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Christian Wood Might Be The Rockets’ Silver Lining

The Houston Rockets are in the middle of a dizzying offseason that saw several important, familiar faces exit stage left, while the face of their franchise, James Harden, reportedly has no interest in assuming that role for another season despite having two years left on his contract.

In most cases, this situation would foretell a Rubicon-crossing nightmare. But Christian Wood, one of the offseason’s most desirable free agents, gives Houston a silver lining, whether Harden sticks around or is dealt in the near future.

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Wood is an undrafted 6-foot-10 jackhammer with 3-point range who finally teased his ability toward the end of the 2019-20 regular season. To acquire him, Houston’s new general manager, Rafael Stone, first had to press stop on small-ball. He sent Robert Covington to the Portland Trail Blazers for Trevor Ariza, the 16th pick in the 2020 draft and a future first-round pick. Stone then shuffled Ariza and that 16th pick to the Detroit Pistons in a sign-and-trade for Wood (and a future first-round pick and future second-round pick, the latter of which is courtesy of the Los Angeles Lakers).


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The result was a mutually beneficial three-year, $41 million deal that doubled as a defiant, desperate signal to the rest of the NBA: The Rockets still want to win. It’s ambitious by design, intended to prolong one successful era or start fresh with something new. But even as Harden publicly circulates his wish to play for the Brooklyn Nets, Houston must be hoping that the addition will eventually change his mind.

Wood’s boundless upside could be the splash of ice-cold water Houston’s norm-bending core needs. They head into the 2020-21 season with the world’s most reliable scorer; an unknowable iteration of John Wall, acquired for the irritated Russell Westbrook; aging, aggrieved and important holdovers P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon; a few sensible role players (Danuel House Jr., Ben McLemore, Sterling Brown and Gerald Green); and DeMarcus Cousins — a low-risk, intriguing reward calculation.

And then there’s the 25-year-old newcomer best suited to raise their ceiling and evolve their offense: Wood, who averaged 22.3 points and 9.5 rebounds and shot 41 percent from downtown in his last 15 games. Some might judge that late-season surge as more flash than substance. But Houston is betting on him as a late-blooming star who will be the most complementary luxury item Harden and Wall have ever played with.

Only three players1 last season — Chris Paul, Duncan Robinson and Rudy Gobert — increased their team’s expected wins margin more than Wood, who finished +27. (Giannis Antetokounmpo came in fifth, at +26, while LeBron James, Jayson Tatum and Kawhi Leonard were all +25.) “I want to be an All-Star,” Wood said recently. “I feel like I can be one of the top players in the league.”

Other catch-all metrics smiled at his production. Wood was 16th in Real Plus-Minus (sandwiched between Khris Middleton and Zion Williamson), and out of 197 players who logged at least 1,300 minutes, he ranked in the top 20 in both box score and on/off RAPTOR. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton projected Wood as the third-best free agent in this class, trailing only Anthony Davis and Fred VanVleet.

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Under new head coach Stephen Silas, Houston won’t play the exact same way this year — instead of isolating as often as Harden did, there’s a plan to add variance to the offense. That’s good news for — and probably thanks to — Wood. He can easily slide into an offensive system keyed off of Harden’s stepback-or-drive brand of basketball — according to Second Spectrum, Wood’s effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot threes ranked in the 81st percentile among all players who took at least 90 of them. But using him as a taller Covington would be like crossing the Mississippi River in a yacht: He has so much more to offer.

Compare Wood with former Rockets center Clint Capela — a one-dimensional vacuum cleaner who benefited from the different ways Harden, Westbrook and Paul could manipulate his defender as they set his table. Wood can do … this:

Even though 75 percent of his baskets were assisted last season, Wood’s presence can reduce the physical churn Harden is used to enduring every night. With a giraffe’s stride, a 7-foot-3 wingspan and a relaxed handle, he has tools to create for himself and feed off the attention defenses pay elsewhere. Wood is agile and interdependent in all the ways a big man in 2021 needs to be.

How many players his size can pick up their dribble where Wood does on the play below — veering baseline after a defender cut off his drive — and not have it result in total disaster?

This could be an indirect benefit for the 31-year-old former MVP, who’s spent the majority of his prime assuming more offensive responsibility than any player not named LeBron James. (Harden’s career usage rate is eighth-highest in NBA history). His most devastating form will take place in pick and rolls, where Wood will force opponents to tinker with their base coverage, whether he’s in tandem with Harden or Wall.

If the defense switches, there’s a great chance that the door will have opened for two mismatches that will strain help and on-ball defenders alike. Of the few opportunities Wood had to attack these spots head-on in Detroit, many came on disorganized, cramped floors. But with more consistent reps, surrounded by teammates who were assembled to create space, he could do damage.

Assuming that Wall hasn’t completely forgotten how to maestro a pick and roll, whenever Wood partners with the five-time All-Star, opponents will swallow a stick of flickering dynamite dropping the big and trailing over (or ducking under) the screen. The Pistons averaged a whopping 1.17 points per possession whenever Wood dove to the basket. (Only Sixth Man of the Year winner Montrezl Harrell ranked higher last season among players who set at least 600 picks, according to Second Spectrum.)

Firework shows like that will be routine, but equally important are the plays when Wood corrals a tricky pass before finishing in traffic. He has sticky hands, and he does a terrific job blending muscle and finesse around the basket — 102 players took at least 200 shots in the restricted area last season, and only Dwight Howard was more accurate than Wood’s 77 percent.

Last season — while embedded in ill-fitting lineups that featured the likes of Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, Thon Maker, John Henson and Brandon Knight — Wood ranked 13th in points per direct touch (93rd percentile among those who recorded at least 2,000 touches, according to Second Spectrum) and finished fifth in effective field-goal percentage among players who took at least 500 shots. On contested attempts (minimum 400 shots), his effective field-goal percentage was in the 92nd percentile.

Wall and Harden will appreciate having him as both a moving target and a looming threat in the dunker’s spot, to say nothing of the corner-three assist opportunities his dives will help generate. Last year, Detroit shot 44.1 percent from the corner with Wood in the game, up 3.7 percent from when Wood didn’t play. (From 2015 to 2018, only James averaged more corner-three assists per game than Harden and Wall, who tore his Achilles the following year.)

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Another untapped area of potential, especially alongside Wall, should come in transition. Last year, Detroit’s offensive possessions were second-longest in the league, while Houston’s were second-shortest, according to Second Spectrum. When Harden isn’t on the floor, Houston can either put the ball in Wall’s hands and hit the gas or let Wood have a go of it himself. In the few instances when he actually went coast-to-coast after grabbing a defensive rebound, the outcomes were enough to make you check your blood pressure.

Thanks in no small part to Wood, Detroit eviscerated transition defenses off a live rebound. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Pistons averaged 135.1 points per 100 transition plays (94th percentile) with Wood on the floor. When he didn’t play, that number was a whopping 19.9 points lower (which put his impact in the 90th percentile).

Wood’s general impact on defense is a bit harder to predict, in part because we don’t know how Houston will play. Will they continue to switch more than any other team, or adopt a more conservative approach? Wood’s size should allow their defensive identity to be more fluid than it’s been. According to Second Spectrum, 60 screen defenders guarded at least 350 picks in a drop coverage last season; only five allowed fewer than the 0.904 points per direct possession Wood did. He’s tall, long and has fast closing speed whenever the ball gets behind him.

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The problem, though, is that too often Wood diagnoses the offensive play after it’s happened instead of seeing it in real time. As a full-time anchor, that’s a borderline death sentence, and it’s one of the reasons Pistons head coach Dwane Casey resisted inserting Wood in the starting lineup. “He’s a talented young man,” Casey said last season, “when [he] gets the thinking part of the game down.”

When Wood positions himself in the right spot, Houston’s defense should be sound. When he steps in the wrong direction, focuses on his own man instead of the ball, or incorrectly assumes what the offense is about to do, it will splinter.

The Rockets won’t enter 2021 on the NBA’s top shelf. But if Harden stays put, Wood can help turn them into a dark horse title contender. If Harden is traded, Houston already has an integral building block in place to kickstart the rebuild. But until either scenario becomes reality, it’s not hard to picture Wood making life easier for everyone on the roster. The Rockets also suddenly have incoming first-round picks to bolster their chances in the short term, via the trade market.

At this stage, and until further notice, that’s the future Houston wants to see. “We’re going to continue to be extraordinarily aggressive,” Stone said while introducing Silas. “We’re going to shoot for it. Whether we get there or not, I don’t know, but I can guarantee you that we’re going to shoot for it, and I’m really, really looking forward to it.”

Acquiring Wood was either the Rockets’ first step toward revitalizing Harden’s tenure or the smartest move to prepare themselves for his departure. Either way, Houston won’t be sorry for pulling it off.

Footnotes

  1. Among those with at least 1,200 minutes played.

Michael Pina is an NBA writer from Boston who lives in Brooklyn. His work has been published in GQ, The New York Times and several other places across the internet. He is also the co-host of Sports Illustrated’s Open Floor podcast.

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