Surely Christian Wood Still Has Something To Offer
5:41 PM EDT on July 27, 2023
Every year, a specific moment arrives at the end of the month spanning the NBA draft and the annual free-agent bonanza. After the outline of most teams has taken shape, the best of the league's third-year players have received their first max contracts, and every big-time NBA media person has left for vacation, you can look around and notice that the music has stopped for a bunch of once-valuable NBA players who don't have deals. There are only 450 roster spots in the NBA, which necessarily means incoming rookies and European imports are taking someone's spot.
A bunch of end-of-bench guys, projects who never capitalized on their talent, and longtime veterans will not be back in the league next year, an inevitable process that is nonetheless distressing for its ruthlessness. It's not just old guys and young guys: Will Barton was a starter for some great Nuggets squads, and he doesn't have a team; T.J. Warren lit up the bubble and there's been nary a whisper about him getting a deal. In this sense, the ruthlessness can be instructive, as the mid-career guys suddenly out of work can show macro trends in how the game is played (dead-end, real-hooper-types like Kelly Oubre found smoldering like Chicxulub) and how rosters are constructed (the wingification of the NBA also means fewer teams are signing third point guards). Which brings us to 27-year-old big man Christian Wood.
The Mavericks traded a first-round pick for Wood ahead of the 2022-23 season, giving up real value to pry the lanky big man out of Houston and bet that he would be able to help a team win basketball games for the first time in his odd career (he's already played for seven teams). He did not help them, despite occupuying what seemed like an ideal role. Wood would come off the bench for the Mavericks, allowing him have the ball more in non-Luka Doncic minutes, and he'd be deputized with defending backups, allowing him not to get owned so bad. Wood put up decent counting stats (roughly 16 points and seven rebounds with a block per game), though he clearly chafed at the bench role. Reporters who've covered him have hinted vaguely at attitude issues. It was obvious by February that he wouldn't be returning to the team, and the Mavericks reportedly were met with a league-wide shrug when they tried to get rid of him around the trade deadline.
So while it was no shock that 29 teams declined to give stuff up for Wood, it's surprising that he still remains unsigned a month into free agency. He's been rumored to be talking to the Bulls, Heat, and Lakers, who have reportedly done due diligence on Wood and decided against bringing him in. Some of the hesitance can be chalked up to uncertain potential fit and Wood's potential salary demands, though per reports from LakerLand, it has more to do with his attitude. "If LeBron can get him to toe the line, it cements LeBron as the greatest player of all time," an unnamed "NBA source" told the Los Angeles Times. "That’s how hard it is."
I buy the idea that Wood can be a hard player to play with and around, though it is worth mentioning that the Mavericks season with Wood actually got off to a good start last year, with him scoring a ton and trying on defense for weeks at a time. This is a career 37.9 percent three-point shooter who posted a 21-10 stat line two years ago. The Lakers, who are very publicly out of the Christian Wood business, got to see exactly how good he can be last season, when he destroyed them on Christmas (30-8-7-4-2) and then did it again two weeks later in a 2OT thriller.
As we see every single year in the playoffs, big men that can't defend in space can't play real minutes, and neither can anyone that doesn't really pass. Through this lens, it can start to make sense that Wood remains unsigned. Why would any team burn the rest of their cap space on a long-term deal for the "wrong type" of big man? There is now no more cap space for him to sidle into. Given that most teams only play one big at a time, it's a hard time to be a center or power forward that is not a star. The orthodoxy of roster construction under the new CBA dictates that non-starting big men shouldn't be paid, which is a position that I still can't quite square in Wood's case.
Allow me to offer a faintly heretical counter: There might be an actual market inefficiency developing for slightly archaic players. Wood's limits are obvious, but so are his strengths, and to focus on the former without considering the latter strikes me as overly conservative. NBA teams like backups that will fill their roles solidly and won't require a great deal of massaging or schematic adjustment. To then focus on fit at the expense of talent feels a little off; is this game not, at some level, still about a bucket? Wood is clearly an NBA player and he has a decently long track record of scoring the shit out of the ball. Even if a team just wanted to run him for 15 minutes at a time and have him toss up threes from the corner, he has the talent, if not the disposition, for that. Maybe it really is his attitude holding him back, in which case, sure, that's not a guy you want to pay like a starter. But Wood is a real player, and if he somehow falls all the way through the cracks and winds up playing in Spain or the G-League, it would be one of the strongest possible signs of the NBA's unforgiving churn.