Sunday, November 27, 2022 Nov 27, 2022
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Christian Wood Is Still Coming Off the Bench. That’s a Good Thing.

It might be more fun to see him in the starting five, but this is working.
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It is too early to say much of anything about the 2022-23 Dallas Mavericks. The picture will get a little clearer, perhaps, after 10 games, but even then we won’t really know. Remember, last year’s Western Conference finalists didn’t really come together until Jalen Brunson permanently moved into the starting lineup and Kristaps Porzingis was traded away. 

The former didn’t happen until mid-December, the 26th game of the season, and it only began because Luka Doncic was out. Brunson was so good during that stretch that he stayed in the first five even when Doncic came back. The latter was somewhat of a surprise at the time but probably inevitable looking back. It finally got Jason Kidd to go with one-big lineups the rest of the way, creating room for Reggie Bullock’s shooting and defense on the wings.

All of which is to say the team that began last season didn’t bear much resemblance to the one that ended it after that glorious playoff run. I am not suggesting that this version will undergo that sort of dramatic change. In fact, I would not be surprised if the lineup that started the opener against Phoenix—Doncic, Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie, and JaVale McGee—finishes out the schedule in April against the Spurs. (Health permitting, of course.) 

I realize that many fans are clamoring for Christian Wood to claim one of those slots, especially after his hot start to the season (last night’s comparative dud against the Nets aside). He’s averaging 21 points and 8 rebounds off the bench, which naturally is causing more than a few to wonder what he might do with more minutes or if he were starting off games alongside Doncic. Even the observers who aren’t stressing over his continued absence from tipoffs probably assume that he’ll end up in the starting lineup before the season ends.

I definitely was in that camp in the summer, after McGee signed with the Mavs and said they brought him in to be the starting center, not Wood. But I am not so sure about that now. I think Wood’s role, with some slight adjustments to the rotation, is the correct one for the much-traveled big man. 

Coming off the bench, he gets to clean up against second units while still getting significant time with Doncic, who almost always plays the entire first quarter. And often Wood has been paired with Maxi Kleber on the front line, which lets him take the less-challenging defensive assignment (though he has already shown he is better on that end than he’s previously been given credit for). The only problem with the role that I have seen in the first four games is that Kidd hasn’t managed his second-half minutes very well. I think, at least in part, that is because the coach isn’t prioritizing the win total in the early going as much as seeing what he’s got, which is fair.  

I will allow myself one hot take: the Doncic-Wood duo is already better than Doncic’s pairing with Kristaps Porzingis ever was.

With Porzingis, fans always hoped that the Latvian Unicorn would play like he did in Orlando in 2020, when he was named a second-team All-Bubble selection. But the Porzingis experience was actually very much like the bubble: tantalizing production brought to a halt by injury. 

Obviously, you couldn’t help but be attracted to Porzingis’ potential. But the idea—what if we built Klay Thompson out of an oil derrick?—overshadowed the reality. More often than not, Porzingis was a below-average three-point shooter who didn’t particularly mesh well with Doncic or the offense in general. When he was traded from New York and before he played a game in Dallas, fans would practically salivate at the potential of a two-man game featuring Luka and KP, the unstoppable pick-and-roll tandem they would form. 

It never really went down like that. For every nifty give-and-go or dimension-bending alley-oop, there were another five possessions when Porzingis would wait around to back his way into a terrible mid-range shot or dribble into a turnover so predictable that it might have been drawn up on Kidd’s dry-erase board. Or hang out 5 feet behind the line waiting for a three. Just because you can always shoot your shot doesn’t mean you should. Take a look at my text messages.

So far, on offense, anyway, it has been different with Wood, even considering last night’s muted performance. He forms a dynamic pick-and-roll partnership with Doncic, one that seems potentially unstoppable once they spend more time together. Already, you can see what a headache it is for the opposing defense. Oftentimes, when Wood sets a screen for Doncic, he’ll receive a screen of his own when he rolls to the basket, allowing him to establish position practically underneath the basket. An average point guard could get him the ball there, and Doncic finds him in a spot where a bucket (or trip to the foul line) is almost guaranteed. 

The variants are also a handful for defenses. If a clear path to the rim is cut off, he’s shown himself to be a smart passer when asked to make reads in the short roll, ably finding shooters in the corners. And when Wood pops out behind the three-point line himself, he is hitting a preposterous (and, yes, unsustainable) 67 percent through the first four games. Even if that settles into what Wood has done the last few seasons, with Houston and Detroit, he’s around a 40-percent shooter.

This was always possible with Wood. And, yeah, he’s put up numbers, but they’ve never had this kind of meaning. Not his fault. He’s been on bad teams with bad players. Other than a short stint with James Harden on the Rockets, he’s never had a chance to run with anyone like Doncic. 

Maybe this all falls apart. Maybe Wood decides he doesn’t like his role and pride forces him to demand a move into the starting lineup. Maybe those shots stop falling. Maybe this goes off the rails for him the way it did in Houston. Maybe there is a reason Wood has played for so many teams in his relatively short career. 

I don’t actually think any of that will happen. I’m only putting that there because the Mavs have played four games, and it’s too soon to say anything. Other than Wood is exactly where he should be.


Zac Crain

Zac Crain

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Zac, senior editor of D Magazine, has written about the explosion in West, Texas; legendary country singer Charley Pride; Tony…

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