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Basketball

Take It From a Rockets Fan: Christian Wood Will Drive You Crazy. And the Mavericks Got a Steal.

Christian Wood didn’t fit on the Rockets. That’s probably why he’s going to work out well with the Mavericks. Even if the ride gets bumpy along the way.
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It’s November 24, 2021, and the Houston Rockets have lost 15 straight games. They’re playing the surging Chicago Bulls at the Toyota Center. Grayson Allen hasn’t broken Alex Caruso’s wrist yet. Lonzo Ball’s knee hasn’t flared up. DeMar DeRozan is ascendant. The Rockets had no business winning this game, but there’s 1:05 left, and they’re up six.

The ball barely gets past halfcourt in time, and Kevin Porter Jr. is dribbling the shot clock down at the top of the key. Christian Wood is on the block, guarded by Lonzo Ball, whom he has about 4 inches on. Porter calls for a screen. Wood lazily shuffles to the perimeter and doesn’t bother setting his feet before diving back to the rim. Ball switches onto Porter, whose screener has deserted him and now stands glazed-eyed in the lane with Javonte Green on his hip. The paint is crowded. Not ideal for a guy looking for a layup. So he bails out with a pass to Garrison Mathews in the corner for a three.

Problem: DeRozan is in the passing lane. He intercepts the ball and pushes it up the court for a relatively easy Caruso three before Houston’s (dreadful) defense can set up.

Three-point game, 47 seconds left. If Wood sets that screen with even a whisper of effort, Porter has a makeable layup that likely puts the game out of reach. Instead, Eric Gordon is bringing the ball up and trying to regain that separation.

Then Wood responds by actually setting a pick long enough to force the defender to make a choice: stay with him or trap Gordon. He chooses the latter. Gordon reads this and immediately tosses it to Wood in motion at the free-throw line. The big man catches it and passes it to Mathews in the corner for an open three. This time, the ball gets there. Mathews hits it. Rockets up six, game over.

That, MFFLs, is the Christian Wood experience. I’ve lived in Dallas a dozen years, but I’m a Houstonian. I grew up with the Clutch City Rockets and the sugar rush of Stevie Franchise and Cuttino Mobley. I rode championship hope on the backs of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming—thanks for killing that in 2005—and then James Harden and Chris Paul and his hamstring. They’re my team. That means I watched a lot of bad basketball the last two seasons. I watched a lot of Christian Wood.

After he blew that first play back in November, I fired off a text in the group chat: “2 percent milk-ass Anthony Davis.” After the second: “Wow. He made a good pass to Garry Bird.

We brought in Wood like we brought in head coach Stephen Silas: a way to give James Harden another narrow path for a championship run before his inevitable decline. Wood is a journeyman, more because of his effort and attitude than his talent, and he was probably tired of tanking after establishing himself as a Piston. After Harden forced his way out, Wood clearly wanted to be the No. 1 option in Houston. But this is Jalen Green’s team. And we drafted a genius center named Alperen Sengun.

Wood was a misfit toy in the post-Harden mix. He never gelled with his young teammates, who needed the sort of development time he benefited from in Detroit. He clogged the lane and pouted when Sengun was given the ball to work in the paint. I kind of don’t blame him. We weren’t his team.

I think he will feast with Luka Doncic. Wood had just seven games with Harden. In them, he averaged 23 points, 8.7 rebounds, and a little over an assist. He had only one game where he scored below 20 points—he had 18—but logged just 26 minutes. As Iztok Franko wrote yesterday, his pick-and-roll partnership with Harden was the best in the league and wound up surpassing the season-leading Harden-Embiid pairing of 2021-2022. Alongside a superstar like Harden or Luka—who, in Harden’s prime, is more similar than many of you want to talk about—Wood can create for himself, particularly by weaponizing space at the perimeter when a clunky big gets dragged out onto him. He can be a relief valve, a guy that can run the floor, pick and pop, and, yes, set picks and roll as a lob threat.

When he feels like it, at least. And that’s the issue. Effort and attitude are why he’s an NBA journeyman. On New Year’s, Wood missed a COVID-19 testing window. Silas didn’t start him. He played eight lousy minutes in the first half and got an earful from assistant coach John Lucas before the third quarter. Wood then refused to sub into the game for the second half. (And, for the record, this was the game where Porter threw something and stormed out of the arena. So.)

I think culture solves these problems. And competing. And winning. Most of the keyboard sighs you’re seeing on Twitter from Rockets fans are a reflection of the team’s timeline more than Wood himself. There’s genuine optimism watching our young core. There was no way Houston was going to extend him at the cost of siphoning minutes from Sengun—who, to be fair, probably wasn’t ready for them until the back half of last year—and that’s before considering the possible draft addition of Paolo Banchero, who should be able to deliver what Wood does but is closer in age to Green.

Enough about the Rockets, though. Wood is often an offensive force, able to play in space, take the right angles, and rise up over pretty much anyone. He also gets vaporized in the paint on defense, and he’ll likely require help when he winds up trying to defend a larger player close to the rim. You don’t worry as much when he’s guarding at the three.

When you have a guy like Luka—or when we had a guy like Harden—you make this trade every single time, particularly when you only have to give up the end of the bench and a pick at the bottom of the first round.

Just hope the guy buys in when he needs to. And that Jason Kidd figures out how to make up for his defensive shortcomings by the time the playoffs come around. Oh, and good luck with him setting those picks.

Author

Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…

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