Last Friday night, in the Dallas Mavericks victory against the Denver Nuggets, Christian Wood scored 28 points, a season high. The Mavs won comfortably against a team struggling with injury, something that hasn’t always been the case this season. When asked about Wood’s play, Jason Kidd praised him, including noting that he was unselfish. It felt like there was confidence in the marriage of player and organization.
Two nights later, in the Maverick’s loss against the Denver Nuggets, Christian Wood played 17 minutes, a season low. The Mavs lost in frustrating fashion against a team struggling with injury, something that has been the case far too often this season. When asked about Wood’s lack of playing time, Jason Kidd danced around it. There was a sense of doubt in the marriage of player and organization.
The two paragraphs above sound absurd next to one another, and yet no embellishment was needed. The game-to-game utilization is confusing, and Jason Kidd’s quotes on the matter, a mix of foggy subtext about selfishness and fogey cliches about winning, only make the situation harder to understand.
Kidd’s allusion to selfishness stopped short of calling Wood out, but it was curious to answer a question about lowered minutes with a statement about the necessity of selfless play. Yes, Wood has a tendency to see screen-setting as an opportunity to put himself in a better position to score, but Tim Hardaway Jr. managed to shoot more than three times as much as Wood in only three more minutes.
Kidd said playing time is earned, stating “it’s about winning, not points or minutes”. Yet, the team lost. This is overly simplistic, but half of the game is about scoring points. Wood is second on the team in points-per-36 minutes by a nearly six-point margin. He’s shooting a blistering 57%, coming in at 15th in the NBA in True Shooting, a stat combining shooting categories to capture efficiency. To juxtapose his usage with Hardaway Jr. again, the shooting guard averages 0.3 more shot attempts than Wood and shoots a full 25% less. I believe there are invisible elements of offensive basketball which impact winning, and I know that Wood is prone to “losing” mistakes. His screening is not only often self-serving, but too lax to help give Luka runway. He’s second on the team in turnovers. Yet it’s hard to believe they hurt the team more than his efficiency as a scorer helps.
He also suggested depth in the front court was partially responsible, and yet the team was without Maxi Kleber. At one point Kidd suggested “the beauty” of Kleber being out was how many bigs demand playing time besides him. In a combined 53.2 minutes per game, the combination of Dwight Powell, Javale Mcgee, and Kleber score less points than Christian Wood does in his 24.6. I see little beauty in having multiple players who might deserve playing time, without a clear vision of how to use the one with the highest ceiling.
Jason Kidd’s best contribution as a coach has been instilling a defensive foundation. The system was built on tight rotations that allowed for controlled aggressiveness, and Wood’s biggest flaws are problematic within that framework. He misses rotations, and leaving teammates out to dry within the scheme is a form of selfishness in itself. Still, Kidd’s use of Wood would strain credulity if it was coming from mid-2000’s Gregg Popovich. The team is not built to withstand such minimization of offensive talent–the scoring burden is too narrowly assigned, with only Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie as volume scorers. Having a third volume scorer doesn’t look like a choice, but rather the bed the front office made.
It’s easy to see that Kidd thinks Wood’s flaws are detrimental in a manner that outweighs his contribution. It’s just hard not to call that attitude a problem of ego when a coach states that his basketball belief system leads to wins, while answering questions about underachieving losses.
Thee bigger picture is just as confusing. Why trade a pick for a player you aren’t interested in maximizing? Do you want to pay him an extension befitting a starter if he sometimes plays seventeen minutes? Why take a flier on a player with clear pros and cons, then punish him for his negatives even as the positives are as advertised? If Nico Harrison believed in him, how can there be such a disconnect between front office and coach? There are nuances that make the unresolved questions easier to accept–that the Mavericks moved players they had no use for and traded back into the draft to get the player they wanted. These nuances still suggest that Christian Wood’s integration is of little consequence, which is problematic when considering a roster starved of assets and overly-dependent on its superstar.
This is why Kidd’s attitude towards Wood’s role is so alarming; misplaced ego is one thing, but haphazard roster construction is more concerning. It’s hard to feel confident in the big picture when the small one is so murky; single games can be microcosms of the flaws and strengths of an organization’s team building vision. What the Dallas Mavericks must realize, sooner rather than later, is that the results of these games aren’t isolated incidents. That no one loss is just a loss, that the players besides Luka aren’t replaceable cogs, and that there is no set of principles which guarantee wins without talent to back them up.