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The Mavericks trade for Christian Wood is a gamble worth taking

Dallas acquires a talented big with question marks

NBA: Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The most obvious takeaway from the Mavericks playoff run, especially the end of it in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors, was simple — the Mavericks are close, but they just need a little more.

What that little more specifically is was up for debate. An upgrade at center? Another capable playmaker? More defensive wings? You could argue all of the above, but it mainly boiled down to the Mavericks just needed more guys that could do things, after they basically stretched a six-man rotation across an 18-game playoff run in about the span of a month.

The Mavericks had four players average 35 minutes or more per game in the playoffs, which wasn’t sustainable when combined with the fact they only had two more additional players average at least 20 minutes per game. Rotations shrink in the playoffs, but it shrunk too much for the Mavericks, who had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for minutes from Dwight Powell, Frank Ntilikina, Davis Bertans, and Josh Green, while the main rotation were run into the ground.

The Mavericks’ trade for Rockets talented big man Christian Wood feels like the Mavericks trying to thread the needle of keeping their options open, while addressing that roster talent deficit that plagued them despite the playoff success.

By sending out the 26th pick of the upcoming 2022 draft, Boban Marjanovic, Sterling Brown, Trey Burke, and Marquese Chriss, the trade accomplishes two things, which feels like it makes it a win in the immediate aftermath of the deal, which will become official on draft night on June 23.

  1. It removed a lot of cruft from the backend of the Mavericks roster. Marjanovic, Brown, Burke, and Chriss combined to play 99 total minutes in the Mavericks recent playoff run. Those 99 minutes make a combined $12 million next season, while accounting for four roster spots. While the Mavericks are still capped out after this trade, they at least have some spots open that can potentially be used on better dart throws or a useful player under the mini mid-level exception the Mavericks have this summer.
  2. The Mavericks increased their talent and athleticism by adding a player that should be able to give them 20 or more minutes in a playoff game.

Point number one isn’t in doubt, but point number two is. How much talent the Mavericks end up adding with the Wood acquisition will go a long way to defining the success they can have next season.

The surface level numbers are great, but there’s a reason Wood is now on his seventh team by age 26. It’s up to the Mavericks coaching staff and Wood himself to unlock the best version of this talented but mercurial player. Thankfully the risk is about as low as it possibly could be — the Mavericks won’t miss any of the players sent away and Wood is on an expiring contract.

This can be a one-year experiment worst case scenario, or even shorter if the Mavericks decide to move on by the trade deadline. Losing the 26th pick is the biggest asset “lost” in this trade for the Mavericks, and while I’ve reprimanded the Mavericks for tossing away first rounders like candy in the past, it’s obvious Wood presents more upside for making an impact this upcoming season than whatever the Mavericks could have drafted at 26. If the choice is would you rather take a gamble on Wood or potentially draft Josh Green 2.0, I know how I’d answer.

Of course this doesn’t mean the deal has zero risk, as Wood has red flags throughout his time in the league that could manifest itself in negative ways that could directly affect the potential win total for the next Mavericks season, perhaps wasting a season of Luka Doncic’s prime. That’s a risk a capped-out contender like the Mavericks have to take, however. There’s enough in Wood’s talent and the Mavericks situation to think that worst-case scenario will never manifest.

First things first: Wood is a big — a center, more specifically. While he dabbled with playing extended minutes at the four in his previous stops, Wood was a full time center the last two seasons in Houston. The Mavericks just finished a playoff run where their center rotation of Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber was enough to get past both Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Ayton, so it’s fair to question why the Mavericks decided to trade their first rounder for a center and perhaps not target a perimeter player or big wing.

We don’t know what the Mavericks options were, but it’s clear they felt Wood was the best way to go. Investing big money in a center doesn’t seem to be the optimal path to building an NBA Finals worthy roster, but sometimes beggars can’t be choosers. After watching Kevon Looney look like 2006 Shaquille O’Neal against the Mavericks in their five game Western Conference Finals loss to the Warriors, it felt like the Mavericks didn’t necessarily need an All-Star center upgrade but just enough to counteract the Looney and Robert Williams of the world. On paper, Wood appears to be that guy. But the devil is in the details.

Let’s start with the fun stuff first — Wood should be a sublime offensive fit next to Luka Doncic. Wood represents one of the more talented offensive players Doncic has played next to in the NBA, especially for a big. While the Mavericks tried to make Kristaps Porzingis work, Wood has more consistent offensive skills that should translate better.

He’s a more reliable shooter, 38 percent from three for his career and a sparkling 39 percent on five attempts per game last season. For his career, Wood has only had a true-shooting percentage under 58 percent just once, in his rookie season. Porzingis has only reached or eclipsed that true-shooting mark once in his entire career.

When you watch Wood offensively, it looks like he has the full package for a modern NBA big. Finishing at the rim in pick and rolls, pick and pop jumpers, movement three pointers, and aggressive mid-post faceup rim attacks are all in Wood’s bag. Wood showcased all of these moves in one game against Memphis back in March, where he scored 28 points on 12 shots. I deliberately chose this game since it’s against a good defensive team that had something to play for late in the season. It matters more that Wood can do this against a team like the Grizzlies, as opposed to lighting up the Wizards in late March.

Pick and roll dive

Pick and pop three

Movement three pointer

Mid-post faceup rim attack

There’s some legitimate concern that Wood’s numbers in Houston are a typical case of “good stats, bad team”, but it’s fairly impressive that Wood was able to be as efficient as he was on some lousy Rockets teams that had sub-optimal point guard play. Wood shot 57.5 percent on two pointers and 38.4 percent on three pointers in his two seasons in Houston. Bad team or not, that’s impressive for a big with a usage rate in the mid-20s.

It’s not hard to see how the Mavericks and Doncic can take advantage of these skills, giving Doncic an athletic body to throw lobs to. The Mavericks haven’t been the most athletic team in Doncic’s time in Dallas, so giving him someone that can run and leap should fit snuggly with Doncic’s passing. You’d think this would help the Mavericks anemic transition offense, but Wood only scored 0.96 points per possession in transition last season, good for the 21.8 percentile. Is that a case of playing with poor guards or something else? We’ll find out shortly enough in Dallas. Doncic likes to play slow, but if Wood presents himself as a target on the break, Doncic will find him.

Where Wood will especially help is being another player that can attack closeouts. Wood averaged 4.4 drives per game last season — that would’ve ranked fourth among the Mavericks regular rotation players last season. Wood shot 53 percent on those drives, another clean number, while also averaging about a free throw per game from those drives.

To put that into context, Luka Doncic averaged 22 drives per game last season and averaged about four free throw attempts per game from said drives. In fact, Wood’s career free throw rate is higher than Doncic’s, and Wood’s 37.8 percent free throw rate last season was higher than Doncic’s 34.9 percent. The Mavericks offense relied on so many spot up threes in the playoffs due to the limitations of the Mavericks role players and their inability to reliably dribble drive off a catch. Wood should help with that.

Unfortunately, we’re past the fun part as it’s time to talk about Wood’s defense. In short...

At no point during his six season NBA career has Wood ever approximated a capable or even average NBA defender. There’s a reason Wood was supposed to be a late first rounder and then went undrafted. There’s a reason he’s bounced among six teams before landing in Dallas, and there’s a reason none of the teams he has played on have been any good. A lot of that is outside Wood’s control, to be fair, but Wood’s defensive ability and effort have just been massive negative attributes throughout his entire professional career.

Watching him in Houston, the biggest things that stand out are twofold: he isn’t attentive or aggressive on rotations and he seems to get bullied near the rim. Mavericks fans, if you thought Dwight Powell was a cruddy rim protector, well, Wood might give him a run for his money.

Wood displays slow feet while guarding the pick and roll and will regularly get bullied around the basket by guards that lower their shoulder. Wood has a slight frame, which doesn’t help, but he just doesn’t seem to move as fast as he should to the ball. Wood’s athleticism will bail him out occasionally, but he only averaged one block per game during his two seasons in Houston. Opponents shot 63.1 percent at the rim against Wood last season, which isn’t good enough for a starting center. For those curious — that number for Powell last season was 62.7 percent and Wood doesn’t compensate his poor rim defense with an ability to switch and trap on the perimeter like Powell can.

This, coupled with the reports of Wood’s work ethic, isn’t promising. Myself and others at Mavs Moneyball have talked to people that have been around Wood in his stops before Houston and the stories amount to a player that doesn’t have the drive or effort to improve.

Last season Wood was suspended by the Rockets for one game due to poor behavior. Sources told ESPN that Wood missed the team’s daily COVID-19 testing, and Wood wasn’t allowed to start the following game because of it, causing Wood to show discontent that Houston coaches and players were forced to address during halftime. Tardiness, aloofness during practice are just some of the stories told, and that honestly matches the effort Wood displays on the defensive end of the court. It’s rare for NBA players that have been in the league for as long as Wood as to suddenly turn it around on defense.

There are reasons for optimism though. While Wood hasn’t directly contributed to winning basketball throughout his career, he also hasn’t been in a winning environment either. The Mavericks will be by far the best and most competent team Wood has ever played for and we’ve already seen first hand with Spencer Dinwiddie how much that culture change can rub off on a player.

Another reason is the Mavericks coaching staff, with Jason Kidd and assistant Sean Sweeney doing yeoman’s work to turn around a bad defensive roster into a top-10 squad last season. Sweeney coached with the Pistons during Wood’s lone season in Detroit in 2020, and that stop is where Wood started to blossom as a player — perhaps that prior relationship can help.

And finally, it’s not as if Wood doesn’t have the tools to be a better defender. The hope is a combination of winning culture and the Mavericks coaching staff can coax something out of Wood that previous organizations were unable to. Unfortunately, the hope is really all there is, as the tape just doesn’t look good. To believe Wood will be a quality or at least average NBA defender next season is to go against six seasons and 222 games worth of evidence.

Even so, it’s still a risk the Mavericks needed to make. Even if Wood disappoints, all the Mavericks will really be down is another late first rounder. That’s not nothing, but it seems like a worthy gamble considering the talent and youth Wood has. Who knows, if Wood rehabilitates his value with the Mavericks, that $14 million expiring contract could look attractive in a bigger trade down the road.

The point is the Mavericks are continually creating new options and opportunities for themselves, which is a welcome sign from first-year general manager Nico Harrison. This is now Harrison’s second major trade in a four-month period, and anyone worried about the Mavericks roster stagnation from the previous few seasons have to be happy now — the trade of Porzingis and the additions of Dinwiddie, Woods, and Bertans represent the biggest roster shakeups since the Mavericks originally traded for Porzingis and traded away Harrison Barnes in 2019.

Whether the Mavericks are better next season in an improved Western Conference is still up for debate, but it’s clear the Mavericks aren’t standing pat and have a plan. Which after how the previous regime burned out, that’s all anyone can really ask for.

Here’s our crazy, live reaction Spotify Live show, which featured Kirk, Josh, Marc Stein, Kevin O’Connor, Brian Dameris, Tim Cato and more. If you can’t see the embed below, click here. Or go to your favorite podcast player and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.