The Whiteboard: Wild cards who could reshape the 2023-24 NBA season

Today on The Whiteboard, we're looking at three unlikely players who could pay a huge role in how the playoff race shapes up for the 2023-24 NBA season.
Feb 7, 2023; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons (10) celebrates after a basket
Feb 7, 2023; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons (10) celebrates after a basket / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Until the trade demands of James Harden and Damian Lillard are settled an enormous amount of chaos and uncertainty is baked into any projections or predictions about how the 2023-24 season will play out.

They are significant variables but also far from the only unknowns. As the season creeps closer I'm thinking about three potential wild cards who have been in the NBA news this week, players whose development, return or return to form has the potential to dramatically upend what we think of as the ceiling for their respective teams.

Wild cards who could reshape the 2023-24 NBA season

Ben Simmons: At this point, it's clear Ben Simmons is an unreliable narrator when it comes to his health, fitness level and preparedness for an NBA season. He said (again) he's in the best shape of his life. He said (again) he's ready to regain his reputation and start playing like a star. He said (again) he's ready to put his struggles with the 76ers behind him.

There's no reason to take Simmons at his word right now and it's probably safer to assume he's a net zero for the Nets. but, however unlikely, his return to (some kind of form) could be a game-changer. No one is expecting much from them this season and, without anything significant from Simmons, they are likely a fringe playoff team at best.

But they have the pieces to be very good defensively, leaning heavily on Nic Claxton, Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith, Dennis Smith Jr. and Royce O'Neale. Even when he was struggling offensively, Simmons was a uniquely versatile and borderline elite defender. If he can regain any of that magic this could be one of the best defensive teams in the Eastern Conference.

Mix that another offensive leap from Bridges and a breakout scoring season from someone like Cam Thomas or Lonnie Walker and the Nets could be firmly in the playoff mix and a very scary postseason matchup.

Jul 9, 2022; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren (7) reacts after a
Jul 9, 2022; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren (7) reacts after a / Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Chet Holmgren: The Thunder were a surprising postseason challenger last season and should be even better just on the basis of another year of experience for all the young players in their lineup. But they also made some key additions this offseason, including veteran sharpshooter Davis Bertans and former Euroleague MVP Vasilije Micić.

But the biggest addition, by far, should be former No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren, who missed all of his rookie season with a broken foot.

Holmgren's predraft profile was so unique — a slight, mobile 7-footer who blocked a ton of shots, drained 3-pointers and was comfortable handling the ball in transition — it's still hard to know what exactly will translate to the NBA. But any of his skills that materialize should directly address a significant weakness of the Thunder.

Oklahoma City was just an average 3-point shooting team and even if he's just a reliable spacing threat from the 4 or the 5 position, it will open things up for everyone else on their offense. His rim protection will be hugely important and make them much less vulnerable on the offensive glass, where they were absolutely crushed last season. And his grab-and-go ability in transition could make the Thunder one of the best fastbreak teams in the league.

The Thunder should be fighting for a playoff spot this year but if Holmgren is an immediate impact player they could be ready to challenge the power structure of the Western Conference much sooner than we think.

Apr 14, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (1) warms up
Apr 14, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (1) warms up / Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Edwards: He's generating plenty of buzz with his Team USA performance in the FIBA World Cup and has drawn comparisons to Dwyane Wade from Erik Spoelstra. Edwards has already put up numbers reminiscent of Wade but is still figuring out how to turn box score stats into team impact.

There are some small adjustments to Edwards' game that could have a huge impact for the Timberwolves — fewer contested jumpers, more time attacking the basket, more consistent defensive intensity, a better understanding of how he can use his tools to control a game.

These are the most important lessons he can take from his FIBA experience, while he's building confidence and practicing his leadership skills. Wade came back from his first Team USA experience — a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics — hungry and motivated, significantly increasing his true shooting percentage and making huge leaps in his points, rebounds, assists and blocks per minute. He led the Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals that season, losing to the Pistons in seven games.

A similar leap for Edwards — improving his efficiency, driving the Timberwolves with force, learning the ways in which will and skill can be enough to secure a win — could put Minnesota in the mix of contenders this season.

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