Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons’ DPOTY snub says more about the voters

When news broke that Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid came in second for 2021 NBA MVP to Western Conference darling Nikola Jokic, it was an understandable bummer.

Sure, Embiid may be the most dominant two-way player in the entire NBA and the closest thing to Shaq NBA fans will see on their tv outside of his seemingly hundreds of media appearances/commercial placements, but he missed 21 games due to a string of injuries that effectively disqualified him from the honor in the eyes of some out of touch traditionally-minded voters.

Does it stink that Philly won’t call a league MVP home for the first time since 2001? Most definitely, but it’s cool. It’s cool. Embiid took his loss in stride and promptly dropped 40 points and 12 rebounds in 35 of the best minutes you’ll see on an unsuspecting Atlanta Hawks team still high off their Game 1 win at the Wells Fargo Center.

But what, dare I ask, could Ben Simmons have done better to beat out Rudy Gobert to win Defensive Player of the Year? Certainly not play better defense, because the Philadelphia 76ers point guard played at such a high level in 2020-21 that he made highlight-reel level performances become as mundane as a Dwight Howard technical foul.

The Philadelphia 76ers should get used to people hating The Process.

The NBA is inherently biased towards paint defenders over wing defenders.

Seven of the top-10 defensive RAPTOR scores for the 2020-21 regular season belonged to frontcourt players, as were eight of the ten top defensive +/- recipients and all but one of the top-10 DBPM recipients, according to Pro Basketball-Reference. A wing defender can play 22 seconds of lockdown D before allowing a ballhandler to drive into the arms of a rim-protecting center, whereas most centers spend the majority of their time off the ball until it comes into their zone in one way or another.

Joel Embiid, for example, is a darn good defender – the sixth-best according to FiveThirtyEight – but he doesn’t spend nearly as much time on-ball in an average game as, say, Matisse Thybulle, who plays 11.1 fewer minutes per game on average.

But do you know who covers opposing ball handlers one-on-one more often than literally any other player on the Sixers’ roster game in and game out? Yeah, that’d be Ben Simmons.

Measuring in at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, Simmons is one of the few players in the NBA who can legitimately cover opposing players one-through-five and remain a viable difference-maker. While Simmons may not have averaged double-digit rebounds or 2.7 blocks like Rudy Gobert and isn’t as frequently featured around the basket due to the presence of both Embiid and Dwight Howard, he still averaged the fifth-most steals of any player in the NBA and locked down some of the Association’s better wing scorers on the reg.

Need proof? Rewatch the Sixers’ Game 2 win over the Atlanta Hawks. Simmons put Trae Young in jail in a way Danny Green couldn’t have dreamed of the game before.

When Simmons is allowed to play tough, physical defense, he’s big enough to hang with even the best forwards and quick enough to remain in step with even the shiftiest of guards. He reads the court at both ends of play like a hardened floor general well past his years, anticipates where a ball-handler would like to go like an Australian Professor X, and consistently finds ways to make plays where few others could.

Whether tasked with running the show at the top of the key or paired up with Thybulle in a 2-3 zone look – a look that Doc Rivers should probably use a bit more often – Simmons dictates the way opposing teams run their offense regardless of their unique style of play, which isn’t something one can say about many other players league-wide, especially paint-clogging centers.

Is Goebert a good defender? Most definitely. He, too, can cover any position from the center position and has a freakish ability to play the boards, as evidence by the fact that he was the only player in the NBA this season to log 700-plus defensive rebounds this season. If you want a traditional glass cleaner, there aren’t a whole lot better than Gobert league-wide, even if he did give up 42 to a certain point guard who notably can’t shoot earlier this season.

But, riddle me this; shouldn’t perimeter defense be valued now more than ever before in NBA history, especially as players like Steph Curry continue to lead the league in points scored from the backcourt position?

While having a player like Gobert come in handy in a number of different ways, either you intend to score with big man post-ups or backcourt drivers, they become non-factors when facing off against scorers like Curry – Steph or Seth – Trae Young or James Harden who pull up for outside shots far more often than they drive into the paint. Employing a player like Simmons or Thybulle is the only way to give those players pause and should thus be valued as highly, if not more highly, than an elite rim defender who can be schemed out of plays with the right offensive weapons.

This should be common sense, right? If so, why hasn’t a guard won DPOTY since Steph Curry came into the NBA all the way back in 2009? Heck, why were only four of the top-12 finalists for DPOTY guards? Is the NBA that deficient in quality wing defenders?

Fun fact: Do you know who was the last guard to win DPOTY? That honor goes to Gary Payton of the now-defunct Seattle Supersonics, who won the award back in 1997. Take with that what you will.

Who knows, maybe some voters knocked Ben Simmons for playing 13 fewer games than Rudy Gobert. Maybe they saw Simmons’ lackluster regular season minutes playing in the paint as a makeshift five or wish he would have recorded a few more blocks in any given game or saw Matisse Thybulle go off to a similar degree and just assume Doc Rivers’ scheme played into his performances? Either way, fans of the Philadelphia 76ers know who the best defender in the NBA is even if awards voters refuse to see it. Need proof? Just tune in for Game 3, as something tells me Simmons is going to turn in a uniquely motivated brand of basketball versus Trae Young and company.