It’s November 24, 2021 and the Houston Rockets have lost 15 games in a row. They play the up-and-coming Chicago Bulls at the Toyota Center. Grayson Allen has yet to break Alex Caruso’s wrist. Lonzo Ball’s knee did not flare up. DeMar DeRozan is ascendant. The Rockets had nothing to do with winning this game, but they still have 1:05 left and they have a six lead.
The ball gets past the half court just in time, and Kevin Porter Jr. dribbles the shot clock onto the top of the button. Christian Wood is on the block, guarded by Lonzo Ball, which he has about 4 inches away. Porter calls for a screen. Wood shuffles lazily to the edge, not bothering to put his feet down before diving back to the edge. Ball is tagged to Porter, whose screener left him and is now glassy-eyed on the lane with Javonte Green on the hip. The color is crowded. Not ideal for a guy looking for a layup. So he jumps a pass to Garrison Mathews in the corner for a three-pointer.
Problem: DeRozan is in the fast lane. He intercepts the ball and shoves it onto the court for a relatively easy Caruso three-pointer before Houston’s (terrible) defense can be fielded.
Three-point game, 47 seconds left. If Wood sets that screen down with just a touch of effort, Porter will have a feasible layup that will likely put the game out of reach. Instead, Eric Gordon brings the ball up and tries to regain that separation.
Then Wood responds by actually making a pick long enough to force the defender to make a choice: stay with him or catch Gordon. He chooses the latter. Gordon reads this and immediately throws it to Wood on the move at the free throw line. The big man catches it and passes it to Mathews in the corner for an open three. This time the ball arrives. Mathews nails it. Rocket to six, game over.
That, MFFLs, is Christian Wood’s experience. I’ve lived in Dallas for a dozen years, but I’m from Houston. I grew up on the Clutch City Rockets and the Stevie Franchise and Cuttino Mobley sugar rush. I rode the championship hope on the back of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming – thanks for killing that in 2005 – and then James Harden and Chris Paul and his Achilles. you are my team That said, I’ve seen a lot of bad basketball over the past two seasons. I’ve seen a lot of Christian Wood.
After he screwed up that first piece in November, I fired off a text message in the group chat: “2 percent milk ass Anthony Davis.” After the second: “Wow. He made a good pass to Garry Bird.”
We brought Wood on board as did head coach Stephen Silas: a way to give James Harden another narrow path for a championship run before his inevitable demise. Wood is a journeyman, more for his dedication and attitude than his talent, and he was probably tired of tanking after establishing himself as a piston. After Harden forced his way out, Wood clearly wanted to be Houston’s No. 1 option. But that’s Jalen Green’s team. And we designed an ingenious center called Alperen Sengun.
Wood was an improper toy in the post-Harden mix. He never got along with his young teammates, who needed the kind of development time he benefited from in Detroit. He clogged the lane and sulked when Sengun got the ball to work in the paint. I don’t blame him in any way. We weren’t his team.
I think he will feast with Luka Doncic. Wood only had seven games with Harden. In them, he averaged 23 points, 8.7 rebounds and just over one assist. He had only one game in which he averaged under 20 points — he had 18 — but logged just 26 minutes. As Iztok Franko wrote yesterday, his pick-and-roll partnership with Harden was the best in the league, ending up surpassing the season-leading Harden-Embiid pairing of 2021-2022. Alongside a superstar like Harden or Luka – who’s more alike in Harden’s heyday than many of you care to talk – Wood can create for himself, particularly by arming space on the edge when a chunky big one is pulled on him. He can be a relief valve, a guy who can floor run, pick and pop, and, yes, pick and roll as a lob threat.
At least when he feels like it. And this is the problem. Effort and attitude are the reason he is an NBA journeyman. On New Year’s Day, Wood missed a COVID-19 testing window. Silas didn’t start it. He played eight lousy minutes in the first half and got an ear from assistant coach John Lucas before the third quarter. Wood then refused to get involved in the second half. (And for the record, this was the game where Porter threw something and stormed out of the arena. So.)
I think culture solves these problems. And in competition. And win. Most of the keyboard sighs you see on Twitter from Rockets fans reflect the team’s timeline rather than Wood himself. There’s real optimism watching our young core. No way would Houston extend him at the expense of minutes from Sengun – who, to be fair, probably wasn’t ready for them until the second half of last year – and that was before he even considered the possible addition of Paolo Banchero , who should be able to deliver what Wood is doing but is closer to Green in age.
But enough about the Rockets. Wood is often an offensive force, able to play in space, pull the right angles, and tower over just about anyone. He also gets vaporized in color on defense, and he’ll likely need help if he’s trying to defend a bigger player near the edge. You don’t worry so much if he’s guarding the three.
If you’ve got a guy like Luka — or if we’ve had a guy like Harden — you make that trade every time, especially if you just have to give up the end of the bench and a pick at the end of the first round.
Just hope the guy shops if he has to. And for Jason Kidd to figure out how to fix his defensive weaknesses before the playoffs. Oh, and good luck setting those picks.
Matt Goodman is the online editor for D magazine. He wrote about a surgeon who killed a man who…