Mavericks need to make a decision about Christian Wood
It took 30 games, two injuries and a JaVale McGee disappearing act to finally see the Mavericks’ two most talented players together in the starting lineup. But don’t get your hopes up if you’re a Christian Wood fan. While some of his recent box scores are reminiscent of the early Dirk Nowitzki (32 points and 12 rebounds against the Portland Trail Blazers and 26 points and 14 boards against the Cleveland Cavaliers), there’s a very good chance he’ll return to the bench a time Dwight Powell is back in the lineup. Wood’s scoring efficiency is on par with Zion Williamson and Anthony Davis, but the enigmatic big man remains Dallas’ third or even fourth option on offense on some nights.
Are Jason Kidd and his staff thinking about this?
As with most Mavericks-related questions these days, the answer isn’t as simple as it seems. After all, six other NBA teams have already tried to solve the Christian Wood dilemma. For the Mavericks, this challenge has multiple layers and long-term team-building implications, because evaluating Wood is nearly impossible without considering his upcoming contract.
But before we delve too deeply into the question of Wood’s future in Dallas, it will be able to sign a four-year, $77 million contract extension on Dec. 23: The Mavericks have a lot of short-term problems. They currently sit 10th in the Western Conference, on the verge of falling out of the play-off spots. Three weeks ago, in mine review in the quarters, I wrote that I expected more adjustments on the margins. I also made the disclaimer that if the Mavericks are still neutral by Christmas, it will be time for a more radical stylistic change. Well, Christmas is here, and the Mavericks fell below .500 after their latest disappointing loss to Minnesota, which featured ejections for both Kidd and Luka Doncic. Most importantly, they’re running out of options and out of bodies on their injury-ravaged roster.
With McGee unplayable and Maxi Kleber will be out indefinitely (and likely for the season) after that underwent surgery for a right hamstring tear, Kidd has two functional options in the front court. One of them is Powell, who sat out the last two games with a left thigh contusion and is averaging less than 17 minutes per game. The other is Wood. That means a coaching staff that prides itself on building a defense-first culture has to rely on all-attack lineups with Wood as the lone big man much earlier than they planned and, from what we saw in the ‘beginning of the season. , much more than they ever wanted. Unless the front office finds upgrades elsewhere, the “we’ll outplay you” strategy might be the only way the Mavericks survive the next two months.
Not that this approach doesn’t work and be a lot of fun, at least in the regular season. On nights when things click, like the aforementioned game against the Trail Blazers, an additional efficient second option alongside Doncic is a nightmare for any NBA defense. And “efficient” underscores what Wood brings to the table: Among the top 30 players in scoring per 36 minutes, he trails only Nikola Jokic, Steph Curry, Zion Williamson and Lauri Markkanen in effective field goal percentage. He can score in bunches, and there are nights when he looks like one of the NBA’s most versatile bigs. We’ve seen it at times when the Mavericks decide to run the offense through him, especially early in the fourth quarter when Doncic takes his expected breather. When paired with Doncic, Wood is the pick-and-roll partner that fans imagined Kristaps Porzingis could be: willing to attack the rim on the roll, an accurate three-point threat on the pop and more than capable of punishing smaller defenders after a change of position. Dallas scores 122.1 points per 100 possessions with Wood and Doncic on the floor at the same time, which ranks in the 97th percentile among all NBA lineups with at least 100 possessions played. Numbers like those make it hard for some Mavericks fans to understand why it took multiple injuries to see Kidd finally unleash Wood as a 30-minute-per-game starter.
Wood’s defense is what makes the coach reluctant to fully commit to him. His lack of lateral quickness means he is often late on rotations or contesting shots in the paint, while Wood himself has acknowledged that minimizing their defensive lapses it is the key to building trust with the coaching staff. (Some of the growing pains that come with more responsibility and more decision-making have also bled into other aspects of Wood’s game: Both his turnover rate and foul rate are at career highs.)
He’s just not the defensive anchor this team needs to replicate the formula that took this team to the Western Conference Finals. The Mavericks tried to cover Wood’s limitations and reduce liability by playing him next to Kleber at full strength, but the German’s absence means Wood’s protector is gone. Asking Wood to step up on defense is one thing. Asking him to be your backbone is another. And so far, that has gone as badly as the Mavericks might have feared. With the injuries piling up and Wood playing primarily at center, the Mavericks’ defense has fallen off a cliff, ranking 26th in their last seven games.
Defensive adjustment is also where the question of Wood’s long-term future becomes really difficult. If Dallas offers Wood a contract extension and he accepts it, it will be between $18 million and $19 million per year, a threshold that 72 players in the NBA have reached. By my analysis of Salary data from Spotrac only 22 of them are older men.
That’s not too surprising, as guards and wing players dominate the current NBA landscape. In the chart above, you see names like Clint Capela, Aaron Gordon, and Domantas Sabonis in that $18-$19 million salary range. They are all more complete players than Wood.
If Dallas doesn’t offer Wood the extension, they would still retain his Bird rights in free agency. But retaining him then could cost upwards of $20 million a year, and that’s when things can get problematic. Anything beyond that number for a big who isn’t an MVP-caliber player (like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, or Joel Embiid), or a defensive anchor (like Rudy Gobert, Jaren Jackson Jr., Draymond Green, Bam Adebayo or Anthony Davis) is probably not a smart team-building strategy. High-scoring power forwards who don’t defend at an above-average rate or can create shots for others are one of the biggest inefficiencies in the NBA market right now. (Think Julius Randle and John Collins.) Don’t take my word for it; after all, the Mavericks learned that lesson the hard way with Porzingis. And as efficient as Wood has been this season, the offense remains a mess when he doesn’t share the floor with Doncic, who drops to 107.9 points per 100 possessions. (For comparison, the Charlotte Hornets are the worst offense in the NBA at 108.6.)
So the Mavericks have a dilemma on their hands. Even if they do offer the extension, there’s no guarantee Wood will accept it. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s not far-fetched to think there’s a gap between how both sides perceive Wood’s value. Signs from Wood and his camp point to the fact that they think of him as a full-time starter, if not a borderline All-Star. The Mavericks’ handling of him thus far, on the other hand, leads me to believe they see him as a scoring spark, who can change the tone of a game off the bench, but is better suited playing behind another defensive anchor . A supercharged version of Bobby Portis playing behind Brook Lopez in Milwaukee.
One problem for Dallas is that they don’t have Lopez. His closest facsimile has just suffered a serious injury. And while the pressure is on for the Mavericks find your version of the Jrue Holiday trade, the fact that their Khris Middleton left for New York in the summer makes the situation even more difficult. The latter was a huge blow, and now the Mavericks are looking at a similar situation to the one they faced with Jalen Brunson last year. The Mavericks needed Brunson to emerge as a clear second option when things looked bleak during the COVID outbreak last December and later in April, when Doncic missed the first three games of the playoffs. Their chances of turning things around this season hinge on Wood proving he can be as reliable as Brunson once he’s moved into the starting lineup. The hope is that lineups with Doncic and Wood will continue to thrive on offense with more playing time, even against opposing starting units. But even if that happens, Kidd and Sean Sweeney need to be creative enough to build enough protections around both of them so things don’t fall apart on defense. We’ll see if the Mavericks explore around Doncic and Wood with their best wing fixers — Dorian Finney-Smith, Josh Green and Reggie Bullock — once they’re all available again.
And if they succeed and salvage this season, Dallas’ reward will be the same challenge they faced with Brunson entering free agency. Wood would be a player they didn’t fully commit to early on, and he could have played in the price range they’re willing to pay at the time they did. Nico Harrison and Co. they have to be much more proactive this time around, which means considering the possibility of a trade if the right deal comes along. The Mavericks can’t afford to lose Wood for nothing.
What can they afford when on the court? This is a much bigger question. And the answer will shape the rest of Dallas’ season.
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