The end of the NBA’s regular season is often said to be the least consequential part of the calendar, but it does offer intrigue on two levels: teams jockeying for playoff (or draft lottery) position, and players making their final push for individual awards.
The MVP race always gets the most attention, but Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic should have it about wrapped up. Jokic had a strong case to be considered the front-runner for MVP even before top competitors Joel Embiid and LeBron James missed long stretches with injuries, and none of the other challengers — Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Damian Lillard — have done enough to surpass him as the best player of the regular season.
More interesting is the race for Defensive Player of the Year. Two-time winner Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz feels like the favorite, both because of his enormous impact on that end and because voters will likely want to show the Jazz some love for finishing with the best record in the NBA. Gobert isn’t exactly a lock to win the award, though: Embiid and teammate Ben Simmons have each made a strong case with their play and have begun publicly touting themselves for the honor.
The one thing you’ve been saying to the press consistently this year is: “I’m the Defensive Player of the Year!” What has sparked that in you? Because we don’t often hear you make a claim like that so frequently.
It’s the same with people all around me. I tell them all the time, “Yo! I’m Defensive Player of the Year.” I’m not even questioning it right now. I know I am. That’s a fact. And numbers, certain stats, are cool with certain players. But, at the end of the day, you know….The example would be last night. I was supposed to guard [Kevin Durant]. We match up well size wise. KD’s out. The next person I’m guarding is Kyrie [Irving]. Like, who’s doing that? It’s not many players who are doing that. And to be doing it at a high level like that? I don’t think there’s anybody else really doing that. I mean, Kawhi [Leonard] when he was really playing defense like that, of course. But, it’s not too many guys.
Simmons also hyped up his Defensive Player of the Year case in a recent interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols at the expense of Gobert.
“I’m one of those guys who can guard one through five,” Simmons said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of respect for Rudy. I know what he’s capable of. I know he’s great down there in the paint. But he’s not guarding everybody, and that’s just what it is. He guarded me in Utah. I had 42. And apparently I’m not a scorer.”
A few days earlier, Embiid made his own Defensive Player of the Year case when appearing on the The Lowe Post podcast with ESPN’s Zach Lowe. In a wide-ranging conversation on his season and career, Embiid said he should win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.
On DPOY, Embiid said: “I want to be Defensive Player of the Year. I should be Defensive Player of the Year.”
Embiid then supported Simmons’ case: “He’s been a monster defensively all season,” Embiid said. “I do think he should win it. He has an impact on the court, especially every single night guarding the other teams best player … I’m not fighting about it.”
Embiid said that Simmons wants to win it and said he is deserving of it. He also said he wants the award at some point in his career and has a deserving case himself.
The Sixers are currently No. 2 in defensive rating in the NBA, only behind the Lakers. Both players have a strong case for the award, but only one can win it. With that caveat that Gobert is the front-runner, and Atlanta’s Clint Capela also deserves strong consideration, let’s quickly dive in and try to figure out who has the better case between Embiid and Simmons.
Does Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons have the better Defensive Player of the Year case?
Let’s state the obvious up front. Embiid is a 7-foot center — that’s what he’s officially listed at, though many have speculated he’s taller — who protects the paint. Simmons is a more versatile defender who covers guards, forwards, and some centers while being listed at 6’11.
For a player who faced questions about his motor when he entered the draft, Simmons has left no doubt he’s one of the league’s premier defenders through the start of his career in Philly. He may be the league’s best perimeter defender and the league’s most switchable defender. He’s incredibly quick on his feet, does a great job flying over screens, and is one of the league’s best at generating steals. His 2.3 percent steal rate ranks No. 16 in the NBA right now.
Here are some highlights of Simmons defensively.
Embiid isn’t as fun to watch on defense as Simmons is, but his ability to lock down the paint has been crucial for the Sixers all year. Embiid has a 4.0 percent block rate that ranks No. 17 in the NBA, and he’s No. 6 in defensive rebound rate. That Embiid is able to perform at this level defensively while also averaging 30 points per game on offense and having the league’s second highest usage rate is a spectacular achievement.
Embiid and Simmons are neck-and-neck in individual defensive rating, where Embiid currently places No. 4 and Simmons sits at No. 7. Embiid has a bigger advantage in defensive RAPTOR — an all-in-one stat by FiveThirtyEight — where he’s currently No. 4 and Simmons is No. 44.
The Sixers’ on/off data also slightly favors Embiid — remember, lower is better with this stat. With Embiid on the floor, the Sixers have a defensive rating 105.1. With Simmons on the floor, the Sixers have a defensive rating of 106.7. With Embiid on the bench, Philly’s defensive rating is 106.3. With Simmons on the bench, Philly’s defensive rating is 104.3.
Simmons is must-see TV on the defensive end, but Embiid is our pick as the slightly more valuable defensive player.
Gobert is probably going to win, and would be deserving of the award. Embiid has had an absolutely amazing season on both ends, though. If he can’t win MVP because Jokic has been slightly better, it would be great to see him win DPOY.