Sixers defensive struggles in loss to Pistons highlight the value of Ben Simmons


Blake Griffin, who had the game-winning three-point play with 1.8 seconds left in overtime, led all scorers with a career high of 50. Point guard Ish Smith added 21 off the bench for Detroit, keeping Dwyane Casey undefeated in his first three games as the Pistons’ head coach.

For Philadelphia, center Joel Embiid led the way with 33 points and 11 rebounds, and JJ Redick added 30 points off the bench.  The loss moves the Sixers to 2-2 on the season.

At one point, it looked like the Sixers were going to cruise to their 3rd straight win to go to 3-1 on the season.  Markelle Fultz was comfortable filling in at point guard for Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid recovered from early foul trouble to lead the Sixers to a 3-point halftime lead.

The Sixers increased their lead to 10 at one point in the 3rd quarter and entered the 4th with an eight-point lead.  From there, the lead diminished due to the offensive play of Blake Griffin and Ish Smith and the game went into overtime, which the Sixers subsequently lost.

So many things of importance happened in this game. Fultz broke out and played very well as a distributor in place of Ben Simmons but was left out of the game during crunch time and overtime; Joel Embiid dominated Andre Drummond, dropping 33 points despite making none of his six 3-point attempts; JJ Redick made mistakes on defense, and more than made up with them on clutch shots, including a go-ahead 4-point play to make it 132-130 Sixers.

However, what really stood out was poor defense from the Sixers all night long.  While Blake Griffin still deserves all the credit, as he had a truly special night, the Sixers allowed him to get easy buckets inside and gave him room to take good outside shots as well.  It is hard to ignore how the result could have been different with Simmons on the floor, as the second-year player from LSU was out with back tightness.

Simmons’ positional flexibility gives the Sixers the unique ability to have a point guard that can defend well on any switches 1-4.  Switches against the Pistons would have led to Simmons guarding Griffin, who erupted for the best game of his career.  With Simmons out, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and Mike Muscala were all forced to deal with Griffin throughout the night

Dario Saric has never been a good defensive player, so his struggles tonight should come as no surprise.  His struggles have been somewhat masked because of plus defenders in Embiid, Simmons, and Covington on the court, but no Simmons meant Saric would be exposed consistently throughout the night.

This clip is one of several where Saric struggles to give Griffin any contest in the paint.  Saric does not have the athleticism to keep up with the post move from the former Clipper, who slips right by him for an easy two.

Watch as Griffin pulls a similar move on Saric, this time finishing with a reverse layup:

On both plays, Saric simply cannot keep up with the combination of strength and athleticism of Griffin.  This means Griffin can score without a challenge, giving Embiid no time to give help at the rim and making it way too easy on the opponent.

Simmons is strong enough to give big men trouble in the post, and athletic enough to keep up with any moves they use to get by him.  Even if Simmons couldn’t stop Griffin’s move that he used against Dario, he could have kept up with him and contested the shot.

Saric was not the only Sixer to struggle with Griffin on Tuesday night.  Covington struggled to stay in front of Griffin, who has a clear size advantage over the 5th year forward.  Watch this clip, as Griffin plows through Covington, getting the easy basket and and-1 call.

Covington, who was first team All-Defense last season is clearly a great defender. However, he doesn’t match up well with Griffin, who used his combination of size, strength, and quickness to get by him.

Simmons is just an inch taller than Covington but weighs 25 pounds more, giving him the strength to match up with bigger, stronger players in the NBA. In this case, Simmons could have gotten in front of Griffin and stop him from getting all the way inside to the basket.

It wasn’t only the inside game that was working for Griffin, who made five 3-pointers on ten attempts. Many of these attempts came far too easy for Griffin as defenders were forced to respect his ability to work the ball inside if they were caught leaning.  The space given up by this, however, made it easy for Griffin to get hot from deep.

Watch Mike Muscala on this fourth quarter play, as he anticipates a Griffin drive and gives him room to attempt a 3.

One of Simmons’ best defensive skills is contesting jump-shots even when he has a long way to go to do so. Watch this clip against the Celtics, as Simmons comes out of nowhere to contest the 3-point attempt from Gordon Hayward earlier this season.

It didn’t matter who was guarding Griffin, who dominated the Sixers defense the whole game and willed his team to a win. This likely would not have been the case, however, with Ben Simmons on the floor.

Simmons’ unique combination of size, length, strength, and athleticism give him an automatic advantage on the defensive end of the floor.  He was not expected to excel early in his career on defense, but he has proven himself in his year plus to be a capable defender.  This makes Simmons just as, if not more, valuable as a defender as he is on offense.

Especially since there are holes elsewhere on defense, it is important for Ben Simmons to stay healthy.  With Joel Embiid protecting the rim, a versatile defender in Simmons coupled with athletic players in Robert Covington and Markelle Fultz can transform this defense from good to great throughout the season.


Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports