When Ben Simmons competes with a member of the Utah Jazz for a major award, the race tends to get a bit testy. In 2018, Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell wore a hoodie with the definition of the word "rookie" as part of his Rookie of the Year campaign against Simmons, as Simmons had sat out a year before beginning his career with the Philadelphia 76ers.
This season, he's competing with Jazz center Rudy Gobert for the Defensive Player of the Year award. His coach Doc Rivers recently called him a "lock" to win the award because "he guards every position," and that's a sentiment that Simmons agrees with. On a Tuesday appearance on "The Jump," Simmons noted that Gobert can't guard every position because when he tried to guard him, he dropped 42 points on the Jazz (h/t Ky Carlin of Sixers Wire).
"I'm one of those guys who can guard 1 through 5," 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. It is what it is, but I have a lot of respect for him. At the same time, I think it's mine this year."
Simmons averages only 14.8 points per game, and the 42 points he scored on Gobert was more than just a career high. It was also his only 30-point game of the season. It was just the latest in a tradition that bodes well for Simmons' candidacy. He defends the best player on the opposing roster, regardless of position. Yet when Gobert has taken on that task against top centers this season, the results have been less than ideal. Simmons' teammate, Joel Embiid, scored 40 on Gobert in a March matchup. Nikola Jokic averaged 41 in two matchups with Gobert this season. It creates a startling contrast between the two top defensive players in basketball. Simmons earns his money locking down opposing stars. Gobert has struggled in similar matchups.
That isn't to dispel Gobert's defensive value entirely, obviously. It just comes in a different form. Gobert is the NBA's best rim protector, and his presence is the driving force behind the NBA's fourth-ranked defense. He is such a deterrent at the basket that the rest of Utah's defenders can stay at home on shooters and prevent them from taking 3-pointers. The Jazz have the NBA's best record, thanks in large part to that defense, and unlike Simmons, Gobert doesn't have another elite defensive teammate supporting him. Simmons functions within Philadelphia's defense. Gobert is Utah's defense.
Similar arguments were made in favor of Mitchell in 2018. As a rookie on a team reeling from the loss of Gordon Hayward, he grabbed the keys to Utah's offense in the middle of the season and led the Jazz back into postseason. Simmons got to ease into the NBA on a team with Embiid and a number of other quality veterans. That didn't prevent voters from choosing him in 2018. If Simmons has his way, it won't in 2021 either.