I’ll start this piece by breaking my own rule and typing in the first person. I’m doing so because this one is a little more personal for me.
I want to be clear that it brings me no pleasure to criticize a Houston Rocket. Ever. I wish I believed that every member of this team was exactly right for its present and future, at every moment, during every season.
The NBA’s trade deadline came and went yesterday, and it was relatively quiet on the Rockets’ front. The team did make one deal, a savvy move to get off of Daniel Theis’ unnecessary long-term pact. In exchange, they received some expiring contracts (headlined by Dennis Schroder) and a young player with some upside in Bruno Fernando.
With that said, this Houston Rockets deadline was defined by the deals the team didn’t make. That’s not to suggest that Rafael Stone should have felt particularly pressured to broker a bigger deal. As a rebuilding club, there’s very little pressure for the Rockets to do anything in particular, outside of actively planning for the future.
That’s where concerns come into play.
Is Christian Wood the right center for this team?
Christian Wood has grown accustomed to seeing his name in trade rumors. He won’t have to worry about changing addresses for at least the remainder of the 2021-22 season. Does his enduring presence on this team signal an organizational commitment to him as the team’s starting center?
More to the point, should we want it to?
Criticisms of Wood’s game are well-documented. As talented as the big man is, there are grievances to air about his play on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, he’s a ball-stopper. There’s not a more polite way to say it. Regularly, we’ll watch this team move the ball throughout a possession until it lands in Wood’s hands. Once it gets there, the likelihood of him trying to generate a basket out of isolation is high. Higher than anybody else’s on the team, in fact.
Wood leads the Houston Rockets in percentage of isolation possessions at 12.8%. He converts 42.1% of those, which lands in the league’s 60th percentile.
That’s not a bad mark, but it’s far from elite. It poses a particular challenge with this squad. Kevin Porter Jr. has done an admirable job of adjusting to the point guard position this season, but he’s still an attacking guard. That’s fine: it’s in his DNA, and score-first point guards litter the NBA in 2021-22.
Jalen Green is also known for his scoring ability. He’s been a surprisingly willing passer in his rookie campaign, but the Rockets drafted him hoping to land their alpha scorer of the future.
He’s shown ample flashes that he can become that this season. However, with his center commandeering so many possessions in pursuit of his own basket, he frequently finds himself phased out of the offense.
That’s not to say Green’s struggles all fall on Wood. He needs to learn to be more aggressive. Still, the Rockets routinely run at least three players whose strongest natural ability is to score the basketball. It doesn’t make intuitive sense to start a pair of scorers in the backcourt and feature an isolation heavy scorer at the 5 spot. That’s too many cooks in the kitchen, and they need a helper.
A helper like Alperen Sengun.
The prodigiously-talented rookie is almost undeniably the best passer on this team. Offensively, his skill set seems more conducive to the development of this team’s young backcourt. Simply put, both Porter Jr. and Green need the ball, and Sengun will get it to them.
Of course, offense is only half of the game. It’s also only half the problem with Wood’s fit.
Can Christian Wood be the last line of defense?
It isn’t hard to make the case that an NBA team’s center is most likely to define its defense. Big men are typically tasked with defending the rim. Even in the three-point era, dunks and layups are the best shots on the floor. It’s essential for any team to contain those attempts.
Unfortunately, that’s not Wood’s strong suit. Opponents are shooting 65.8% on field goal attempts from within 5 feet when Wood is the primary defender.
That’s not a good mark. For context, Jarred Allen holds opponents to 55.7% shooting in the same situation. Recently-acquired Rocket Bruno Fernando keeps opponents at 58.1%. The recently-departed Theis holds opposing players to 59.6% shooting from within 5 feet.
It’s worth noting that this stat is imperfect. Sometimes, a player is recorded as the “nearest defender” when they still weren’t near enough to have any chance at making a stop. Still, the numbers correspond with the eye test. Wood routinely misses off-ball rotations, which, on a team featuring the 6-4 Jae’Sean Tate at power forward, often means a layup line for the opposing team.
Of course, one could point to roster construction as the flaw. If the Rockets rostered a Draymond Green type alongside Wood, his defensive warts could become a nonissue. Still, it would be simpler to just acquire what most good NBA teams covet: a rim-protecting center.
As it stands, the Rockets are lacking in that department and it shows. The team’s league-worst 115.7 defensive rating is strong evidence. Once again, that can’t singlehandedly fall on Wood’s shoulders. Still, the numbers seem to tell a story. Wood struggles to protect the rim, and the Rockets accordingly struggle to get stops.
Wood has time to improve, but how much?
Wood’s defenders are quick to remind you that he’s only 26. It’s a fair point, particularly given his lack of experience in the league as a late bloomer. On the other hand, his contract is aging rapidly.
After the 2022-23 season, he’ll be due for an extension. The Rockets avoided making a decision about his future this season, but it’s a question they’ll eventually need to answer.
It may answer itself.
Each of the top three prospects in the upcoming draft would likely edge Wood out of town. Conversely, if the Rockets fall out of a top 3 position, Wood has a season to make strides in terms of his offensive style and defensive ability.
If neither of those things happens, the Rockets will be faced with an unfortunate choice. Either they'll be forced to commit long-term to a ball-sticking, non-defending big man, or they’ll have to let him walk.