Ever since gracing the league two years ago, the story of Ben Simmons is one of a talented player inhibited by a few glaring faults. While poor shooting is chief among them, the case of occasional defensive lapses trails close behind.
The trade for Jimmy Butler was meant to not only relieve Ben Simmons of an overflow of creating duties but aide defensively too. It’s not that incumbent Robert Covington was an underwhelming defender — lest you forget he was first-team all defense last season — but poor footwork plagued his on-ball defense.
Brett Brown is hoping the addition of Jimmy Butler’s defensive presence is contagious, spreading to his new teammates, and especially to Simmons. The early returns have been promising — Simmons has had an 83.9 defensive rating the last two games — and the Sixers have harnessed promise in the form of a 9-2 record since the trade.
To show their newfound bond, Butler and Simmons — the last two games — wore matching white headbands. The headbands do more than just collect sweat, though, they symbolize the budding defensive friendship forming between the two stars.
After the Washington Wizards game, Brown’s eyes sparkled like a proud helicopter father, “They are defensive brothers. They are blood brothers. That [headband] to me signifies a bonding, a defensive bonding,” the Sixers coach said. “I’ve asked Jimmy to put Ben under his wing and really help Ben be all he can be defensive.”
Brown has entrusted Butler with mentoring his young star because the star small forward has the ethos of a dominant defender. The last three seasons, Butler has ranked top-five in steal percentage and last season, he rated eighth in D-PIPM according to B-Ball Index.
How Simmons has shown Improvement Defensively
The first improvement has materialized in Simmons’ footwork. Before, it was often that his stance was narrow, with his hands withered by his side — inherently allowing his opponent to burst by him with any sleight of hand skill-move.
Whereas now, he spreads his legs wide, shoulders pressed forward, with his hands in a prime position to pop a dribbler’s bubble. He pairs the improved footwork with a clear knowledge of personnel on multiple possessions against the Grizzlies and Wizards.
Here, Simmons tags Jeff Green until Butler can fully recover to meet Beal at the three-point line. From there, he forces the shooting guard to the middle:
In a side ball-screen, Simmons ices Kyle Anderson to the baseline. Not only that, he swings his arms side to side, trying to disrupt Anderson’s vision:
Simmons forces Oubre baseline again — to his right hand too — and stifles him at the rim:
In transition, he backpedals and forces John Wall to his weaker right hand:
In the Wizards game, Simmons guarded Jeff Green — who shoots 30.6% from three. He did a good job of allowing him to shoot while taking away cutting lanes. Here, Simmons stunts to Bradley Beal’s drive then recovers to Jeff Green. Simmons knew Green was adept at cutting and aiming to finish inside — where he shoots 35% of his field goals.
When Simmons wasn’t forcing players to their weaknesses on the court, he was displaying keen pick and roll defense.
On Washington’s fourth possession, Jimmy Butler was guarding Kelly Oubre. First, Thomas Bryant flare screens for Kelly Oubre from the top. Next, Jeff Green set a stampede screen on Butler.
Instead of sagging into drop coverage, Simmons steps up to guard Kelly Oubre. While he was whistled for the ticky-tack foul, he gets down in a stance and shifts Oubre multiple times:
The above sequence is evidence that Jimmy Butler has never played with a versatile defender like Simmons. In theory, Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns were molded similarly, but both left crumbs to be desired in their physicality when defending the paint or perimeter.
With the energy Simmons is bringing to the battle, on the other hand, he is capable of going to war with either the go-to perimeter option or dominant post player.
“[Ben] makes everybody’s job easier,” Butler noted after the Washington Wizards game. “Not just on the offensive end but for sure on the defensive end. He can literally switch one through five.”
Simmons is long, wide, and quick enough to guard the rookie center, Jaren Jackson Jr.
Waiting for Gasol’s twirl, Simmons pounces on the ball to kickstart the fast break:
Only possessions later, Simmons is jostling for position, then shuts the window on a sneaky Marc Gasol post-feed:
Ben Simmons growing into his new role as a more active and versatile defender is symbiotic for each side involved.
The 76ers most commonly deploy the 5-man lineup of Simmons, Redick, Butler, Chandler, and Embiid. For them, Simmons’ cat-like reflexes softens the blow of Redick’s lead-footed perimeter defense and Chandler’s post mishaps. Quite simply, having a versatile wing defender never hurts, especially in the upcoming playoffs where the Sixers may be pitted against the likes of Jayson Tatum and Kawhi Leonard.
If anything, the headband brotherhood confirms that the relationship of Butler and Simmons is going smoothly, erasing all worries of the two clashing heads.
“I see a partnership with those two. I think that Ben Simmons can be anything he wants to be defensively.” Brett Brown said. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I think his easiest way of impacting an NBA game, right now, is at the defensive end.”
Overall, Simmons’ defensive improvement — stretched out the full year — will ease Butler’s burden. Having Butler’s legs fresh for late game offensive opportunities is essential — as it proved in games versus the Nets and Hornets — and something to keep an eye on moving forward.
While shooting may be a weakness forever ingrained in the model of Ben Simmons, his defense is upgradable, and the last two games provided us the blueprint for a brighter future in that regard.