Mix two defensive player of the year awards with a pair of hands that are unrealistically large, sprinkle in a 6-foot-7 frame and 7-3 wingspan, add a dash of elite offensive talent, and pour it over a base of quiet confidence layered with the instincts of a hardwood killer.
It’s a recipe for a Ben Simmons problem. His name is Kawhi Leonard.
Brett Brown said Thursday that the 76ers would not rely completely on Simmons to guard Leonard, having other options available on the roster, but it’s not necessarily Leonard’s offense that the Sixers need to be worried about. It’s his defense, and specifically the way Leonard has defended Simmons.
There’s a statistic that has been used recently that on the surface is unnerving. In the three games — all losses — in which Simmons has faced Leonard this season, he has committed 24 turnovers. Digging in a little closer, Leonard was directly responsible for just nine of the 24 turnovers, and five of them were from the Sixers and Raptors’ first contest on Oct. 30.
Though Leonard is not the sole reason that Simmons coughs up miscues against the Toronto squad, he impacts Simmons’ game in many ways. Because of his lateral quickness and general defensive intelligence, Leonard is able to cheat off Simmons in order to be a more readily available help defend off the ball, while still being a threat when Simmons drives.
Additionally, when the Sixers are able to force a switch and get Leonard onto another man, what that does is put Leonard in the way of one of Simmons’ offensive options. Leonard is able to guard any player on the court, so even if he’s not in Simmons’ face, he’s still cutting off a passing option or denying an entry pass elsewhere.
When Brown was asked Thursday what he could do to free up Simmons against Leonard, he played it close to the vest.
“Obviously I’m not going to tell you,” he said. “I understand that our history of a lack of success is a real topic. I’d remind everyone that we’ve never played [the Raptors] with the team we have. So the context needs to be somewhat considered."
It is fair to argue that the Sixers have not played the Raptors with their full arsenal of an All-Star-packed starting lineup, and that means that Toronto will have more to deal with defensively with the Sixers than it ever has. Hiding Kyle Lowry on defense is not as simple as it once was, and if any one of the Sixers players gets open, it’s more of an offensive threat than it has been.
Although the Sixers have more star power, that fact does not negate Leonard’s success or his ability to rattle an opponent no matter which player he is guarding.
The Sixers are going to need Simmons to dig in, play disciplined, and aggressively attack when given the opportunity in this Eastern Conference semifinal series. More than anything, Simmons and Brown will have to show their ability to react flexibly when things aren’t going as planned and be ready for Leonard to react just as quickly.