The Whiteboard: How Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren could make history

Today on The Whiteboard, how Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama could make history, the Celtics' weakness, homecourt advantage and more.

Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs
Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs / Brien Aho/GettyImages

Victor Wembanyama made some headlines yesterday answering a question about the Defensive Player of the Year race. Wembanyama said that Rudy Gobert clearly deserved it this year but that he planned to win it every year after that.

Gobert is the clear front-runner and it's unlikely that Wembanyama wins Defensive Player of the Year, especially considering he's the overwhelming favorite to win Rookie of the Year. But he will almost certainly get some votes, as will fellow rookie Chet Holmgren — a remarkably rare occurrence in NBA history.

Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama could make Defensive Player of the Year history

A rookie has never won Defensive Player of the Year and, as CBS pointed out earlier this year, the youngest players to ever win it were Jaren Jackson Jr., Kawhi Leonard, Dwight Howard and Alvin Robertson, all at the age of 23.

Jackson Jr. was in his fourth NBA season but had previously received votes, finishing fifth the previous year. Leonard was also in his fourth season but had finished 11th in the voting the year prior, as well as earning a spot on the second-team, All-Defense. Howard was in his fifth season when he won but already had a second-team All-Defense selection under his belt, and had received DPOY votes in three of his previous four seasons, finishing as high as seventh.

Robertson was just in his second season when he won but was an outlier for a few reasons. He more than doubled his steals per game average from his first to his second season — from 1.6 to a league-leading 3.7 — the primary driver of his selection. He also won in just the fourth year of the award's existence so there was very little precedent pushing against him.

In the history of the Award, only two rookies have ever finished in the top-5 in voting — Manute Bol finished second after averaging 5.0 blocks per game in the 1985-86 season, and Tim Duncan who almost instantly became a defensive anchor for the San Antonio Spurs in the 1997-98 season, and finished fifth.

There's a good chance that both Holmgren and Wembanyama finish in the top six or seven in DPOY voting this year, with Wembanyama finishing as high as second. Holmgren has helped anchor a top-five defense, averaging 2.6 blocks per game and ranking as one of the most impactful rim protectors in the entire league.

The Spurs' defense is a hot mess but Wembanyama has been just as effective in general rim protection metrics while leading the league in blocks at 3.4 per game and chipping in 1.3 steals. He's on track to become just the second rookie in NBA history to average at least 3 blocks and 1 steal per game, along with David Robinson.

By VORP, both players already rank among the 30 most productive rookie seasons in NBA history, with a little less than a quarter of the season still to go. They have been uniquely impactful, particularly on the defensive end, and there's a good chance they, collectively, make history in the Defensive Player of the Year voting when it's all said and done.

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Nov 6, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kyle Anderson (5) looks to
Nov 6, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kyle Anderson (5) looks to / Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Three: Chris Kline on the Celtics, homecourt advantage and NBA Draft matches

FanSided's NBA Draft expert, Chris Kline, just finished his latest NBA Draft Big Board and he's joining us today to answer three questions about the Celtics, homecourt advantage in the Western Conference and favorite pairings between teams and draft prospects.

1. By all appearances, this is the best Celtics team of the past decade. How much do the ways in which they're improved matter in the playoffs?

The easiest starting point for this conversation is Kristaps Porzingis. That trade catalyzed Boston's leap forward and cemented the Celtics as pretty clear frontrunners in the East. The postseason is a different beast and Porzingis doesn't have a ton of high-level experience in that regard, but he's such a major force on both ends that it's hard to picture him not succeeding.

In Porzingis, the Celtics have one of the NBA's top rim protectors, healthy — Rob Williams could have filled that role, but he was never on the floor — and a true gravitational force on offense. Considering how balanced the rest of the lineup is, especially on defense, it's no wonder that Porzingis has helped Boston paper over so many flaws. Boston has plus defenders at every other position in the starting lineup; Porzingis empowers them to operate with more aggression, more confidence. On offense, he improves the Celtics' spacing tenfold.

That said, we have still seen Boston stall late in games. The offense has a maddening habit of grinding to a halt at the most inopportune time. It doesn't always matter when you're playing from ahead in the regular season, but mistakes are magnified in the playoffs. We've seen the story time and time again with his Celtics team. Some of that probably falls on Joe Mazzulla, who does a perfectly adequate, if uninspiring job with the league's best roster. The Celtics are lucky to play in the East, where the best teams are all run by coaches with spotty postseason track records — Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau, J.B. Bickerstaff, and so forth. Frankly, only Nick Nurse laps the field, and the Sixers aren't healthy enough to pose a threat this season.

When one zooms out and considers the Celtics' end goal, however, I think it's fair to wonder how Mazzulla can duel schematically with the likes of Mike Malone, or Mark Daigneault, or Ty Lue. Boston's stars have to prove it, too. A lot of it comes down to the late-game decision-making of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Both have grown in that regard this season, but how much? There are probably, what, seven or eight true superstars who feel like championship anchors in any given year. Is Tatum at the bottom of that ladder? Until the Celtics can get over the hump, maybe.

2. Who needs to win the No. 1 seed in the West the most (either for momentum, bragging rights, confidence and/or homecourt advantage) — Thunder, Nuggets or Timberwolves?

It's tough to say. The Nuggets definitely don't need it. Denver can finish fifth and I'd probably still pick them to come out of the West. There isn't a more cohesive, selfless team in the NBA, and Nikola Jokic is the best player in any series. The real debate is between OKC and Minnesota.

Karl-Anthony Towns' injury status down the stretch probably plays a role here. The Wolves are the more experienced group, but Minnesota's core still has not been deep into the playoffs — and never past the first round together. Rudy Gobert is the best defensive anchor in the NBA, but we have seen what happens to Gobert teams in the playoffs before. Can Minnesota change the narrative? Is the offense good enough for the elite defense to carry them? Minnesota feels like a team built more for the regular season, even if they match up particularly well with the West's heavy-hitters in Denver and OKC. That was no doubt by design.

OKC is constantly shrouded in the unknowability of youth. Every conversation about the Thunder as potential contenders is served with that caveat — but they're young. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a bonafide MVP candidate. OKC has advantage-creators, high-I.Q. passers, and above-average defenders at virtually every position. That team also competes like hell, with a couple clutch gods in SGA and Jalen Williams. So, were it not for the incredible youth of the roster, it would be easy to pick Minnesota as the team that needs home court most. But, OKC is young, and young teams don't tend to fare well in the playoffs. It generally takes time for iron to sharpen iron, so to speak. Maybe OKC bucks that trend, but it's tough to say.

I'm still leaning Minnesota here, but the burden of proof is certainly on OKC. The Thunder are looking to really exceed the expectations associated with their timeline.

3. The 2024 NBA Draft is still months away but, right now, what's your favorite match between draft prospect and lottery-bound team?

I'll give a few, because why not?

This is not new territory, but Nikola Topic and the Spurs feel destined for one another. I continue to rank Topic No. 1 on my board, even though he has missed a couple months with a knee ailment. In a draft devoid of obvious star talent, I'm inclined to bet on the 6-foot-6 point guard who can get wherever he wants on the floor and finish with absurd touch around the basket. Topic has a lot to prove on defense, but he would have an all-world backstop behind him in San Antonio. The Spurs need a point guard to set up Wembanyama for some easy looks. Topic is a rim pressure machine that looks right at home working out of pick-and-rolls. Make it happen.

Reed Sheppard has been soaring up boards lately. I'd love to see him in Detroit. The Pistons need winners and shooters; Sheppard checks both boxes. There is natural apprehension about Detroit selecting another guard, but Cade Cunningham is 6-foot-7. So is Ausar Thompson. The Pistons can put ball-handlers all over the floor, with Sheppard's historic shooting and high-intensity defense adding major value to the backcourt.

One more I'd like to see: Cody Williams in OKC. It probably won't happen, as the Thunder won't select until the back end of the lottery with a pick acquired from Houston, but it's a tremendous fit. Williams perfectly aligns with the Thunder's general philosophy — the young, multi-positional wing who can shoot, pass, and finish efficiently around the basket. Williams still needs to tidy up his handle and become more polished as a creator, but OKC has the depth to ease Williams slowly into his next chapter. He's already great on cuts, spot-up 3s, and out in transition. Plus, he's JDub's brother. What a story that could be.

Recommended Reading:

1. How are we feeling about Jayson Tatum?: "A common trope you’ll hear is to never bet against the best player in a series. Basketball is unique for a team sport because just one player can dramatically shift your odds, even in the face of a superior opponent. While the Celtics have a roster full of excellent players, the top of their roster comes up short compared to other historically great regular season teams." The Boston Celtics are the overwhelming title favorites, but should they be?

2. We still don't know who the Mavericks really are: "The Mavericks have cycled through 32 different starting lineups this season, third-most in the league behind cellar-dwelling Memphis and Portland, with none of those units lasting more than 10 games or even logging so much as 100 shared minutes. (Dallas’ most frequently used five-man lineup this season, still, features Grant Williams, whom the Mavs shipped off to Charlotte five weeks ago.) The lineup that Kidd told reporters on Christmas that he’d like to start when everyone’s healthy — Dončić, Irving, Lively, Exum and long-limbed athletic wing Derrick Jones Jr. — has played a grand total of 26 minutes across four appearances." Luka Dončić and the Mavericks are the NBA's mystery contender

3. Miami's Kyshawn George is a first-round prospect all of a sudden: "Kyshawn George has caught scouts’ attention with 6-foot-8 size, fluid athleticism, and a smooth 3-point stroke. The defense is a work in progress, but George occupies a valuable archetype on the wing. He flashes as a passer and on-ball creator, even if the handle needs a lot of cleaning up. That, combined with believable 3-point success, makes George a strong upside bet in a weak class. " 2024 NBA Draft Big Board: Updated top 80 prospects as March Madness starts

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