Could Ben Simmons still make All-NBA or All-Defensive selections, despite downtime?

Ben Simmons was having an excellent season, only to be derailed by a back injury in the Philadelphia 76ers’ first game back after the All-Star break, against the Milwaukee Bucks. According to Adrian Wojnarowski in late February, the Aussie suffered an impingement in his lower back and would be re-evaluated in two weeks.

Simmons’ back injury seems to be quite serious, as Wojnarowski stated that “there’s little expectation that he’d return to the lineup that soon [two weeks].” One could assume it is very likely he misses all remaining regular season contests, meaning he could end up on a mark of 54 games – a figure that might diminish the likelihood of him garnering enough votes for the end of season awards. Yet, all is not lost. There have still been players who have earned these accolades, despite missing games. Members of the media, which are selected officially by the NBA, are given the responsibility to vote for the three All-NBA and the two All-Defensive Teams (and All-Rookie Teams, but that's not relevant for Simmons) at the conclusion of the regular season.

All-NBA Teams

This season, according to NBA.com, Simmons is putting up 16.7 points per game and 8.2 assists, with the latter being a career high and fifth in the league. He is scoring efficiently, too - 58% from the field, which would be a career high and eighth in the league (first among point guards).

Defensively, the LSU product has been a menace, stealing the ball 2.1 times a game (first in the league), as well as averaging four deflections a game and recovering loose balls 1.7 times a game (top two for both).

This sort of impact, numbers and contribution to winning would usually put a player in consideration for around the 3rd All-NBA Team. To put that into perspective, last year’s All-NBA 3rd Team guards, Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook, both put up higher numbers, yet both players didn’t impact games on defence like Simmons has this year. Additionally, Walker’s team, the Charlotte Hornets, did not make the playoffs (76ers are an almost certain lock at this point), while Westbrook’s team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, underperformed and eventually dissolved after their early playoff exit.

Ahead of Simmons this year though, at the guard position, arguably include Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Luka Doncic, and Damian Lillard. All of them are putting up incredible numbers and their teams, bar Lillard, are in the playoff hunt. This means there’s hypothetically two spots remaining on the final team.

Other guards competing with Simmons for those remaining spots would most likely be Donovan Mitchell, DeMar DeRozan, Kemba Walker and Chris Paul, barring the chances of a spontaneous late season push by an outside candidate. Trae Young and Bradley Beal are possibilities, but both their teams are performing quite poorly.

  • Mitchell is having a fantastic year. He is putting career highs in points (24.6) and field goal percentage (46%). Yet, the Utah Jazz, much like the Sixers, have had a bit of a roller coaster year, which might play into the minds of voters.

  • DeRozan, steady as always, is scoring efficiently at a clip of 22.2 points a game on 53% shooting – by far a career high. While this is impressive, the San Antonio Spurs most likely missing out on the playoffs will take a hit to DeRozan’s chances.

  • Kemba Walker is also having a great year – 21.7 points a game to go along with five assists, while the Boston Celtics are flying right now in the third seed. Walker also missing games (he will play less than 70 guaranteed at this point) will give his 3rd Team chances a slight hit.

  • Chris Paul has turned back the clock and is leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to an expected playoff berth, even after many critics road him and his team off before the season started. He is putting up 17.7 points and 6.8 assists, but, his defence is not what it used to be. He is also being supported well by backcourt partner Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, which will take a hit to his candidacy (some voters will side with "CP3" and some with "SGA", theoretically meaning they'll split votes).

Right now, Walker and Mitchell would most likely edge over Simmons for those two remaining spots. Favouring the other players, besides the fact that Simmons will miss a lot of games, is the potential for recency bias to sneak into play - meaning voters will see the other players fresh in their memories when the ballot is due, unlike Simmons who they last would have seen in February.

Although 54 games is quite low, there is some past evidence that shows players who missed a chunk of games, but still made teams. Here is a list of players in the last decade who missed around 25% of their games, and still made an All-NBA Team.

All NBA Teams

2018/191st Team:

2nd Team: Kawhi Leonard (60 games)

3rd Team: LeBron James (55 games)

2017/181st Team:

2nd Team:

3rd Team: Jimmy Butler (59 games), Steph Curry (51 games)

2016/171st Team:

2nd Team:

3rd Team:

2015/161st Team:

2nd Team:

3rd Team:

2014/151st Team:

2nd Team: DeMarcus Cousins (59 games)

2013/141st Team:

2nd Team:

3rd Team:

2012/131st Team:

2nd Team:

3rd Team:

2011/12 (Lockout year - 66 total games)1st Team: Derrick Rose (39 games)

2nd Team: Dwyane Wade (49 games)

3rd Team:

2010/111st Team:

2nd Team:

3rd Team:

2009/101st Team:

2nd Team:

3rd Team:

There has been an upward trend in players being selected who have played less games – this might be the independent media voters (or 120 plus voters pre-2017, before it was reduced strictly to 100) showing a better appreciation for load management --and seeing less games as a necessary part of health management-- in some respects, when they cast their votes. Three players have been selected when they have played 55 games or less though (39 for Rose in the lockout year), with two of them being guards, proving Simmons’ chances aren’t entirely lost.

Yet, when you analyse those three players' seasons, they likely had better cases than that of Simmons in this season. Curry in 2017/18 made the 3rd All-NBA Team, but his numbers and influence on winning that year is subjectively more than that of Simmons this year, plus his stature as a two-time MVP winner would no doubt have helped. LeBron James last year played 55, but his reputation and numbers likely played a factor. Rose in the 2011 lockout year played less percentage of games than Simmons has this year, but he was fresh off an MVP season and consistently dominated games when he played in them.

All-Defensive Teams

For Simmons, a maiden All-Defensive Team selection is much more likely than an All-NBA selection. The locks this year are likely to be Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis. All of them impact games with their incredible size, athleticism and defensive instincts, and have all been voted on defensive teams before. Fortunately for Simmons, these players are all forwards or centres, meaning the guard slots don't have any certainties at this point.

Competition for the guard spots, when considering statistics and the eye test (players who visibly impact games defensively) will most likely be Eric Bledsoe, Marcus Smart, Patrick Beverly, Paul George, Gary Harris, Jrue Holiday and Danny Green.

Simmons is arguably in pole position when you look at metrics such as defensive rating, steals, deflections, loose balls recovered and opponent field goal percentage.

All-Defensive guard candidates stat rankings

Ben Simmons106.9 defensive rating (sixth), 2.1 steals (first), 4.0 deflections (second), 1.7 loose balls recovered (first), 41.3% (=fifth)Eric Bledsoe98.9 defensive rating (first), 0.9 steals (seventh), 1.6 deflections (seventh), 1.2 loose balls recovered (=fourth), 40.5% defensively (second) Marcus Smart104.3 defensive rating (third), 1.7 steals (=second), 3.2 deflections (third), 1.2 loose balls recovered (=fourth), 41.3% (=fifth)Patrick Beverley104.1 defensive rating (second), 1.1 steals (sixth), 2.4 deflections (sixth), 1.4 loose balls recovered (=second), 41.2% defensively (fourth)Gary Harris107.1 (seventh), 1.3 steals per game, 1.3 steals (fourth), 2.5 deflections (fifth), 1.0 loose balls recovered (sixth), 39.6% defensively (first)Jrue Holiday105.9 (fifth), 1.7 steals per game, 1.7 steals (=second), 4.1 deflections (first), 1.4 loose balls recovered (=second), 40.7% defensively (third)Danny Green105.2 defensive rating (fourth), 1.2 steals (fifth), 2.6 deflections (fourth), 0.8 loose balls recovered (seventh), 49% defensively (seventh)

Simmons and Holiday have the best statistics of all candidates. When conducting the eye test, Simmons’ case is actually enhanced. Like Smart, Simmons can adequately defend one through five – he can keep up with smaller guards like D’Angelo Russell, lock down scoring wings like Jayson Tatum, or even limit some centres, like Jarrett Allen – this type of versatility is something the media voters (or head coaches, who all used to vote for defensive teams before the 2013/14 season) likely look at as they fill in their separate ballot at season's end, for the All-Defensive Teams.

Simmons has also been involved in many late game defensive efforts that have willed his side to victory. The video below shows several clutch defensive plays when his team has needed it most.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chg41nNpfWk

The amount of games Simmons’ once again might be an issue – but players who miss games and still make NBA All-Defensive teams are much more common than All-NBA teams. Here is a list of players who have been selected when missing 25% of total games.

All-Defensive Teams

2018/191st Team:

2nd Team: Kawhi Leonard (60 games)

2017/181st Team: Rudy Gobert (56 games)

2nd Team: Jimmy Butler (59 games)

2016/171st Team:

2nd Team:

2015/161st Team:

2nd Team:

2014/151st Team:

2nd Team:

2013/141st Team:

2nd Team: Pat Beverley (56 games)

2012/131st Team:

2nd Team: Avery Bradley (50 games)

2011/12 (Lockout year - 66 total games)1st Team:

2nd Team:

2010/111st Team:

2nd Team: Joakim Noah (48 games)

2009/101st Team:

2nd Team:

As seen, six players have played 60 games or lower in the last decade and still made a team, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented for Simmons to do so as well.

Considering statistics and the eye test, it’s still possible Simmons takes one of the guard spots on the All-Defensive first team. Jrue Holiday is the only one on his level right now, but his team is also not in the top eight out West. Other competitors like Smart, Bledsoe and Beverley have similarly missed a handful of games, and haven’t quite had the same impact as Holiday or Simmons.

A way in which Simmons’ case can be improved while recovering is if Philadelphia’s defence gets considerably worse while he is out. Currently, it is hard to tell because Philadelphia’s other two best defenders, Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson, have missed some games, which creates noise for this particular discussion.

Simmons' return might be before the regular season, and if that’s the case then his chances for these teams might improve. But, if Simmons is out for the rest of the regular season an NBA All-Defensive Team seems more possible, as opposed to an All-NBA Team selection.