Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Ben Simmons is a uniquely versatile defender

Ben Simmons is having a special defensive season and his ability to stretch his positional range has helped keep the 76ers afloat.

Ben Simmons‘ combination of size and skill is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. He measures out at 6-foot-10 with the bulk of a power forward but his quickness, ball skills, passing and vision make let him do things usually reserved for much smaller players. He’s usually listed as a point guard in the box score but for the purposes of conversation and categorization he’s almost always treated as something closer to “positionally miscellaneous.”

One of the compounding factors in classifying him positionally is that, while he functions as point guard on offense, his size and defensive versatility have usually been more useful defending bigger players at the other end. What’s that old saying, “if it walks like a point forward, and measures out like a point forward and defends bigs like a point forward, then it probably is a point forward?”

This season, however, Simmons’ defensive identity has shifted somewhat and it’s probably more justifiable than ever to just consider him a point guard. According to a collation of the NBA’s defensive matchup stats, prepared by Krishna Narsu and Andrew Patton, Simmons has spent more than a quarter of his defensive possessions this season matched up with an opposing point guard and just over 50 percent of his defensive possessions with either a point guard or a shooting guard as his primary defensive matchup. That’s up from about 39 percent last season and about 41 percent during the 2017-18 season. These stats estimate his defensive position to be 2.65 (using the standard 1-5 position scale, weighted by the percent of possessions defending each position), about the same as Marcus Smart or Russell Westbrook.

For further context, Draymond Green (who is three inches shorter than Simmons and often held up as the paragon of big forwards being able to slide down and defend smaller players) has never had an estimated defensive position lower than 3.38 in 2013-14.

Simmons’ move down the positional scale, defensively, has been necessitated by changes to the 76ers’ rotation. Philadelphia has not been shy about playing Al Horford and Joel Embiid together and Simmons has played about 27 percent of his minutes this season with that pairing and Tobias Harris a forward, who is at a defensive disadvantage against many perimeter wing players. That leaves no other option but to have Simmons matched up against a backcourt player.

The graph below shows every player to have appeared in a game this season, marked by their height and their estimated defensive position.

That mark just below and to the left of Simmons is Dzanan Musa, a 6-foot-9 wing who has played just over 200 minutes of not particularly noteworthy defense for the Nets this season. Other than that, Simmons really is on an island for a player his size. He’s nearly a half-position below anyone else his height, or even players an inch shorter — with Nicolas Batum the closest at an estimated defensive position of 2.93.

Of players listed at 6-foot-8, only Cam Reddish and Isaac Bonga have a lower estimated defensive position. All that is to say that even if Ben Simmons were two inches shorter, he would still be an outlier in how often he defends guards for a player his size.

And, of course, this only highlights versatility; he’s also been incredibly effective. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric estimates his defensive value to be worth about 2.4 points per 100 possessions. He is second in the league in deflections per game, fourth in defensive loose balls recovered per game, and tied for third in steals per game. At Liberty Ballers, Jackson Frank did a great job breaking down video of Simmons’ defensive improvement this season and explaining how his awareness and decision-making has taken a leap.

Aside from on the block, Simmons has executed the largest jump as an off-ball defender. More frequently, he’s stunting to stymie drives, contest jumpers or force turnovers, and he’s understanding the proper times to dig down in the post. The former is the primary reason his deflections have increased by nearly 50 percent this season; people are conscious of his dexterity and actively halt dribble penetration when he’s in the area. He’s rotating to cut off passing lanes, getting a paw on almost any ball in his orbit and operating with renewed focus and zeal. Like any defensive roamer, Simmons gambles to a fault occasionally, but generally speaking, his discretion and judgment have been superb. The combination of reaction time and physical tools is fueling this All-Defensive campaign.

The 76ers’ most-used lineup — Simmons, Josh Richardson, Harris, Horford and Embiid — has been superb defensively, holding opponents to an average of 88.7 points per 100 possessions. It’s an enormous lineup with Richardson and Harris, at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-8, respectively, as the two smallest players. The viability of this group as an elite defensive unit is driven, in large part, by Simmons’ ability to more than hold his own against players five and six inches shorter than him.

Philadelphia’s offense has had plenty of kinks to work out in the early part of the season but their suffocating defense (third in the NBA in efficiency) has helped keep them in the tier of championship contenders. For that, they can thank their unconventional point guard.

Next: Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25

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