Seven teams in seven years. I’d heard it repeated around the NBA media landscape as indicative of Christian Wood’s failure as a teammate. He clearly had enough talent to stick somewhere. The Rockets gave him his first major contract, and by his second year he was being suspended for refusing to re-enter a game. Some Houston media celebrated him being traded–people close to the team who had experience around him. They mentioned his ball stopping, his bad attitude, his lazy defense. A thing they said that gave me a shiver of recognition? That he wasn’t backing down guards. Sounded like another big man who was so often a malcontent.
The first post-game quote that could be construed as passive-aggressively exhibiting such qualities came after the brutal loss to the short handed Pelicans on Tuesday night. While being asked about how he’d thrived on offense coming off the bench and how he’d acclimated to his role, he couldn’t help but vouch for himself as someone capable of more.
Christian Wood after 23 points (8-10 FG) in 29 mins tonight: "I believe, of course, I’m a starting-caliber player, but at the same time, it’s a new role for me, a new team. I’m doing everything right, trying to do everything right, and just do what I’m told."— Callie Caplan (@CallieCaplan) October 26, 2022
I’m not a body language doctor or psychologist, but I watched the presser, and Wood seemed earnest and team-focused with the statement. His tone communicated that he thinks he can do more to help the Mavericks win, but for now he’s doing what the team asks.
Maybe I’m too optimistic, maybe Wood puts on a good face, but I wouldn’t say it was him actively starting drama... although it did indicate that he’s conscious of the disparity between his talent and his role .These questions will keep getting asked though, and resentment could bubble. The takeaway isn’t that the drama has begun, but that we don’t want to lose the commitment from Wood we’ve gotten so far.
Wood has been a good trooper so far, celebrating cheerfully and playing with energy. He has taken responsibility for his shortcomings. After a three-of-ten free throw performance in the first game against Phoenix, Wood lamented it as “inexcusable”. After the team performed poorly on defense against New Orleans, he declared his play on the interior not up to snuff. He’s still not a defensive anchor and likely won’t be, whether from his lithe frame or his mental lapses and bad habits, but he looks bought in, and that would be a terrible thing to lose.
In general, Wood has been an on-court revelation. He has the highest net rating on the team, and is the only player for whom being off the court leads to a negative net rating. The sample size is incredibly small, but the eye test matches. He is clearly outplaying JaVale McGee, who happens to own the worst net rating on the team. Much like it being a stretch to read too much into Wood’s comments, it would be unfair to not highlight that Wood’s minutes have gone up while McGee’s have gone down in each game.
It’s also fair to understand Kidd’s reticence to use him as a lone big, considering the team’s defensive principles, though both analytics and my eyes have shown that Wood lineups aren’t drastically leaking points any worse than “defensive lineups”.
As suspected, Kidd’s answer to this is to marry Wood’s minutes to Maxi Kleber’s, but that limits the situations Wood can be utilized in. There are, clearly, many reasons his role has been his role; still, the decision to not start Wood, to not have him play more with Luka (31 shared minutes so far), and to handle his responsibilities with kid gloves raises some observations.
Wood has played above expectation and shown himself to be capable of all-star candidacy, and whatever the issue, you don’t see players like that restricted by any issue, intangible or schematic. We see time and again the correct move is to retrofit your strategy to the player themselves. I’m pretty impatient with people who’d say Wood has to wait his turn or do more to earn it; what major off-season addition elsewhere in the league is being worked into their team’s structure slowly? Wood also is showing himself to be a possible part of our future who happens to be in a contract year; the risk of alienating him reverberates further than game-to-game.
It’s there, in the macro sense, that his handling most frustrates me. The Mavericks don’t have as much high end talent as other contenders; their organizational strength rests in Luka’s dominance and the infrastructure of support and specialization around him. It’s painfully clear through three games Christian Wood is the second most talented player, and that talent must be weaponized. Problems spoken of on this website, the lack of open threes, the dearth of playmaking outside of Luka, the predictability of the offense–can be partly remedied by the gravity Wood creates with pressure on the rim, or with he and Luka’s two man game as a core principle of the offense. Without multiple people who can create their own shot, the Maverick’s have a narrow tree of offensive responsibility, and the team can’t work around that. It’s the bed the front office has made.
It’s too early for this to be a serious issue, but the anxiety isn’t tied to any one game or moment. The concerns the situation raises are reflected in the team’s choices and future, as well as Wood’s past and his mercurial status. If it’s a stretch to worry too much about one quote or early-season rotation, it’s not a stretch to say Christian Wood, as the team’s biggest addition and difference between last year, might make or break the season. I can’t say I blame the player for seeing that reality too. The circumstances demand giving Wood a sense of agency, and the construction of the team demands that we allow him to help define the kind of team we will be.