While simply going about his business and categorically refusing to take jump shots, Ben Simmons became the NBA’s hot-take singularity. The mere mention of his name has a way of pushing otherwise reasonable people further into their respective corners. Disciples of the post will portray Simmons as an affront to Joel Embiid, and thus to common sense. The Simmons faithful will inevitably compare him to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who didn’t need a jumper to become one of the best players in the league. Relevant comments from Sixers coach Brett Brown are quoted as scripture, and video of Simmons’s first career 3-pointer—or camera phone footage of him hitting step-back 3s in a casual offseason run—is parsed for greater meaning. Some things are just not meant to be discussed in polite company.
Two decades ago, the idea that a player as dominant as Shaquille O’Neal would be unable to hit a free throw became such a curiosity it transcended the sport. Simmons touches on a similar point of fascination—the idea of basketball deficiency as absurdity, or even personal failing—only in a way that snaps into focus on almost every Sixers possession. When Simmons finally hit his first official 3-pointer back in November, Philly play-by-play man Marc Zumoff chased his call of the play with a thought: “Maybe now they’ll finally leave him alone after that!” he boomed. It was a hopeful idea quickly crushed by practical analysis, genuine mystery, and legions of the extremely online just waiting to get jokes off.
The latest injury to Joel Embiid brings Simmons front and center for the Sixers, while serving as a reminder of how little the conversation around the 23-year-old point guard has progressed. So rather than reenact a 3-year-old debate, let’s come together on a much less controversial idea: Simmons is one of the NBA’s very best defenders, full stop and without caveat.
Even on a team layered with premier defensive talent (though one layer fewer with Joel Embiid sidelined), Simmons sticks out for the way he standardizes the exceptional. A point guard shouldn’t be able to defend with the range that Simmons does, but breaking the form of the position has its advantages. So far this season, Simmons has checked James Harden, Pascal Siakam, Luka Doncic, Aaron Gordon, Bradley Beal, and Brandon Ingram. Those players share little in common save that they fall under Simmons’s purview. When Philadelphia needs to keep a waterbug point guard under thumb, the job typically goes to Josh Richardson. If an opposing center is worth the Sixers’ attention, Embiid or Al Horford can usually manage. It’s on Simmons to cover damn near anyone else, no matter their style of play.
There are maybe three other players in the league who could stay attached to Harden all the way through a drive without fouling:
… and wall up in the post against a bruising center like Enes Kanter:
Simmons is like a thought experiment come to life: a 6-foot-10, 230-pound natural athlete with all the instincts of a guard. There is a fair conversation to be had as to whether Simmons would be better off as a playmaking big (á la Draymond Green) as opposed to the initiator of an offense. Yet developmentally, starting his professional career on the perimeter has made Simmons into a singular obstruction. Players of his size don’t typically get much experience in chasing an opposing creator through a pick-and-roll. They would be schooled from the start to think like a big—in terms of providing help rather than relieving it. Most bigs don’t know how to flatten their body to squeeze over the top of a screen because the game plan would never call for them to. The nuance of pursuing a play from behind could be lost on a big, considering that their entire line of work is predicated on containing what is in front of them.
If Simmons were anything but a guard, he wouldn’t be Simmons at all. There would never have been a need for him to learn to lock and trail, recover to jump back in front of a play in progress, or to deny Harden or Doncic access to their step-back 3. Even if he were still a great defender, he would be great by an entirely different complexion.
This just isn’t something that a big—even a modern, position-bending big—would ordinarily be able to do:
By orienting Simmons as a perimeter player, the Sixers prioritized the skills that now set him apart. There is incredible value in having an enormous and explosive defender who understands how to close out on a shooter. What a luxury it must be to have another player the size of Horford to slide into the lane to pick up a roll man, or switch reactively when the coverage breaks down. Even when an opposing guard manages to squirm past Simmons, he will sometimes poke away their dribble from behind—AAU-level ingenuity that works because Simmons is so much longer than the defenders they’re accustomed to. Cruelest of all: When the action of an opposing offense stalls, some panicked role player will try to kick the ball out to a more qualified teammate. Often, Simmons will be guarding them, a giant lying in wait.
To hold court without Embiid, the Sixers will need all of these elements and more. Embiid is the ultimate fail-safe; his presence alone gives cover to some of Philly’s less favorable combinations, carrying reserve-heavy lineups that would otherwise be in over their heads. Nothing in Philadelphia’s rotation has been quite so successful without him—including the defense of its starting lineup. Of particular concern: One of the better defenses in the league (Philly ranks just outside the top five this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats) turns porous without him. This has less to do with ability than rhythm. No matter his replacement, playing without Embiid requires playing differently. These provisional Sixers can guard well for a quarter or a half, but in many ways are still figuring out how to coordinate a successful defense on their own terms.
Those efforts begin with Simmons. There are varying schools of thought concerning how important point guard defense really is in the current strategic climate, considering that the success or failure of a possession is so often decided by help and secondary rotations. There’s some merit to that idea—unless, perhaps, your point guard comes to their assignments with the size of a big and all the game-altering versatility that comes with it. This is what the NBA’s best defensive guard looks like in the year 2020: savvy enough to defend the most difficult scorers in the sport and physically equipped to handle responsibilities his peers never could.