As much as NBA players might want us to believe that they are impervious to the basketball zeitgeist, that is simply not the case. They are on social media, they watch talking head shows, and they bounce around the player-hosted podcast circuit. They know there is a daisy chain connecting their reputation to their popularity to their market value. As for NBA coaches, there is no shortage of vitriol aimed in their direction on Twitter and other platforms.
When fans see their team struggle and envision untapped options on the bench performing better than the current rotation, they grab their online megaphone and make their opinions known. What served as fodder for water cooler conversation a generation ago, now spills out into the open when the natives are restless. Early in the season last year, many Maverick fans believed the answer to the center position was youngster Moses Brown. The clamoring for Brown lasted until fans got a good look at him on the court and soon thereafter he was released.
This does not mean that popular opinions are always wrong. The fervor to move Christian Wood into the starting lineup began when his acquisition was announced. The wish for more Jaden Hardy minutes grew more universal with each garbage-time burst of instant offense.
Just over a month ago, right before the Mavericks faced the Denver Nuggets in what would be their first signature win of the season, head coach Jason Kidd expressed exactly what he thinks about the merits of loud opinions that pervade social media, stating “Twitter isn’t the coach or the player. It’s just a platform to express your opinion”.
Before tonight’s game vs. Nuggets, Jason Kidd asked fans for patience with Jaden Hardy’s playing time:— Callie Caplan (@CallieCaplan) December 7, 2022
“Right now, we’ve got a good thing going. Hardy has to wait. Ask Josh. Twitter isn’t the coach or the player. It’s just a platform to express your opinion.” pic.twitter.com/yVt73PMGvU
As fans begged for a starting lineup that included the Mavericks’ two leading scorers the response did not indicate Kidd was ready to go that route. “When you’re healthy, you just have to be patient”, Kidd said last month. He continued, “my job is to put those guys in a position to be successful, and right now we have a good thing going.” The easy inference is that the sixth-man role was likely as far as the Christian Wood experience was slated to go this season.
Kidd’s stance against being influenced by popular opinion should go without saying. No team should want their coach consulting a weathervane when doling out rotation minutes. Yet as you watch the clip a month later, one cannot help but feel that Kidd was tempting fate. Up to that point, the Mavericks had functioned as a healthy team which was the basis for Kidd’s premise that Jaden Hardy needed to wait his turn. What followed was a cruel hat trick of injuries that have reshuffled the Dallas rotation and opened the door to the very lineup adjustments that “Twitter” had been asking for.
With Maxi Kleber unavailable and JaVale McGee out of the rotation, Kidd was left to decide between leaving Dwight Powell in the starting lineup or pleasing the masses by starting Christian Wood at center. Having chosen the latter, the Mavericks' offense is flourishing when Luka Doncic and Christian Wood are on the court together.
Dallas with Luka Doncic and Christian Wood on the floor: +7.4 PTS per 100 poss— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) January 3, 2023
Dallas with Luka and without Wood: +4.0 PTS per 100 poss
Luka with Wood: 36.7 PTS, 9.2 AST per 75 poss, 65.6 TS%
Luka without Wood: 33.4 PTS, 8.9 AST per 75 poss, 58.2 TS%
The Ice Cream and Fudge team-up has been a thing of beauty on the offensive end. Christian Wood is simply the best pick-and-roll partner Luka Doncic has had in a Mavericks uniform. Wood is averaging a sparkling 1.53 points per possession as the roll man. His pick-and-pop numbers are just as impressive.
Wood’s improvement on the defensive end is no small development. His blocks per game have risen from 0.5 in November to 1.6 in December to 2.7 per game so far in January. More importantly, his grasp and execution of the Mavs defense have improved in the last dozen games as he is in the right place at the right time far more often. That is partially due to the change in role and increase in minutes, yet it is clear Wood is taking pride in embracing the responsibility that comes with being the starting center.
While speculation about Wood’s future with Dallas abounds due to his contract status, it is not clear if he will sign an extension, get traded before the deadline, or simply play out the season and head elsewhere ala Brunson. I keep coming back to the notion that if the Mavericks did not already have Wood on the team, trading for him would be a great idea. Luka Doncic enjoys playing with Christian Wood and perhaps that is the most important development of all.
Wood as a starter is not the only item on the wishlist of the loudest of fans. The collective plea for more Jaden Hardy minutes has been a constant drumbeat. No coach wants to expose a rookie in a way that hurts their development but Hardy is not a mentally fragile player. His confidence appears to be boundless as he provides an increasingly reliable spark off the bench. Would Hardy have ever had a chance to get off the shuttle back and forth to the Legends if not for the recent rash of injuries fate handed the Mavericks?
Wood as a starter and Hardy as a rotation player are realities that only prove out as positives if given a chance to succeed or fail - because we learn by doing. Last year’s Covid stretch lasted a few weeks and opened the door to Josh Green's development. Could the silver lining of these unfortunate injuries be the emergence of Wood and Hardy in roles that “Twitter” could only wish for but fate has delivered?
Kidd often likens the regular season to a chance to get the answers to the test in advance. For the second year in a row, those answers include lineups that may never have seen meaningful minutes had fate not intervened.