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Philadelphia 76ers

Stat Just Happened: Putting the defensive versatility of Ben Simmons into perspective

"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 takes the spotlight.

84.4

According to data collected by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus and Patrick Miller of The BBall Index, that represents Simmons' defensive versatility rating from the 2019-20 season.

Why is that notable? It's one of the highest rates in the entire league.

Based on that same data, there are only nine players who have been more versatile defensively than Simmons this season. However, of those nine players, only six are currently a part of their respective team's rotation.

If you eliminate Jaylen Hoard, Adam Mokoka and Iman Shumpert from the equation - a trio that has logged a grand total of 456 minutes this season - Draymond Green, James Harden, Pascal Siakam, Dorian Finney-Smith, OG Anunoby and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are the only players in the league with a higher defensive versatility rating than Simmons.

The most versatile defenders in the NBA (2019-20)
Player Possessions Defended Versatility Rating
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (TOR) 1322.6 94.4
Jaylen Hoard (POR) 142.7 88.8
Adam Mokoka (CHI) 153.9 88.8
OG Anunoby (TOR) 2572.5 88.5
Dorian Finney-Smith (DAL) 2453.1 86.2
Iman Shumpert (BKN) 318.9 85.3
Pascal Siakam (TOR) 2556.8 84.9
James Harden (HOU) 3110.8 84.9
Draymond Green (GSW) 1688.0 84.6
Ben Simmons (PHI) 2574.2 84.4
Derrick Jones Jr. (MIA) 1675.1 84.1

Although he's capable of guarding every position of the court, Simmons has spent the bulk of his time matched up with point guards (22.0 percent), shooting guards (25.2 percent) and small forwards (25.4 percent) this season. His versatility in that regard becomes clear when looking at his matchup data, as he's been tasked with guarding the likes of Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and Trae Young the most, players at various positions with very different strengths and weaknesses.

That wasn't the case last season. Simmons was still among the most versatile defenders in the league - his defensive versatility rating was an almost identical 84.6 - but he guarded primarily power forwards (26.9 percent), followed by small forwards (23.5 percent) and shooting guards (21.3 percent).

Him guarding more point guards and less power forwards this season has nudged his defensive position down ever-so-slightly, from 2.9 to 2.7, meaning he's been somewhere between a shooting guard and small forward on the positional spectrum when looking at who he's matched up with the most.

You can see how his defensive position this season compares to previous years as well as other players in the league with the following chart made by Narsu.

If you factor in his height, Simmons truly is in a league of his own.

Why does this all matter?

Awkward as his fit can be offensively at times, Simmons has developed into the type of defender every team in the league is looking for in today's position-less NBA.

Need him to match up with a point guard? He has the speed to keep up with them off the dribble, as well as the length to swallow up passes and contest shots all over the court.

Need him to guard shooting guards? He's become one of the league's most menacing off-ball defenders. Not only is he leading the league in steals and loose balls recovered this season, he's among the league leaders in deflections.

No pass is safe when Simmons is on the court.

Additionally, Simmons has the size to guard both small forwards and power forwards. He put that on full display in last season's playoffs by serving as the primary defender on Kawhi Leonard in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Leonard still put up huge numbers in the series, but he was a different player when he was being defended by Simmons. According to NBA.com, Leonard shot 40.0 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from 3-point range on the possessions he was guarded by Simmons. He also had more turnovers (six) than assists (five).

Simmons isn't the only player in the NBA who can defend up to four positions, but there aren't many who can jump from position to position as seamlessly as he does, especially ones who stand at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot wingspan. It's particularly valuable to a 76ers team that has put together one of the more unique rosters in the league because he can basically guard whoever Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid can't when he's on the floor with them.

Because of the way they are constructed, that usually leaves him having to guard a lot more point guards and shooting guards than he had to in the past. If they didn't have someone who could do that next to Josh Richardson, the 76ers wouldn't have one of the best defensive ratings in the league this season. It's that simple.

All of this has helped form a strong Defensive Player of the Year case for Simmons. He's probably not going to win the award - our NBA.com Staff had him tied with Milwaukee Bucks centre Brook Lopez in third place when we voted on the leading Defensive Player of the Year candidates before the NBA season was suspended - but there's a chance he will be a finalist. And if he isn't, he is as close to a lock as there is to make one of the All-Defensive Teams for the first time in his career.

He's been that good.

There are many ways to measure how valuable a player is on defence. For Simmons, it all goes back to one particular number...

84.4

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