Ben Simmons vs Joel Embiid: Who Deserves Defensive Player of the Year?

Jan 6, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and guard Ben Simmons (25) react in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter against the Washington Wizards at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

While Ben Simmons has been outspoken throughout the season regarding his belief that he deserves to win the 2021 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, 76ers teammate Joel Embiid just threw his hat in the ring as well.

“I want to be Defensive Player of the Year. I should be Defensive Player of the Year.”

Joel Embiid

That quote from Zach Lowe’s “The Lowe Post” podcast came right around Simmons’ latest self-endorsement for the award. Simmons cited versatility as his primary argument following Philadelphia’s 123-117 win over Brooklyn on Thursday night. It is noteworthy that Kyrie Irving defended by Simmons scored 37 points on 59.1% shooting in the loss.

“I was supposed to guard [Kevin Durant]. We match up well size-wise. KDs out. The next person Im guarding is Kyrie [Irving], Simmons told GQ’s Tyler R. Tynes. Like, whos doing that? Its not many players who are doing that. And to be doing it at a high level like that? I dont think theres anybody else really doing that. I mean, Kawhi [Leonard] when he was really playing defense like that, of course. But its not too many guys.

It is very possible that neither Simmons nor Embiid ends up winning Defensive Player of the Year. In fact, it was Jazz center Rudy Gobert who led the NBA’s latest Defensive Player Ladder. But if a 76er were to win it, one question remains.

Will it be Simmons or Embiid?

The Numbers

February 9, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21, left) and guard Ben Simmons (25, right) during the second quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In the modern world of advanced statistics, steals and blocks alone just don’t cut it anymore. There are a plethora of other numbers to consider when determining the victor of any award race DPOY included.

Simmons has produced 2.8 defensive win shares thus far, beating out Embiid and his 2.5 defensive win shares. Simmons also leads in Defensive Box Plus/Minus, with his total of +1.8 coming in above Embiid’s total of +1.4.

As far as steals and blocks go, Simmons leads in steals while Embiid leads in blocks no surprise when comparing a point guard and a center. Simmons averages 1.6 steals and 0.6 blocks per game; Embiid averages 1.0 steals and 1.4 blocks.

Interestingly enough, Embiid possesses a better defensive rating. With Embiid on the court, the team allows an average of 103 points per 100 possessions. With Simmons on the court, the team allows an average of 106 points.

The Verdict

Statistically, both players have a case with Simmons’ argument probably being slightly stronger. But numbers don’t always tell the full story.

As Simmons’ stated in his quote following the Nets game, defensive versatility is a key part of his argument something that is not reflected through stats.

It’s also what caught 2008 NBA champion Kendrick Perkins’ eye.

On ESPN’s “The Jump”, Perkins declared Simmons his pick for Defensive Player of the Year, citing his ability to guard any position as his reasoning. He then pointed out a defensive performance against Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic from Feb. 25 that few other players in the NBA are capable of.

Guarded by Simmons, Doncic finished with just 19 points in addition to 7 turnovers. Philadelphia also came away with the win.

Between Simmons and Embiid, the Defensive Player of the Year award is ultimately more likely to go to Simmons. And rightfully so. Not to mention, Embiid is eyeing a more prestigious regular-season award: the MVP.

Whether or not Simmons will actually come away with his first career Defensive Player of the Year award this year remains to be seen. However, it is clear that he believes he has earned it and that Gobert is unworthy of the crown.

“I know [Gobert is] great down there in the paint, but he’s not guarding everybody and that’s just what it is. He guarded me in Utah [when] I had 42 [points] and apparently I’m not a scorer,” Simmons said on “The Jump” about Gobert, who has already won the award twice.

Gobert leads the NBA with 160 total blocks and is second behind Myles Turner with 2.9 blocks per game. He is also first with 4.1 defensive win shares while his 100.7 defensive rating leads the league as well. It goes without saying that dethroning the 7’1″ big man will be a tall task.

The 76ers currently sit atop the Eastern Conference with a 39-17 record. The team’s defensive rating of 108.02 also leads the East, coming in second in the NBA behind only the Lakers. Clearly, Philadelphia’s two biggest stars vying for the same Defensive Player of the Year title provides a friendly competition that only helps the team as a whole.

Meaning a metaphoric sibling rivalry in the City of Brotherly Love isn’t all that bad.

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