leonard and Davis “suffered” injuries in separate years. But, at full health, the two have been receiving votes for Defensive Player of the Year since 2014. Neither of them defended primary or secondary options as much as Simmons did in 2019. 

Kawhi Leonard – Defended “Option 1” for 17.7% of Minutes 

 

 

Anthony Davis – Defended “Option 1” for 13% of Minutes 

 

 

 

Simmons Against Successful Teams  

Philadelphia’s highly-touted core underachieved in 2019, posting a 39-26 record good for the sixth-seed. The Sixers owned a subpar 12-18 record against teams with a winning percentage of .500 or better, but Simmons still rose to the occasion on the defensive end. 

Games vs. teams .500 or Better 

B. Simmons: 27 Games

R. Gobert: 24 Games 

K. Leonard: 22 Games

A. Davis: 22 Games

Dean Oliver‘s Basketball on Paper introduced the efficiency metric – defensive rating – to basketball in 2004. Most simply, defensive rating “estimates how many points the player allowed per 100 possessions he individually faced while on the court” based on a calculation with varying factors. Defensive rating is an incredibly valuable metric due to a lack of defensive statistics and its ability to exemplify individual defensive impact. The lower the number, the better the defensive rating is. 

Defensive Rating vs. teams .500 or better 

K. Leonard: 104.05

A. Davis: 107.15

B. Simmons: 107.3

R. Gobert: 107.8

Leonard has the advantage, but he and Simmons have very comparable defensive stats against those teams. In Leonard’s 22 games, he blocked 16 shots and stole the ball from opponents 43 times. Simmons, on the other hand, garnered 48 steals and blocked 13 shots in 27 games. Davis’ defensive impact was seemingly greater than both of theirs, tallying 35 steals and 52 blocks along with the best record against winning teams. 

Some of Simmons’ most encouraging defensive outings came against high-caliber offenses. Not only did Simmons give Leonard and George constant fits when the Clippers traveled to Philadelphia in February, but he also accumulated 9 deflections en route to a victory. 

 

 

When the Lakers met the Sixers in January, Simmons totaled 4 steals and 3 deflections while forcing LeBron James to turn the ball over twice en route to a 2-of-9 shooting night. 

Simmons’ Defensive Impact 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic put the 2019 NBA season on hold, Simmons contributed enough in 54 games to be recognized as one of the league’s most skilled defenders. 

Simmons is one of two active players to amass 100+ steals and 200+ deflections for the previous three seasons. Usually, 15 or more players achieve this on a per season basis, but Simmons and Andre Drummond are the only two to do so every season since 2017. The hiatus most definitely decreases the abundance of players that accomplish this feat. But, the fact that they did this in under 60 games is a testament to their defenses.   

Simmons led the league in steals this season, setting a career-high with 2.1 per game. 

Steals Per Game 

B. Simmons: 2.1 (1st/NBA)

K. Leonard: 1.8 (5th)

A. Davis: 1.5

R. Gobert: 0.8

Steals Total

B. Simmons: 115 (1st/NBA)

K. Leonard: 92

A. Davis: 82

R. Gobert: 47

 

 

 

 

 

Four of the five players behind Simmons in total steals played more games than him, too. 

In the fourth quarter, when Simmons’ 106.9 defensive rating is pedestrian, he generated the fourth-most steals, a few short of LeBron James’ and Chris Paul‘s totals. Among some of the most impactful defenders in the league, Simmons is atop the list. 

Fourth Quarter Steals 

B. Simmons: 22 (T-4th/NBA)

G. Antetokounmpo: 19

K. Leonard: 19

A. Davis: 12

Simmons uses his length, a 7’0″ wingspan, and tremendous range to tip passes, poke balls loose, and block shots. Although Simmons is not a frequent shot-blocker–compiling just one more block than Leonard in 2019–deflections are second nature for him. Strong off-ball defense coupled with Simmons’ bursts of speed led to 4.0 deflections per game, the third-most of any defender. 

Deflections Total 

B. Simmons: 216 (2nd/NBA)

K. Leonard: 182

A. Davis: 153

R. Gobert: 95

His defensive contributions don’t stop there, though. Simmons constantly baits opponents into making questionable passes that he catapults to deflect. Between this, his high volume of steals, and strong weak-side defense, Simmons creates a lot of opportunities to turn defense into offense. This season, he collected the most defensive loose balls in the NBA, placing top-10 there for his third consecutive season. 

Similar to defensive rating, a serviceable measurement of a player’s individual defensive contribution can be determined by defensive win shares. Defensive win shares represent the “share of wins a player contributes to their team from defense.” The defensive win shares metric is scaled in different ways, but commonly “one DWS is equal in value to one win added to the player’s team’s record.”

Defensive Win Shares 

R. Gobert: 7.5

A. Davis: 7.4

K. Leonard: 6.9

B. Simmons: 6.8

Gobert and Davis usually hover around the top of the leaderboard for defensive win shares, but Simmons’ career average of 8.6 defensive win shares suggests that he is one of the more valuable defenders around the league. Even further, Simmons posted more fourth-quarter defensive win shares than Leonard and Gobert this season. 

He has gone to war with some of the most productive offensive players in the game and has prevailed in most of the matchups. 

Defense by Scenario 

Leonard and Antetokounmpo are undoubtedly some of the best defenders against the isolation in the NBA. Their defensive prowesses are the reasons why opposing teams rarely isolate against them. In 2019, Simmons surrendered 60 isolation points. His opponents shot 40%.

Opponents attempted only 14 isolation field goals when guarded by Leonard and 27 when defended by Antetokounmpo. They combined for 8 makes against them. Simmons, however, is such a versatile defender that he does not get exploited in any other scenario. 

Despite a defensive philosophy that encourages players to go over screens, Simmons is good against opposing pick-and-roll ball-handlers. Going over screens has proven detrimental for Philadelphia, but, nonetheless, Simmons’ individual defense is impressive. 

This season, Simmons allowed opposing pick-and-roll ball-handlers to shoot 37.4% in the PnR on 286 shots – the second-most field goal attempts against a player in 2019. A. Davis surrendered a higher field-goal percentage, as did Leonard, Gobert, and even Marcus Smart

He is a more-than-capable interior defender as well, best exemplified by his improved post defense. Opponents shot 55.7% from the field when posting up against Simmons last season, compared to 50.0% this year. He allowed fewer post-up points than Leonard and influenced a career-high 21.0% turnover frequency on opponents posting up, the same as Antetokounmpo. 

Hypothesis 

Throughout Simmons’ three-year career, he’s held opponents to just 31.7% shooting from three-point range. He has always been a well-rounded perimeter defender, but Simmons is rapidly progressing into a multi-positional lockdown threat. He is certainly one of the league’s fastest players in the open court – which stands out on film – and he never falls asleep on the defensive end.

In three seasons, opposing guards have combined to shoot 1,022 field goal attempts against Simmons. Of those 1,022 field goal attempts, opposing guards sank 385 of them – just 37.6% successful against Simmons since 2017. 

Ben also forced opposing centers to turn the ball over 31 times since his rookie season, compared to 23 assists. 

He does it on the biggest stages, too

During his first playoff appearance, the young guard had his hands full trying to guard nearly everyone. Somehow, in a 5-game series with Boston and a 5-game series with Miami, Simmons spent more time defending Terry Rozier than any other assignment.

Dating back to the 2018-19 playoff series against Toronto, Simmons’ defensive assignment consisted of primarily defending Leonard. In a 7-game series where Leonard showcased how abnormally great of a basketball player he is, Simmons couldn’t have done a much better job.

Leonard attempted 50 shots when guarded by Simmons, connecting on only 20 of them, and he missed 13 of his 17 three-point attempts. When Simmons wasn’t tasked with defending Leonard, he rotated between the remainder of Toronto’s deep rotation. Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green combined to make 7 shots on 21 attempts, with 5 turnovers against Simmons.

When Philadelphia handled Brooklyn rather effortlessly in last season’s playoffs, D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie hit just 10 of 30 shots when defended by Simmons.  

In just a few seasons, Simmons has crept into All-Defensive team discussions and should soon enjoy the fruits of his labor. In comparison to the league’s most skilled defenders, Simmons’ body of work ensures that he is a household name. Very few players around the league possess the athletic ability to defend any position on the floor and almost none guard primary and secondary options as often as Simmons does.

The Defensive Player of the Year dialogue for 2019-20 should come down to a couple of very deserving players; A.Davis, Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo, and more. But to leave Simmons out of that conversation is just disrespectful.