The Whiteboard: What can Christian Wood give Luka Doncic and the Mavs?

Dallas Mavericks, The Whiteboard

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The offseason got off to an unofficial start last night with news that the Houston Rockets had agreed to trade Christian Wood to the Dallas Mavericks for Boban Marjanovic, Sterling Brown, Trey Burke and the No. 26 pick in the draft.

The bit players involved aren’t really of any significance for the Rockets or the Mavs, so this is essentially swapping Wood for the pick, which, at a surface level, seems like a huge victory for the Mavericks who desperately needed an infusion of talent and had precious few assets by which to acquire it.

By virtue of playing for the Pistons and rebuilding Rockets the past three seasons, Wood is a player a lot of fans won’t have much familiarity with. But over his two seasons in Houston, he averaged 19.9 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.0 blocks per game, shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 38.4 percent from beyond the arc. He’s a 6-foot-10 big man with a smooth, skilled offensive game and on paper he looks like a huge addition for the Mavericks. But it’s not that simple.

Can Christian Wood make the Luka Doncic and the Mavericks better?

For all his individual production, there are real questions about how much value Wood could provide the Mavericks’ offense. The Rockets’ offense was better by 1.8 points per 100 possessions with Wood on the bench last season. And while some of the Rockets’ spot-up shooters and ancillary role players benefited from his presence, Houston’s three other primary offensive creators and fulcrums were all much less productive and efficient when they shared the floor with Wood.

You can see this less-than-ideal relationship in pick-and-roll stats as well. Jalen Green received an average of 5.1 screens per game from Wood last season and the Rockets scored 1.03 points per possession on any possession in which Wood set a screen for him. For Kevin Porter Jr., those numbers were 11.3 and 1.11, respectively.

To put those numbers in context, the Wood-Green combination was roughly comparable to Derrick Rose and Julius Randle last season — 6.1 screens per game, 1.03 points per possession. The Porter Jr.-Wood combination was similar to Cole Anthony and Wendell Carter Jr. — 12.5 screens per game, 1.11 points per possession.

The impression of Wood, from both his individual production and some of these numbers about how he works with his teammates, paint the picture of a player who is probably best utilized as a primary offensive fulcrum but one who doesn’t necessarily have the volume, efficiency or widespread positive effect to justify giving him that responsibility against opposing starting lineups. For example, he averaged 30.8 points per 100 possessions on a 60.4 true shooting percentage with three or fewer opposing starters on the floor. Against four or five opposing starters, those numbers dropped to 25.7 points per 100 possessions on a 58.2 true shooting percentage.

To this point, we’ve only mentioned offense but there are big questions about his defense as well. He rebounds and generates steals and blocks but the Rockets defense was only slightly better with him on the floor last season and 538’s RAPTOR metric estimated his defensive impact to be minus-1.2 points per 100 possessions.

How can the Mavericks get the most out of Christian Wood?

Honestly, my first thought when I saw news of the deal was that Wood reminded me a bit of Kristaps Porzingis. The Mavericks traded him to the Wizards at the deadline last season and seemed to benefit both from adding Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans as well as addition by subtraction as they launched their playoff run.

Looking at their most common offensive play types, the comparison between Porzingis and Wood is not quite as close as I thought, but I think there are still some instructive lessons here.

Wood was a bit more likely to face up and attack farther from the basket but the sum of their isolation and post-up percentages are almost the same. Wood was also much more efficient than Porzingis almost across the board and that alone should have some benefits for the Mavericks’ offense.

The comparison is a bit of a red herring, in that the Mavericks’ offense improved by excising Porzingis and his play-type profile but it’s clear that Wood is going to have to change the way he played with the Rockets last season, or Luka Doncic is going to adapt to having a more offensively skilled big man in a way he never really did with Porzingis.

Wood may get his isolations and post-ups working as an offensive fulcrum when Doncic is on the bench, something that could make life much easier for Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson (assuming he’s re-signed). But that’s only about 13 minutes a game, at most, if Wood’s minutes are fully staggered with Doncic. When he’s playing with Doncic, Wood is likely to see far more spot-up opportunities and far fewer opportunities to work with the ball in his hands. Perhaps that scenario, reducing his offensive load, draws even more efficiency from him. But he has to be happy and willing to sacrifice in a way that Porzingis wasn’t always okay with.

Wood hasn’t always seemed like the easiest guy to have in the locker room. He reportedly refused to enter the second half of a blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets after assistant coach John Lucas challenged him for his low effort level. Wood had also been left out of the starting lineup for that game, per The Athletic, after he, “was late to the arena and missed a mandatory COVID-19 testing window.”

Wood’s attitude has been called out at other times as well, including by Ryen Russillo on a podcast last summer:

“I think Wood’s incredibly talented, we know the numbers. I think he’s a tough guy to play with. I think he’s a tough guy to have around… I think he’s kind of a tough teammate. I’m talking about the locker room stuff, doesn’t get the ball enough, shaking his head in the timeout, making sure everybody knows that he’s pissed, you know. That kind of stuff.”

This may all be overblown but despite his immense talent he’s about to play for his seventh team and the Houston Rockets were the first team he ever lasted more than a season with.

All that is to say, Wood has the skills to be a hugely impactful addition for the Mavericks. But he’ll have to commit himself at the defensive end. He’ll have to adjust to far fewer opportunities to create for himself. He’ll have to be comfortable relying on creators like Doncic and Brunson to set the table for him, while also figuring out how to use his skills to make them better. The good news for the Mavericks is they gave up almost nothing of short-term value for this gamble and for a team with their crowded cap sheet it’s absolutely a risk worth taking.

Other NBA stories:

Thirty years ago this week, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns. How would things have changed if they never made that trade?

This week on The Long Two, Ben Ladner broke down The Andrew Wiggins renaissance and Game 5 adjustments from the Warriors and Celtics that could help decide Game 6.

In a depressing but not entirely unexpected development, Brittney Griner had her detention extended by Russian authorities.

The shop is open for the Indiana Pacers. The Knicks are reportedly interested in Malcolm Brogdon and several teams can make compelling offers for Myles Turner, even if Indiana says they’d rather keep him.

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