May 22, 2019
Joel Embiid will not be one of the finalists for the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award in late June, but he will be ending the year with some defensive honors. The NBA announced that he was part of the league's All-Defensive second team for the second consecutive year, losing out on first-team honors in a mild bit of controversy.
Before we get to that, let's run through the two teams real quick, in order of their vote/point totals:
First team: Rudy Gobert, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Marcus Smart, Eric Bledsoe
Second team: Jrue Holiday, Klay Thompson, Joel Embiid, Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard
Looking at the impact the players on the first team made for their teams in the regular season, I think it would be tough to argue any of them are not worthy selections. The Bucks were the best defensive team in the league this season, so rewarding two of their key cogs feels just fine to me.
The part some Sixers fans will take issue with is the selection of Rudy Gobert, who Embiid has a not so subtle beef with over these sort of honors. If you compare a lot of their metrics during the regular season and then consider Gobert's cleaner bill of health, it's not hard to see why a voting body would select Gobert over Embiid for a regular-season honor.
However, the timing of these announcements (and the bigger award show happening in late June) adds a layer of absurdity. The last two memories we have of Embiid and Gobert couldn't be further apart. Utah's big man basically got run off of the floor by P.J. Tucker in the first round of the playoffs, while the Sixers used Embiid as a weapon to defend one of Toronto's best forwards in round two, and they were unable to take him off of the floor because of how important he was to their defensive integrity.
Of course, that is a question of regular-season value vs. playoff value, not necessarily a commentary on the awards. I just wish the NBA didn't draw this process out so long, because it makes an honor that should feel meaningful end up looking worthless when it's all said and done.
Two other Sixers ended up receiving votes during the process, though they didn't come especially close to cracking the ballot. Jimmy Butler received a pair of first-team votes and five second-team votes, while Ben Simmons snagged just two second-team votes.
I don't think the Sixers deserved to have anyone other than Embiid edge into this conversation based on the disappointing performance of the unit in the regular season, but the vote split here is an example of how long it can take for reputations to catch up to on-court production.
While both Butler and Simmons went through periods of lackadaisical effort and general inconsistency, Simmons was by far the more impactful defender in the regular season. When effort and stakes were highest in the playoffs, it was no surprise that the younger Simmons was turned to as the team's perimeter stopper, and his work against D'Angelo Russell in round one was in many ways the catalyst for a comfortable 4-1 series win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Whether that effort in the postseason is enough to put Simmons on the All-Defense radar for 2019-20 will be interesting to track. In a better defensive year for the team last season, Simmons received five first-team votes for All-Defense, so he is certainly on the radar enough to get in the conversation. It'll likely take a more sustained effort to put him over the top, though, because there are some well-known and respected players between him and one of the top-ten spots in the league.
While Philadelphia's other pieces left a lot to be desired on defense this past season, there should be no excuse for the Sixers to have a mediocre defense next year if they bring all the same pieces back. With better attention to detail and increased focus, they have the ingredients in place to be an elite unit on both sides of the floor. Saving a little something for the playoffs is all well and good, but a push for homecourt in the playoffs will not happen without better defensive execution.
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