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September 08, 2020

Sixers' Ben Simmons named to NBA All-Defense team, Joel Embiid misses out

Ben Simmons made the NBA's All-Defense first team, the league announced on Tuesday evening, the first defensive honor of the 24-year-old's career to date.

Simmons is joined on the first team by Giannis Antetokounmpo (the lead vote-getter and Defensive Player of the Year), Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, and Marcus Smart. The Sixers' guard/forward received 88 first-place votes, second behind Antetokounmpo, and was absent from only three ballots.

It's a deserved honor for Simmons in spite of the team's up-and-down performance this season and sub-elite results on the defensive end of the floor that was meant to be their bread-and-butter. In his third NBA season, Simmons finally put forth game-to-game, possession-to-possession effort that matched his considerable tools and instincts on that end. Without Simmons' ability to check the opponent's best player and capably handle switches onto players of all types, the Sixers wilted against the Boston Celtics in round one, and his versatility was critical for Philly in an increasingly positionless league. 

Most notably, Simmons took the title of defensive tone-setter away from Joel Embiid, who had a down year by his standards. Philadelphia's bipolar season featured elite protection of their home floor and a countless list of bad road losses, and Simmons was one of the few (perhaps the only) player who brought the necessary defensive edge every night. He was the NBA's steals leader for most of the season, marrying his ability to jump passing lanes with more disciplined one-on-one defense.

On that note — Embiid did receive All-Defense votes this season, but he was barely a blip on the radar after making the All-Defense second team each of the last two seasons. Embiid earned just one first-team vote and nine second-team votes, his worst performance since a rookie year in which he played just 31 games.

It should be a wake-up call for Embiid, who in the past has professed his desire to win both the Defensive Player of the Year award and the Most Valuable player award, both of which are expected to go to Antetokounmpo this season. At his best, Embiid has been able to reach levels of two-way play that are difficult for most around the league to match, but he took a noticeable step back with an ill-fitting roster and a self-admitted lack of joy to start the season. The organization should take notice, too. Embiid very well may have the highest defensive ceiling in the league, but they haven't seen that realized as often as they should.

The two Sixers cornerstones were joined on the ballot by one of Philadelphia's rare success stories this past season: rookie Matisse Thybulle. Receiving a single second-team vote, Thybulle defied the usual expectations for young players on the defensive end of the floor and is a reliable three-point shot away from being a long-term fixture.

As always, a lot of stuff that looks and sounds good on paper for Philadelphia. Turning it all into victories is the challenge in front of Elton Brand and whoever else survives this offseason.

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