Why Houston should end its chapter with Christian Wood

There is currently a raging debate regarding the Rockets. So far, Houston has had simple decisions and good fortune in its rebuilding plan. In 2020, James Harden made it clear that his tenure in Houston was over, allowing the Rockets to extract maximum value from Brooklyn. There was little debate as to what the team would have to do.

Last summer, the team was able to keep their own first-round pick despite a 50/50 chance of having to send him to Oklahoma City. Again, it was an easy choice for the Rockets to pounce on the best player on their roster. Houston took on Jalen Green, seeing him as a dynamic guard who is a good fit for the future of the NBA.

When Alperen Sengun dropped to the 16th pick, general manager Rafael Stone made the obvious decision to send two future protected firsts for a player who most expected to enter the lottery. Those decisions were relatively easy for Houston, and the path was pretty clear.

The Rockets, however, have finally come to the first difficult crossroads in their rebuilding. They have to make a decision on what to do with their current best player, center Christian Wood.

Now 26, Wood joined the Rockets in the 2020 offseason as the perfect finishing piece alongside Harden and Russell Westbrook. It was hoped Wood’s peripheral shooting and versatility as a big man could bring size back to the Rockets’ roster and allow pick-and-roll play to return without clogging the way and injuring Westbrook.

Instead, none of this happened. Westbrook was dealt to the Washington Wizards soon after in exchange for John Wall, and Harden effectively left the team soon after. Despite a short reign of the WOW factor, with an offensive game plan centered on Wood, Victor Oladipo and John Wall…the team spat.

Houston had the worst record in the NBA over the past two seasons, and the relative lack of talent allowed Wood to feature as the team’s premier player. He averaged 21.0 points and 9.6 rebounds in the 2020-21 season, followed by 17.9 points and 10.1 rebounds in 2021-22. That included an impressive 39% 3-point clip last season.

Today, the Rockets look set to move from a talent vacuum into the next phase of their rebuild: talent development. Green and Kevin Porter Jr. both look set to operate as dominant, rock-scoring goaltenders. In the frontcourt, Sengun thrived in a limited role last season, and many would like to see him operating with more minutes as a starting centre.

Additionally, the team will incorporate another lottery pick with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. The consensus seems to be that Duke’s Paolo Banchero, who dominated the 2022 NCAA Tournament, will be the selection for Houston. Banchero is an excellent passer and forward striker, with the size to even play a small-ball center role.

All of these factors leave the Rockets and general manager Rafael Stone in an interesting position. They have a lot of young talent, many of whom are able to score the ball and create. At this point, youth and scoring are probably the two most positive skills attributed to Wood.

On the other hand, what is Houston missing? They plan to be terrible defensively, and that’s something head coach Stephen Silas has been preaching about wanting to improve this offseason. The most recent reports even indicate that it is possible to retain veteran Eric Gordon, who does not fit the reconstruction schedule, for his versatile skills. As young as the Rockets are, they lack a significant veteran presence in the locker room.

The best path forward for Houston, despite Wood’s talent and what he’s brought to the team over the past season, may mean moving on.

The Rockets have a large sample size on Wood. He didn’t turn out to be the veteran Marcus Smart-esque leader to surround Green, Sengun and possibly Banchero. He sadly refused to substitute again in a game last season.

For a team that lacks defensive presence, Wood didn’t show up like that. From this side, he is considered a relative handicap, and Silas was reluctant to launch Wood and Sengun together.

Unfortunately for Houston, Wood’s punching power only serves as a point to take away touches from younger players. The Rockets’ 2022-23 season may not make sense, but every field goal attempt for a young player is another step in the build-up to the following year’s playoff hunt. Shot attempts and minutes taken by Wood are inherently minutes that cannot be distributed to Banchero and Sengun, as well as shots that cannot be taken by Porter Jr. and Green.

In a perfect world, Wood is a great center for today’s NBA. His ground-stretching ability makes him viable in multiple lineups, and it’s a skill set that suits almost any team.

This could also be why now is the perfect time to move it.

Shopping at center for a team like the Portland Trail Blazers, who are looking for veteran talent to complement Damian Lillard, or the Charlotte Hornets as running mate for All-Star guard Lamelo Ball, could yield a nice return. That could provide viable wing pieces that Houston could use to improve their defense, or additional draft capital to allow Stone to navigate the board and gain prospects he covets.

There is definitely interest in the league.

While it’s arguably the first tough decision to make in rebuilding Houston, it’s the best decision for all parties. Wood should work better on a playoff-contending team that needs his offensive skills more. Meanwhile, for the Rockets, Wood’s departure will place additional burdens and opportunities on their young players, allying them together to adapt to the NBA level more quickly.

There’s also the benefit of extracting some value for Wood ahead of his 2023 free agency, when he could potentially leave without compensation.

Fans will have to wait and see how Stone chooses to navigate this fork. But this could be the month of action, as waiting until July or later would allow potential suitors to find alternatives in free agency.

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