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Philadelphia 76ers

NBA All-Star Game 2020: Ben Simmons lists five toughest players to guard in the NBA

CHICAGO - Entering the 2019-20 season Philadelphia 76ers All-Star guard Ben Simmons only had one personal goal: to win Defensive Player of the Year.

The Aussie star made strides on defence last season, taking on bigger assignments as the year went on. By the time the playoffs came around, Sixers head coach Brett Brown trusted Simmons enough to be the primary defender on Kawhi Leonard in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, tasked to slow down one of the best players in the NBA amidst the most dominant stretch of his career.

There's no better testament to his growth on that end of the floor.

This season, he's taken another leap. He's challenged himself and succeeded through the unofficial midway point of the season, making a strong case for that coveted DPOY trophy and an All-Defensive First Team selection.

His 2.2 steals per game leads the NBA and he has continuously been counted on to try and shut down opposing team's premier scorers. And though Simmons has become well-versed in handling that chore, it doesn't make it any easier. Some guys in this league are borderline unstoppable, and Simmons acknowledged that at All-Star weekend's media availability.

When asked who the five toughest players to guard in the NBA are, he was sure in his answer.

In no particular order - "Kawhi, Bron, KD, James and Giannis," the DPOY hopeful told NBA.com.

For players that great, full names - or last names - aren't needed to know who the All-Star guard is talking about. He's already matched up with Leonard, LeBron James and James Harden a handful of times this season. With Kevin Durant out for the season's entirety while recovering from Achilles injury, he'll have to wait until next season to get his next chance at stopping the All-World scorer. As for Giannis Antetokounmpo, he didn't spend too much time defending the MVP candidate in their first two meetings this season but has another opportunity on the horizon.

So what makes these players so special and how has Simmons fared in trying to accomplish the feat of slowing down these offensive juggernauts?

All matchup data is courtesy of NBA stats.

Kawhi Leonard - LA Clippers

Simmons guarding Leonard - 2019-20
Games Played Partial Possesions PTS FGM-FGA FG% 3PM-3PA 3P% AST TO
1 36.5 14 6-12 50.0 2-4 50.0 5 1

Matchups remaining: One - March 1

What makes Kawhi Leonard so special? He always plays at his own pace. He's fantastic at using his strength to assert himself to his favourite spots on the floor and once he gets to those spots, he rarely fails to convert.

We saw just how dominant Leonard can be in last year's title run with the Toronto Raptors that resulted in his second Finals MVP trophy.

We've only seen one matchup between Kawhi and Simmons so far this season, coming in the 76ers final game just before the All-Star break. Leonard had and efficient 30 points with nine assists and even a Defensive Player of the Year candidate like Simmons struggled to slow down the Clippers' leading scorer in his time as the primary defender.

In a nod to Simmons, the Clippers ran pick-and-rolls all game long to try and get Leonard a more favourable matchup. The Aussie's strength, length and agility makes him a better matchup than most against the four-time All-Star, but Leonard was still able to pick his spots to go to work on offence.

Luckily for the 76ers, Simmons brought his A-game in other areas, going for his second triple-double of the season to lead the 76ers to victory. Ideally in the second matchup he'll do a better job of containing Leonard - similar to the 40.0% shooting from the field and 23.5% from 3 from last postseason - to make life easier on Philly.

LeBron James - Los Angeles Lakers

Simmons guarding James - 2019-20
Games Played Partial Possesions PTS FGM-FGA FG% 3PM-3PA 3P% AST TO
1 26.4 5 2-9 22.2 1-6 16.7 2 2

Matchups remaining: One - March 3

What makes LeBron James so special? The fact that he's actually a better playmaker than scorer, but can flip a switch to become a dominant scorer in a matter of seconds.

We've been watching it for 17 years now as NBA fans - LeBron generally does whatever he wants on the basketball court. If he feels like going for 30 points, he'll go for 30 points. If he feels like dishing out 10-plus assists, he'll wow us with passes that make you believe he has a sixth-sense dedicated to picking apart defences.

The best evidence of that is James deferring as the Lakers go-to option on offence this offseason, then going out and leading the NBA with 10.8 assists per game through the first half of the season.

Prior to Simmons' first meeting with LeBron this season, I wrote about how he is a video game-like create-a-player designed to try and slow down The King. In his time as the primary defender on James, he did just that, holding LeBron to just five points on 2-for-9 shooting from the field with only two assists and two turnovers. The result: a blowout win for the 76ers.

It's repetitive with the case against Leonard - or any NBA player for that matter - but Simmons is long enough, strong enough and fast enough to stay with LeBron. That's something that can't be said about 99% of the NBA.

He has active hands in the passing lanes, which gives James smaller windows to feed his teammates. When he tries to bully his way to the rim with a combination of strength and quickness for his size, Simmons can stay with him step-for-step.

These two still have one more head-to-head matchup this season and it will be interesting to see if Simmons can lock down the MVP candidate again.

Kevin Durant - Brooklyn Nets

Simmons guarding Durant - 2018-19*
Games Played Partial Possesions PTS FGM-FGA FG% 3PM-3PA 3P% AST TO
2 36.7 12 5-13 38.5 1-3 33.3 0 3

*Last season's stats since Durant is out the entire 2019-20 season with an Achilles injury.

What makes Kevin Durant so special? He's nearly 7-feet tall but handles the ball like a guard, can score from all three levels of the floor, shoot over the top of anyone and has a case as one of the greatest marksmen to ever grace a basketball court.

While his Achilles injury suffered in last year's NBA Finals prevents us from seeing prime-defending Simmons against the bucket-getting Durant this year, we still have their two matchups from last season to go off of.

Not many defenders that are quick enough to keep up with Durant have the length to even enter his line of vision toward the basket, but Simmons 7-foot wingspan makes him unique in that sense.

He was able to hold KD to just 38.5% shooting from the field and 33.3% shooting from 3 in the two games the 76ers and Warriors played against each other last season, scoring just 12 points on 13 shots. Simmons wasn't the gameplanned primary defender on Durant - extreme competitor Jimmy Butler took on that challenge whenever he was on the floor - but Simmons still found some success in disrupting the four-time scoring champion.

With the progress Simmons has made as a defender, we'll surely see plenty of him matched up with KD next season. Especially with Durant now playing for the Brooklyn Nets, who face off against the 76ers four times a year as Atlantic Division foes.

James Harden - Houston Rockets

Simmons guarding Harden - 2019-20
Games Played Partial Possesions PTS FGM-FGA FG% 3PM-3PA 3P% AST TO
1 15.7 12 3-9 33.3 2-5 40.0 4 2

Matchups remaining: One - March 31

What makes James Harden so special? The shots that are typically considered "bad shots" for just about every other player in the league are the ones he's looking to take. His step-back is almost more lethal than a regular pull-up jumper and on top of that, he's deceptively quick, has insane body control and is an absolute mastermind at drawing fouls to get to the charity stripe.

Simply put, he's one of the greatest scorers we ever have, and ever will, see.

Harden went off for 44 points in a win over the 76ers in their only matchup so far this season, but he didn't exactly have his way with Simmons. The Sixers star guard was able to use his height advantage to make up for the ground that Harden covers on his patented step-back and his quick feet and active hands only allowed the league's leading scorer to draw two shooting fouls as the primary defender.

12 points on 33.3% shooting from the field with just two 3-pointers is a solid day's work in defending an offensive wizard like Harden.

He did most of his damage off of pick-and-roll switches in his first meeting with Philly, attacking slower defenders like Al Horford. There's still one more meeting between the Rockets and 76ers this season, meaning we'll get one more chance to watch the DPOY hopeful-Simmons try and slow down the reigning scoring champ.

Giannis Antetokounmpo - Milwaukee Bucks

Simmons guarding Antetokounmpo - 2019-20
Games Played Partial Possesions PTS FGM-FGA FG% 3PM-3PA 3P% AST TO
2 9.0 2 1-2 50.0 0-0 0 1 0

Matchups remaining: One - Feb. 22

What makes Giannis Antetokounmpo so special? His Inspector Gadget-like arms, strength and agility make it almost impossible to stop him from getting to the rim. He's a freight train in transition and it takes him less than a handful of dribbles to get from one end of the floor to the other. If he's within five feet of the basket, he's scoring.

He's the reigning, and likely back-to-back, MVP for a reason.

This is a more unique situation than the others because Simmons typically never draws this matchup in the 76ers gameplan. He's almost always marking All-Star forward Khris Middleton while All-Star centre guards Antetokounmpo from the paint.

The matchup data is simply too small of a sample size to pull anything from, but there isn't much explanation needed as to why Simmons would call the Greek Freak one of the toughest players to defend in the league, because he's faced Antetokounmpo enough times to still draw a couple possessions against the four-time All-Star.

A player that big, strong, fast, long and athletic is a matchup nightmare, hence why he's arguably the best player in the NBA today.

The 76ers have one last matchup against the Bucks just after the All-Star break, so we'll have one more opportunity to potentially watch Simmons try and come up with some stops on Antetokounmpo in the regular season.

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