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Was Christian Wood trade a case of addition by subtraction for Rockets?

The Rockets just traded, arguably, their best player. Was it the best decision?

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Houston Rockets
Will the Rockets miss Christian Wood?
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, you anticipate a moment for so long that you ruin it ahead of time. It simply can’t live up to what you envisioned.

When I got the notification that the Houston Rockets had traded Christian Wood, I was playing video games after a day’s work (Horizon Forbidden West: if you game, I highly recommend it). It was a routine evening: it’s one of three ways I spend my time after 7:00 PM. If I hadn’t been gaming, I’d have been with my girlfriend or the same group of three guys.

I just feel that somehow, I should have been doing something different. I should have been on a cliff overlooking the ocean or in the middle of some kind of Eat, Pray, Love soul-searching trip. I should have been doing something that punctuated the gravity of this long-awaited moment.

Many Rockets fans wanted this to happen. For the sake of transparency, I’ll be clear: I was one of them. Still, in this eulogization of Wood’s tenure as a Rocket, I’ll try to be objective.

Did the Rockets make the right call?

Christian Wood: A Rockets retrospective

I’ll start with the positives. Christian Wood was probably the best player on this roster.

He wasn’t the most naturally talented: that honor, in my opinion, went distinctly to Jalen Green. It went to Alperen Sengun and Kevin Porter Jr. before it went to Wood. Still, he was the team’s best player in the sense that he was the player most functionally capable of scoring 20 points efficiently in the NBA on a given night.

Offensively, the issue many fans had with Wood’s play emphasized “functionally” capable. Different players can get you those 20 points in different ways. Wood was supposed to do it as a complementary piece to a playmaker.

In fairness to him, that's what he was brought to Houston to do. He was supposed to be the finishing touch on a contending Rockets team featuring a James Harden / Russell Westbrook backcourt. Instead, he found himself as the focal point of a rebuild.

That’s not an ideal place for Wood. He should be filling a simple, minimized offensive role. Set a pick. Roll sometimes, and pop other times. If the ball-handler gives it to you, attempt a field goal. Rinse and repeat.

In the absence of that ball-handler, Wood went rogue. He led the team in isolation frequency at 12.4 percent. His defenders will note that he barely edged Jalen Green (11.1 percent) or Kevin Porter Jr. (11.8 percent) in the same category.

The thing is, Wood isn’t a player who should be isolating, period. He’s unlikely to find opportunities to isolate in any offense other than the anarchistic 2021-22 Rockets attack.

Wood exploited this team’s lack of structure. He developed several habits that to some, looked to prioritize his own touches and opportunities over the team’s well-being. He only set slip screens, more concerned with creating an advantage for himself than the Rockets. He’d routinely scramble for post position whenever Green had a mismatch with his assignment.

After all, if Green had an advantage, logically, so did he.

Still, offense wasn’t the only place where Wood preferred to be matched up with smaller players.

Wood’s defense was indefensible

It wouldn’t be hard to waste words on Wood’s defensive effort during his time in Houston. Here are roughly 30 clips of him botching his assignment in a wide variety of ways.

Watch that if you have a lot of time. It’s painful, until you remember that it’s not your problem anymore.

In maintaining an effort to be objective, it’s worth noting that Wood’s natural position, at least defensively, is probably at the four spot. That doesn’t excuse his consistently lackadaisical effort on that end of the ball.

Besides, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Wood demonstrated any particular penchant for guarding the perimeter. He was better there, and if you’re in the habit of celebrating C- efforts because they aren’t Fs, feel free.

Of course, that effort was only a factor when Wood was even back to defend the possession. Several times per game, he was on the other end of the floor protesting a call. In almost 30 years of watching this team, I don’t think I’ve seen the Rockets at a five-on-four disadvantage on defense so regularly.

Did the Rockets win the trade?

Simply put, no. If you’re analyzing this trade with a strict, dichotomous “win or lose” mindset, the Rockets did not win the trade. In a vacuum, they didn’t get great value for Wood: basically, a bunch of veterans the team probably won’t play, and the 26th overall pick in the upcoming draft.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t benefit from it. This trade could be a case of addition by subtraction.

From a pure team-building perspective, Wood probably had to go no matter what. The Rockets are likely to welcome one of Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren, or Jabari Smith Jr. in the 2022 Draft. Alperen Sengun has star potential. Usman Garuba deserves an opportunity.

The frontcourt was getting congested. Even if you liked Wood’s style of play, it’s hard to imagine how the Rockets would make sufficient time for their higher upside prospects with him on the roster.

If there’s a lesson in Wood’s tenure, it may be that cutting ties with a player while their value is high has a benefit. Rockets fans have spent the better part of two years dreaming big dreams. If not Miles Bridges, then at least P.J. Washington. If we can’t get Jonathan Kuminga, surely James Wiseman and Moses Moody will be on the table, right?

Try Boban Marjanovic and the 26th pick. This deal could be a case of addition by subtraction, but if the Rockets had made it a year ago, it could have been addition by addition.

Rockets fans ought to brace for what’s to come. It’s distinctly possible that Wood will serve in his proper role as an off-ball threat alongside Luka Doncic. It’s harder to imagine his defense rounding into form, but it’s possible.

The question isn’t whether Wood will look better in Dallas. The question is: Would he have looked better in Houston in time for the team to make a decision on his new contract?

In my opinion, that was always exceedingly unlikely. Christian Wood may mature. Human beings are complicated. Still, something about this man has seen him rejected by every NBA team he’s landed on. Even after his 2018-19 statistical break out in Detroit, the rebuilding Pistons put up little resistance in letting Wood come to Houston.

Rockets fans were astonished at their dumb luck. How, exactly, is this guy landing in our laps?

Now, we know. Soon, Mavericks fans may find out too. Whether they do or not, the Rockets had to move on.

Good riddance, Christian Wood; and all the best.