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Philadelphia 76ers

Stat Just Happened: The star-stopping supernova potential of Ben Simmons

"Stat Just Happened" is our new series where we'll pair an important stat with how it actually unfolded on the floor. Our aim? To answer key questions, uncover hidden truths and peel back the curtain on why some numbers matter more than others.

Today, Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons steps into the spotlight.

24%

That's the percent of time Ben Simmons has spent guarding All-Stars this season, the second-highest rate in the league behind only Denver Nuggets' defensive specialist Torrey Craig. Take into account total time spent on the floor and nobody has spent more time than Simmons defending All-Stars.

All of the attention paid towards his lack of a jumpshot has overshadowed the fact that Simmons has evolved not only into perhaps the league's most versatile defender but the one player who most often accepts the toughest challenges on a nightly basis.

It's one thing to do it in bursts as a defensive specialist with limited offensive responsibilities on the other end of the floor. It's an entirely different thing to do it while simultaneously running the show offensively as one of the NBA's most ball-dominant players, someone physically in possession of the ball more than all but six players in the league.

By now, the word is unmistakenly out on the fact that Simmons is a handful on the defensive end of the floor, someone who should wrack up All-Defence nominations for years to come. Back in March, we even listed him as a top-3 candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year. The idea of Simmons as a show-stopping defensive dynamo isn't novel and yet it still feels as if he's oddly slept on.

MORE: The four players with the most to prove in the playoffs

In the wake of the coronavirus which left a Shaq-sized void of live NBA action, hoops-crazed fans have quenched their basketball thirst by gulping down "The Last Dance" and old classic games. Ironically, it's those two things that have helped me reconsider my stance on Simmons during a time when he could be showing out under the bright lights of the playoffs and helping set the record straight following a truly bizarre 2019 postseason.

One of the games prominently featured at various points over the last several weeks is last year's Game 7 between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, forever known for Kawhi Leonard's four-bounce game-winning buzzer-beater that punched their ticket into the Conference Finals. All the other noise from that game is exactly that... noise.

Re-watching Leonard hoist 39 shots and ultimately bury the game-winning bucket over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid allowed for closer examination in a way that wasn't truly possible in the moment. Lost in the bedlam? The brilliance of Simmons who put forth a masterful defensive effort that's been completely lost in the greater conversation about Leonard.

History will remember that game as Leonard's ultimate individual triumph when he willed an exhausted Raptors team over the finish line. That game will go down as perhaps Leonard's single most iconic moment, one of those legendary feats of strength used by the titans of the game to cement their all-time status.

Except... nothing came easy for Leonard!

The Sixers made him work and Simmons, in particular, embraced the challenge.

According to NBA.com's matchup data, Simmons guarded Leonard over twice as much as anyone else, limiting him to just 2-11 shooting and stifling Toronto's entire offensive flow, holding the Raptors to an offensive rating of 86.7. It's a remarkable contrast with what happened anytime Leonard was guarded by anyone else as he combined to shoot 14-28 with the Raptors averaging 142.8 points per 100 possessions.

It's the type of standout defensive performance that could have swung the title odds in Philly's favour if not for the four-bounce dagger which dropped - not coincidentally after Leonard was able to free himself from Simmons and onto Embiid. For the game, Leonard finished 7-12 shooting against Embiid for 14 points, his most by far against any Sixers' defender. A brilliant shot over a brilliant defender, it's tough to heap too much blame at the feet of Embiid, but it is worth wondering if the result had been different if the quicker 6'10" Simmons had instead stayed attached to Toronto's giant-slaying assassin.


Game 3 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

The Utah Jazz got blown out by 54 points, the most lopsided defeat in NBA Finals history and all thanks to the spectacularly suffocating play of one star on the Chicago Bulls.

His name?

Not Michael Jordan.

On that fateful night in Chicago, Scottie Pippen scored just 10 points and yet controlled the entire game from start to finish. Sam Smith, the authority on all things Chicago Bulls, wrote afterwards for the Chicago Tribune that Pippen - not Jordan - was the Finals MVP through three games.

"Scottie is floating", recalled Jazz Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton, referencing how Pippen spent time guarding Karl Malone, Greg Ostertag, Jeff Hornacek, Bryon Russell and Stockton himself, disrupting Utah's entire flow from every direction.

11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson couldn't have sounded any more proud of his switch-happy swiss army knife.

"The luxury for us is to have a defender like Scottie who can cover probably more than one situation at a time. Play a man, play a play. And he's able to hang tight to whomever he is playing and recover to help on the defensive set so they can't operate. And he's big enough to handle Karl Malone outside off the pick-and-roll.

"There have been terrific defenders in the history of the Finals. You can go back to Michael Cooper for the Lakers, and Bobby Jones with the 76ers and other players who have played outstanding defence. The majority of those players are great one-on-one players. Scottie is able to be a one-man wrecking crew."

If all of that sounds familiar, it's because the same thing could be said of Simmons, albeit aside from the fact that the 23-year-old has yet to show up and show out in an NBA Finals, a stage Pippen himself didn't reach until his fourth season at the age of 25.

Imagine fawning over the special things a player can do rather than harping on the things a player can't do? The exact type of refreshing response awarded to Pippen from Hall of Fame opponents and coaches alike in 1998 runs counter to the entire experience of what Simmons has faced thus far in his career.


2-9 shooting by LeBron James.

2-11 shooting by Trae Young.

5-16 shooting by Jayson Tatum.

5-19 shooting by Pascal Siakam.

4-14 shooting by Russell Westbrook.

3-9 shooting by James Harden.

Sensing a theme here? High octane All-Stars with unique styles and in all shapes and sizes, all of whom have struggled to score when matched up against Simmons this season. Not only does Simmons embrace the challenge of guarding our game's best players more than anyone else, he more often than not excels.

At times, Simmons can be a casualty of the modern era, a throwback type whose limitations are exacerbated by the degree to which the game has changed. That's not to say the criticism isn't at times warranted. It is and for Simmons to reach his full potential, he'll need to address those limitations just as every young star in the history of the game has needed to refine some edges.

There's an argument that for the 76ers to reach their full potential, Simmons needs to become not simply a better version of himself, but an entirely different player. But what if he's exactly who he needs to be? What if Leonard's outrageously stupendous shot didn't drop and the Sixers had gone on to win the 2019 NBA title?

We wouldn't be wasting energy uncovering the flaws in a 23-year-old's brilliant game, but rather focusing on the parts that draw comparisons to one of the NBA's all-time elite defenders, a player that once outshined Michael Jordan while - stop me if you've heard this one - not hitting a single 3-pointer.

I don't know when basketball will return, but when it does there might not be anyone with a greater opportunity to flip the narrative on its head. The 76ers have the talent to match up with the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the three top dogs on the three teams most consider to be title favourites.

That talent begins with Simmons, ready to take on all comers at a moment's notice as evidenced by that all important number...

24%

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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