NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks

Data was finalized as of all-star break (2/16)

Earlier this month I briefly highlighted Victor Wembanyama’s insane block rate. While it is more fun to daydream about the potential of his defensive prowess given more minutes, I thought I would see how he racks up on a per-game basis. I am using per game because when it comes to Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) voting, I don’t expect voters to always turn to advanced stats to make their decisions. The current candidates in order of their projection to win are Rudy Gobert, Jarrett Allen, Chet Holmgren, Victor Wembanyama, Bam Adebayo, Derrick White, and Anthony Davis.

From the numbers, I’m still surprised as to why Wembanyama isn’t the current favorite for DPOY over Rudy Gobert. Looking at just steals vs blocks, two standard box score statistics that are most often resorted to for this award, we can identify there is a floating average needed to be in consideration. Below I have plotted the current DPOY candidates as well as the winner for the past forty years.

This trendline demonstrates that it is generally acceptable to give the award to a guard who might not be able to accumulate many blocks, if they are able to make up for it with steals. We see that some of the more dominant season performances come with 1988 Michael Jordan who averaged 3.2 steals and 1.6 blocks per game or any of the years that Ben Wallace won the award. While there have been numerous candidates below the line who have won, the uncertainty lies in whether it was other metrics/influence that categorized these players as elite defenders, or whether it was just a weak year for the award.

Nevertheless, the only players this year who are above this expected average for a candidate are Chet Holmgren, Anthony Davis, and Victor Wembanyama. Even more, Wemby is doing this on 28.4 minutes per game vs Chet’s 31.7 and AD’s 35.7.

This further begs the question of why Gobert is favored. Well let’s turn to rebounds, because after all, they are a part of defense. In this next graph I have plotted total rebounds vs stocks: a combination of steals and blocks into one stat. (I also like using it because it makes me feel like I am investing in something responsible whenever I am cooking up an 8-leg parlay that involves taking the over on Wemby’s stocks.) This time I have only highlighted this year’s candidates, the past five winners, and the extremes.

Guards winning the award fascinating me because it really lies in the intangibles, or non-traditional metrics to quantify their defensive impact. Michael Cooper has the lowest amount of stocks ever for a winner at just 1.5 (1 S, 0.5 B) in 1988. Derrick White and Marcus Smart both helped catapult Boston to conference finals but they seem undeserving when looking at the rest of the winners. In 1992, David Robinson set the record for most stocks in a season at 6.8 (2.3 S, 4.5 B) and Ben Wallace set the record amongst DPOY winners for rebounds with 15.4 in 2003.

It’s 2004, and the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves are in the final seconds of a prolonged, testy battle to determine who advances in the playoffs to face the mighty Los Angeles Lakers. Poetically, the deciding moment — either overtime or game over — comes down to a fascinating, longstanding matchup: Kevin Garnett vs. Chris Webber. To appreciate this moment, we should understand the intertwined history of those two revolutionary players.

Yet again there is a tradeoff between rebounds and stocks that justify giving the award out, and yet again Wemby, Chet, and AD are the only ones floating at or above this trend currently. Gobert’s best season to date was 2021 where he averaged 13.5 rebounds, 0.6 steals, and 2.7 blocks and he has dropped off slightly this year with 12.5 rebounds, 0.6 steals, and 2.1 blocks (the majority of the reason being sharing the floor with Karl-Anthony Towns). But the point is one could argue that Wemby’s current season is better than either of those as he is still averaging 10 rebounds, 1.1 steals, and 3.2 blocks which leads the league. If someone were to argue that blocks per game shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all stat to measure defensive success, I would present that Jaren Jackson Jr drew attention for exactly that reason last season.

So the lack of momentum behind Wemby for the award is most likely about gravity in the paint. Gobert is notorious for deterring shot attempts close to the basket and his presence alone makes offenses rethink their gameplan. Wemby is on pace to become a star like this but it was only after his move to center that he has exerted that kind of impact. As far as the vote, it is becoming extremely evident that people want to build a narrative for Chet to win despite lacking numbers in every category. In a class without Wemby, Chet would surely be the favorite for rookie and possibly even have my vote for DPOY, but the Frenchman has shown beyond a doubt how effective he can be on the defensive end.