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February 13, 2020

Sixers mailbag: Should Ben Simmons be the Defensive Player of the Year?

And more on the Sixers at the All-Star break...

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23_Ben_Simmons_Sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/Kate Frese

Ben Simmons during the Philadelphia 76ers game against the Boston Celtics at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on October 23, 2019. (Kate Frese/PhillyVoice)

Fortunately for readers everywhere, the Sixers managed to sneak in a huge win to close out their schedule before the All-Star break, ensuring we would not have to read a full mailbag of questions about why they should trade everyone, fire the coach, and move the team to the dark side of the moon.

Now 55 games in, these are still uncertain times for Philadelphia. They only just appeared to stumble into a starting lineup that could work, and even that comes with a level of uncertainty. The Sixers have little room for error these next couple of months, and yet they inspire so many questions, making my job easier and your life as fans that much more miserable.

But let's bask in the positivity while we can and settle in for a Friday mailbag. As always, if you have questions, you are free to send me emails, tweets, DM's, etc., and though I can't promise I'll get to your topic, I am certainly always listening.

It is a bit interesting that Simmons has garnered so much buzz as a first-team All-Defense guy without any real attention paid to his DPOY case — especially because he named it as one of his preseason goals at Sixers media day. Typically, when a guy publicly sets his sight on an award and then lives up to that claim throughout the season, it gives him an extra lift.

The Sixers failing to live up to expectations as a team has hurt Simmons a lot here, I think. Perhaps Philly was never going to be at Milwaukee's level with their continuity giving them one built-in advantage, but it's fair to say their record should be better than it is currently. When your team meets or exceeds expectations, you get thrust into all sorts of year-end award conversations. When you don't, every discussion about your individual performance comes with a, "Yeah, but!" regarding its impact.

But make no mistake, Simmons has a case as good as almost anybody's in the league. Simmons has been the team's most consistent defender on one of the league's best defenses, and it is his versatility that helps him separate from the pack. Think of all the players he has guarded this season and how different each challenge is. To be able to jump from Kawhi Leonard to Trae Young to LeBron James to Jimmy Butler and often do it well is a hell of a feat.

Night-to-night, Simmons has been asked to jump between positions and shoulder a heavy workload, playing upwards of 40 minutes whenever the Sixers have needed it. Yet he never seems to tire, and some of his biggest moments of the season have come on defense in crunch-time — his back-to-back steals to seal a win against Indiana remain a highlight of the year for Philly.

Some of the players who have killed Philadelphia otherwise have been slowed down by Simmons. Pascal Siakam has shot 26.3 percent from the field in approximately 69 possessions guarded by Simmons this season. Spencer Dinwiddie is shooting 33 percent against Simmons this season. Jayson Tatum is 4/7 on threes attempted while guarded by Simmons this season, and 0/8 everywhere else on the floor. Once viewed as a talented defender who didn't come with the proper effort night-to-night or play-to-play, Simmons now takes the responsibility seriously and leads by example.

There are factors working against him, of course. The runaway MVP favorite, Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, also happens to be the best defensive player on the best defensive team in the league. And the Bucks aren't just slightly better than the field, they are in a class of their own, over three points clear of the next-best defense. The gap between Milwaukee and No. 2 is roughly equivalent to the gap between the Sixers and the Houston Rockets, who are in the process of experimenting with playing no bigs for 48 straight minutes. If you're trying to reward a combination of impact, versatility, and team success, Antetokounmpo has the best case of all.

It's also worth noting this has traditionally been a big man's award. That has changed in recent years, with Kawhi Leonard winning back-to-back awards and Draymond Green (a non-traditional big) taking it home in 2016-17, but otherwise, you have to go all the way back to 03-04 to find a non-center who took home the honor. Awarding non-bigs makes sense in a league where perimeter defense matters as much as it ever has, but it's tough to tell if that's where voters are moving yet.

I don't think he's the frontrunner, but he's in the convo, which I wouldn't have bet on coming into the year.

I think it's hard to normalize for Embiid minutes because of how their rotation works. There are not many teams where a defender of Simmons' caliber would hit the bench, only for that ensuing lineup to be led by one of the most transformative defensive players in the league. Simmons is playing roughly 3/4 of every game, and you can basically guarantee those minutes with Simmons resting are going to feature Embiid-led lineups. The Embiid bench groups have struggled to score in a slow, half-court style, but they have absolutely stifled teams on the other end of the floor. 

On-court, I think it might just reflect something touched on above — elite big-man defense can transform a team on its own, while perimeter defense still needs a strong base behind it. If you can shut off the path to the rim as Embiid does, that makes it easier for guys to stay home on shooters and bait them into tough mid-range looks. And for pure on-off numbers, Simmons' time with guys like Norvel Pelle and Kyle O'Quinn probably haven't helped his metrics, nor have his stints as the small-ball center.

DRPM (whose formula is intentionally kept vague, I believe) factors for teammates and lineups, which I would guess punishes Simmons numerically because Embiid somehow lifts traditionally mediocre defenders up on the second unit. In my estimation, that probably makes the first-unit numbers actually look like a negative in the eyes of a stats model. And to be clear, I trust catch-all defensive metrics very little in basketball, and perhaps someone with a better understanding of them will come swooping in to tell me I'm an idiot here. Go nuts.

If it is an anomaly instead of a constant, I would have a few questions for the Philadelphia brain trust. The Sixers finally looked like a team that makes sense on Tuesday night, so maybe stick with it.

I know they lost Kawhi Leonard, who was the big swing player in last year's playoff series, but I honestly think it might be the Toronto Raptors. There are multiple layers to it but it comes down to one very simple idea: they are the team best equipped to take Joel Embiid out of a series altogether. He has yet to solve the Marc Gasol puzzle, and I would be skeptical of him doing so suddenly in a playoff series.

Against teams like Miami and Boston, you're up against well-coached teams with tough perimeter covers, but at the end of the day, you have a human trump card to play against smaller frontlines. Even in the midst of a terrific season for Bam Adebayo, I'm betting on Embiid to win that matchup by a good margin, which helps to wipe away any concerns you may have with Simmons in a playoff format. Ditto for seven games of Embiid vs. Daniel Theis.

But if Embiid doesn't figure out a way to deal with Gasol, suddenly the rest of Philly's concerns look more glaring. The Raptors have a great coach in Nick Nurse, a team full of guys with championship-level experience, and a plethora of styles they're comfortable playing out of. Those are all factors that must be accounted for heading into another potential playoff battle with them

I wouldn't take anyone from this group lightly, of course. Philly has handled Boston well this year but they have good, tough wings who can kill individual matchups in a slowed-down playoff game. Miami probably scares me the least because they have a lot of contributors whose value is predicated on success from three, but by that same token, they could easily get hot and shoot themselves into some wins they otherwise didn't "deserve." 

If the Sixers don't figure out how to win games on the road, they're not capable of beating anyone good in the playoffs. They have to take care of business in-house before we go too deep into matchups in the postseason.

So let's hone in on the Western part of this equation. I'm not sure there's a team that particularly stands out to me? I think Playoff LeBron should be feared, but I think the Sixers match well with the Lakers. Playoff Kawhi is a monster, but there is no Marc Gasol equivalent to slow Embiid down on that team. Denver is deep and tough, but I think Jokic is exploitable in high-leverage possessions.

Weirdly enough, I think Houston might have been the team I would have selected prior to the Clint Capela trade. Capela was an exhausting guy for Embiid to cover who exploits any moment of hesitation running the floor, and stopping the Harden/Westbrook combo would be tough over seven games. I have no idea what the Sixers are going to look like against this small-ball group, however, so it's hard to peg them as the toughest team for Philly out west.

Let's just default to the Clippers, who I believe have another gear to hit when it's time to turn it up. When all else fails, top-end talent will win out.

You guys are not going to get me in trouble trying to entertain fake trades for their two best players. Can't do it!

(The best option, in either case, is to get a three-level scorer a la Bradley Beal, for the record.)

I'm not about to go providing free tips so you lot can take my job someday, but I think most of the skills a reporter needs are applicable to any number of "normal" jobs. If you value relationships, treat people fairly, and put in the work to be present and informed as much as possible, more often than not good things are going to come your way. It's never as simple as just being lucky, and it's never as simple as just working hard.  

I wish I had a better answer to this, but his constant presence in the rotation has baffled me, too. Pre-deadline, perhaps some of it was a refusal to bench him so that his minimal trade value didn't plummet. But Brown has been fond of true stretch fours throughout his time in Philly, always trying to get a floor spacer next to Joel Embiid, and Scott's quick-release helped to separate him from the rest of the bench. My retort to that idea is that teams don't play big enough these days to reflexively play Scott at backup four every night with no consideration for the opponent, and that the wings they had available were superior to Scott.

It seems the Scott days might be over now that the rotation has been juggled. Tobias Harris played the four for most of Tuesday's win vs. L.A., and the Sixers can now run multi-wing lineups without compromising defense or spacing. Scott was a minor figure in that game, and perhaps Brown has seen the light. But I'll believe that once evidence mounts over time, not after one game.

I wrote about this pretty extensively on Thursday, but I think this is probably too large of a pool to choose from. There is merit to the idea of trying different things and seeing what works, but Philly is also coming down the home stretch of the season, and priority No. 1 has to be building real chemistry for both the starting and backup units so that they're not playing guessing games in mid-April.

Scott should basically be out of the rotation now, and Milton is along the fringes when everyone is healthy. I would agree you could rotate some beyond that.

A few stray observations on Sixers beat fashion choices (this is not at all a ranking, just a numbered list of observations):

  1. Kyle Neubeck, PhillyVoice — "Dressing up" is a decent pair of pants and untucked dress shirt. Otherwise it's a rotation of hoodies, thermals, and outerwear to deal with ice radiation at WFC. For the record, I will accept any and all Philadelphia-based attire sponsors, and look good in a suit if you feel like buying me one.
  2. Derek Bodner, The Athletic — Wears blazers when he doesn't feel like ironing shirts. Vet move I have replicated with non-blazer articles of clothing, for the record.
  3. Ky Carlin, Sixers Wire & Keith Pompey, The Inquirer — Lots of suits. Gentlemen, I didn't get into writing about sports to dress up like a stockbroker every game, but more power to you.
  4. Kevin Kinkead, Crossing Broad — Voted "Most Likely to Wear a Hat" by his high school class.
  5. Jack McCaffery, Delco Times — The man loves the color black.
  6. Humbert Eksimo — Would have a better feel for his fashion sense if he actually stayed to watch a game once in his life. The only thing he is "The King" of is pregame availability.

There are more regular attendees who could be considered, but let's be clear, there are no real winners, only better losers. We will not be invited to this year's Met Gala.

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