Looking back to Sixers media day in October, there was so much excitement and optimism around the team. Players talked about what they needed to do to win a championship and starting fresh with a new-look starting five.
Many of the things talked about that day haven’t quite come to fruition.
One player’s comments stood out, though. Ben Simmons was asked about his individual goals for the season, and at first resisted.
"Win a championship,” Simmons said. “Every other individual accolade comes along with doing your job. You can't go out and say you want to win certain things unless it's going to help the team win. I know I can tell you right now, Giannis [Antetokounmpo] would rather have a championship than MVP. That's just my mentality — I'd rather win and see everybody on my team do well than an individual accolade …”
Simmons did concede one "individual accolade" he was interested in.
“ … unless it's Defensive Player of the Year."
He said it with a smile, and while it didn’t seem totally out of the realm of possibility, it was hard to know if Simmons would be in serious consideration.
If the NBA winds up cancelling the rest of the regular season amid the coronavirus pandemic, voters will have to choose awards based on the 60-plus games that took place. Based on what we’ve seen, Simmons has a strong case to take home Defensive Player of the Year.
Simply watching Simmons should be enough to make that case. There may not be a player that can switch so seamlessly one through five in the league right now. We’ve seen Simmons defend All-Star guard Kemba Walker, who stands at 6-foot-1, and then stand toe-to-toe with center Enes Kanter in the same game. It’s similar to what the Warriors’ Draymond Green, who won the award in 2016-17, is able to do.
Brett Brown has steered away from putting Simmons on opposing teams’ best players early in games. Given that Simmons is tied for eighth in the NBA in minutes per game and plays such a large role as the team’s point guard, Brown doesn’t want to overextend the 23-year-old.
When called upon, Simmons has risen to the challenge. Players that he’s guarded this season include All-Stars like Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum and Pascal Siakam. The nine players that he’s guarded for at least 10 minutes have shot a combined 41.5 percent (54 of 130) against him. Overall, players Simmons has defended have shot just 41.3 percent.
Aside from just being able to guard his man, the numbers show Simmons has also been one of the most disruptive players in the NBA. Even with missing nine of the last 10 games, Simmons still leads the league in steals, both per game and total. He’s third in the NBA in deflections and tied for the league lead in defensive loose balls recovered per game.
If you want to look at the impact he’s had on his team, it’s evident he’s behind the Sixers’ improvement on that end. The team was 14th in the NBA in defensive rating in 2018-19. The ranking went up to sixth this season. Replacing JJ Redick with Josh Richardson and any of the Sixers’ backup centers for Al Horford has certainly helped, but Simmons taking his defensive game to another level has been a huge factor.
Rudy Gobert has taken home the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards. While Gobert has proven to be an elite rim protector, you could make the argument that he doesn’t affect the game as much defensively as a player like Simmons.
There’s definitely an argument to be made for reining MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to win the award. The Greek Freak’s defense may be a little underrated because of how special of an overall player he is. The last player to win the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season was Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94. That’s certainly in play for Antetokounmpo.
The Lakers’ Anthony Davis and Celtics’ Marcus Smart should also receive serious consideration.
But when you consider everything, Ben Simmons has a real chance to win Defensive Player of the Year — just like he said he wanted to all those months ago.
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