Sixers Star Faces Stifling Competition in Quest to Be ‘Clear-Cut’ Best Defender

Ben Simmons Joel Embiid Rudy Gobert

Getty Philadelphia 76ers stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid celebrate during a game against Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz.

In the last week, Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons has made some of his most demonstrative statements to date on the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year race. After Monday’s 113-95 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Simmons declared that he wants to be the “clear-cut best defender” in the NBA.

“I don’t want to be second or third,” he further stated.

The next day during, an appearance on ESPN’s The Jump, Simmons let it be known that, in his eyes, Defensive Player of the Year honors are his to lose. He also took aim at his DPOY competition. Namely, Utah Jazz center and two-time DPOY winner Rudy Gobert.

“Definitely, 100 percent,” Simmons said when asked about winning the award.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of respect for Rudy. I know what he’s capable of. I know he’s great down there in the paint but he’s not guarding everybody — and then, that’s just what it is. He guarded me in Utah.”

When probed by host Rachel Nichols about his Utah experience, Simmons noted that he scored a career-high 42 points on Gobert during the February bout with the Jazz.

Clearly, Simmons is confident that he is the best defender in the world. However, some of the numbers show that he has his work cut out for him as relates to toppling Utah’s Stifle Tower.

What Happens When Simmons & Gobert Don’t Have Help?

Given that both teams feature a slew of willing and able defenders behind their DPOY candidates, it’s no wonder that the Sixers and the Jazz each boast top-four defenses. But what happens when Simmons and Gobert are asked to lock down the opposition on their own?

Both are great enough at what they do to maintain an impact, but one player has definitely fared better than the other.

For the year, the Sixers allow just 103.5 points per 100 possessions when Simmons is on the court with Joel Embiid. However, that number jumps to 109.8 points/100 poss. when Embiid isn’t manning the middle.

By comparison, Gobert’s defensive rating of 98.1 when he is joined by perimeter ace Royce O’Neale drops to just 104.0 when the latter is on the bench.

In other words, the Jazz’s front with Gobert, minus their second-best defender, is almost as good as that of the Sixers when Simmons and Embiid are on the floor together. And all of Gobert’s individual numbers dwarf those of Simmons.

The same is also true when comparing numbers further down the defensive totem pole, i.e. Gobert with/without Mike Conley and Simmons with/without rising defensive star Matisse Thybulle.

The net defensive swing is even greater, too, with Philly allowing 6.0 points/100 poss. more with Simmons alone compared to just 3.5 points/100 poss. more for Gobert and Utah sans Conley.

Player Tracking and Catch-Alls Favor Gobert Over Simmons

On/off numbers aside, player tracking data and catch-all metrics also place Simmons below Gobert (with some showing a significant drop-off).

When Simmons is the closest defender for the Sixers, opposing players have connected on shots at a rate 4.7 percent lower than their norms. As one might expect, they have more success within 10 feet of the basket — there’s actually an uptick of 0.7 percent in opponents’ favor there. Nevertheless, that overall number is beastly.

Gobert, meanwhile, boasts a defensive field goal percentage differential that is two points better than that of Simmons at minus-6.7.

It should be noted that this specific tracking methodology is probably more accurate for evaluating rim-protecting big men. However, based on league-average percentages this season (as tracked by Basketball-Reference), teams are still scoring more efficiently on shot attempts from 0-3 feet from the hoop (1.346 points per attempt) than three-pointers (1.101 pps).

Moreover, while Simmons’ differential shifts to the wrong side of zero within 10 feet, Gobert still holds opposing three-point shooters a full percentage point below their norms when he is the closest defender.

As for catch-alls — numbers that attempt to measure overall defensive impact — there is nary a figure that favors the Sixers star. In fact, Gobert performs significantly better in most of them and leads the league in several:

Ben Simmons Metric Rudy Gobert
106.8 Overall D-Rating 102.1
106.6 Team D-Rating 107.6
1.7 538 Defensive RAPTOR 7.7 (No. 1 overall)
0.06 ESPN Defensive Real +/- 6.27 (No. 1 overall)
1.8 Defensive Box +/- 2.5
2.8 Defensive Win Shares 4.0 (No. 1 overall)

Obviously, there are factors in play here that go beyond statistics. The perimeter potency of NBA players is a thing to behold, and Simmons typically deals with it more directly than Gobert. He can also guard five positions on a regular basis, something Gobert isn’t really asked to do.

On the other hand, the numbers largely favor Gobert. And, clearly, his ability to close out on three-point shooters is vastly underrated by pundits.

Still, Simmons has the right mindset if beating out Gobert is his goal. Even if it is a daunting task.

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