Christian Wood, the Rockets’ rebuild and the looming decision that may define it

The Houston Rockets have a Christian Wood-sized question to answer this offseason: Is he here for the long haul?

The 26-year-old big man is entering the final year of his three-year, $41 million deal signed in 2020. The circumstances — and the rationale — behind that decision were a bit different back then, adding a mobile, offensive-minded center to pair with James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

That combination was supposed to unlock a new stratosphere for the Rockets offensively they hadn’t been privy to, having only used traditional rim-running bigs like Dwight Howard and Clint Capela during that era. As fate would have it, Harden’s time in Houston was coming to a close, and his eventual departure — along with the Westbrook for John Wall swap — meant Wood’s status suddenly was less of a running mate and more of a leading candidate.

Describing that transition as awkward at best, given the timing and abrupt arrival of the Rockets’ forced rebuild, brings us to where we are today, unsure of the next steps for Wood and Houston.

Wood, without a doubt, is the most polarizing figure on the roster. He’ll be 27 and entering his seventh season by the time the 2022-23 campaign rolls around, but he’s only played in 222 games, roughly around three full healthy years, and subsequently started in 122 games, not even two full seasons worth. Of course, you learn and grow by being around NBA franchises, but his on-court experience isn’t that far off from several of his teammates.

Wood’s Offensive Snapshot

Playtype

  

% Time

  

PPP

  

%ile

  

Spot Up

17.6

0.99

51st

P&R Roll Man

16.9

1.2

67th

Transition

12.8

0.96

22nd

Isolation

12.4

0.93

63rd

Post Up

9

0.95

57th

Cut

8.7

1.28

49th

Off-Screen

5

1.17

87th

Compared to last season, Wood’s scoring took a dip (21.0 points per game to 17.9), but with the full-time additions of Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green and a slight minutes drop, it’s understandable. He did, however, become a better 3-point shooter (career-best 39 percent), rebounder (10.1) and passer (2.3 assists).

Record-wise, the Rockets were the league’s worst team last season. There is a natural side-eye to players putting up good stats on bad teams, so there’s always a need for context when looking at those numbers. With that in mind, there are some aspects of the game that need not be up for discussion. Wood is a good player who has played within expectations of his role over the past two seasons in Houston.

So why all the questions about his long-term future? Where are the doubts about his ability to fit in with their young core coming from?

It’s a multifaceted answer that has to do with the upcoming draft, last season’s draft, logjams and fits.


The Rockets have the No. 3 pick in next month’s draft. This time last season, with Houston having the second pick, there were hundreds of hours dedicated to that selection — the prospect of possibly jumping up and trading with the Detroit Pistons, fishing through the nice group of players at the top, identifying who would come and work out at the facilities, etc. A case could have been made for Cade Cunningham, Green, Scottie Barnes, Evan Mobley or even Jalen Suggs last season; the 2021 class was that deep.

It’s different this time around. There are three main names at the top: Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith and Paolo Banchero. Because of the talent gap that exists between those three and the rest of the presumed lottery-bound talent — and with the Rockets picking third — the amount of necessary legwork compared to last year is considerably less. Houston can take the best available of the three. But looking at those three players, they all share one thing in common: They all play in the frontcourt. All three either played next to a big man or, in Holmgren’s case, were the big man. Any one of those three instantly would play a similar position to Wood, a problem.

While Wood was brought in as a center, two things are clear. Head coach Stephen Silas tried to deploy him more as a stylish four beside Alperen Şengün (who we’ll get to shortly), but that was a disaster. The other realization from last season is Wood’s best position is center, which is a bit of an issue because of Şengün’s presence — and Houston’s internal optimism and belief in him.

The Rockets drafted Şengün with the No. 16 pick in the 2021 draft, giving them an interesting skill set at the center position. Şengün lacks an outside jumper, but he’s a playmaking hub capable of conducting a half-court offense. He tends to hold on to the ball longer than necessary and tries some incredibly difficult passes at times, but the vision is there. Silas was intrigued enough with Şengün and Wood that he attempted to play them together. At least on paper, some of the thinking made sense. Wood can stretch the floor and can attack from different spots on the floor, and Sengun can play the role of a traffic cop, raising Houston’s collective playmaking with Green and Porter.

In 323 minutes together, the Wood-Şengün pairing was a minus-12.9, with an offensive rating of just 102.1 and a ghastly defensive rating of 115.0. How much of these numbers are attributed to the “Wood and Şengün can’t play together” group, and how much is attributed to the “Houston was just generally awful” group? I don’t think Houston’s defense ever will be viable with both of them on the floor for long stretches, although there were some possessions where they held their own. It’s more of Şengün still being a ways away physically from being a positive defender and Wood not being that comfortable oscillating between coverages than it is an indictment on them. Sometimes, players just don’t mesh.

Offensively, I think that combo can work in spurts. There are enough possessions in the clips above to make that claim. But Wood finds himself hovering around the rim more than he is spaced out. Understandable to an extent, given his belief of being a center and thinking he should be able to punish smaller players in the post. But you still run into other problems.

The Rockets want to be a better defensive team, and right now, all signs are pointing to veteran Eric Gordon reclaiming his spot in the starting lineup once he returns (Gordon started 46 of 57 games played this past season). If you can pencil him in along with Green and Porter, that leaves two spots remaining — and we haven’t even factored in Jae’Sean Tate.

So what do you do? Give Wood and Şengün another crack at it, leaving the No. 3 pick on the bench? Leave Wood in at center, add whoever comes in this year’s draft and continue to bring Şengün off the bench? It’s not that easy, especially if Houston is supposed to be all in on development. Şengün had too solid of a rookie season to simply relegate him to the second unit, particularly with Wood’s future in the air.

Şengün averaged 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists on .474/.248/.711 shooting splits as a rookie, impressive marks for a 19-year-old. The outside shooting needs work and the 2.0 turnovers he averaged per game need to come down, but he also averaged 0.8 steals and 0.9 blocks a contest. Şengün was active. His numbers as a starter are even more impressive: 12.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 13 games. Şengün’s minutes jumped from around 19 to 30, and while his usage fell (23.1 to 19.6), he’s sharing the floor with players like Green and Porter who need the ball in their hands, even more so given how well the backcourt played to end the season. Şengün typically had the ball more in his hands as the fulcrum of the second unit.

Consider Şengün’s last six outings:

  • 9 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 block
  • 17 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal
  • 14 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block
  • 14 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block
  • 12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks
  • 27 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block

Looking at those numbers led me to ask Silas what he would do once training camp opens. Wood’s hamstring injury kept him on the sidelines to end the season, prompting Silas to run a different rotation featuring the youth of the team. He admitted that camp would be interesting and said there would be a need for selflessness and sacrifice.

Houston’s assistant coaching search, while it might not be directly tied to Wood, still has some ties to it. His outburst on the bench last season was an indication that reeling him in may take more than just Silas and lead assistant John Lucas. Refusing to check into a game almost is unheard of in today’s game, and his subsequent suspension was fitting. I understand that Green now is the most important player on the team, but if you want Wood around for the long haul, shouldn’t the next assistant be someone trusted to get the best out of him? After all, it’s the assistants who spend more time daily with the players than the head coach.

This is why I originally thought of Kings assistant Stacy Augmon as someone to consider for one of Houston’s open positions. Augmon is extremely close to Wood, as he recruited Wood to UNLV, and is someone Wood holds in high regard. If you’re committed to Wood, Augmon certainly would help in that process.

But if there is a shred of doubt in Houston’s mind — whether it’s from Wood, the coaching staff or the front office — about long-term prospects, the clock is ticking. Wood is no stranger to hearing his name involved in trade rumors.

“I just continue to play my game,” Wood told me that month. “Continue to hoop. If anything, it’s motivation. I know all 30 teams are watching, regardless if I’m in a trade talk or not. Just motivation to keep going. It gives me a little extra step when I step on the floor.”

It’s obvious why teams have been intrigued with Wood in the past. He’s a unicorn of a big man. That interest hasn’t waned, even in the early weeks of the offseason, sources told The Athletic. Wood is talented enough to where the Rockets can’t let him walk without getting assets back if their tenure is headed for an ending.


So what does the market look like? What would a potential deal for Wood be? Let’s take a look at some options.

Option 1: Wood and No. 17 draft pick to Charlotte for Mason Plumlee, P.J. Washington and No. 13 pick

Charlotte has been interested in Wood, and from the looks of it, the Hornets still need a quality center. Plumlee is fine as a backup, but the Hornets are coming off their second consecutive season being eliminated in the Play-In Tournament. Wood would give them a dangerous angle, especially being able to play off LaMelo Ball in the half court. With the 17th pick, the Hornets still would be able to add a quality rotational player. Houston would get Plumlee, who would be a quality veteran backup, and would get a look at Washington, a nice 3-and-D wing, along with moving up in the draft and snagging a second lottery pick.

Option 2: Wood, the No. 17 draft pick, Milwaukee’s 2023 first-round pick and Houston’s 2024 second-round pick to New York for Cam Reddish, Nerlens Noel and No. 11 pick

The Rockets own the Bucks’ 2023 first by way of the P.J. Tucker trade. The Knicks are in danger of losing Mitchell Robinson in free agency and could benefit from a quality stretch big to pair with RJ Barrett and Julius Randle. The 17th pick, again, still allows them to add another first-round talent. Reddish’s stock is down after a weird season, but he still has some upside and would get a fresh start. Noel is the backup defensive big Houston sorely needs, and with the 11th pick, another high-end rookie comes on board the rebuild.

Option 3: Wood to San Antonio for Zach Collins, Romeo Langford and No. 20 draft pick

The Spurs are in that weird spot as a franchise, caught between a rebuild and competing. Wood pushes them more to the latter and is better than whatever the 20th pick would net right now. Langford has decent size at 6 foot 4 for a two guard but hasn’t been able to find stability in his first three years in the league. His development has stagnated; a move to Houston might be beneficial. Collins would step in as the backup big the Rockets are looking for, more refined than Bruno Fernando and an underrated passer and defender. The 20th pick is the sweetener, giving Houston a late first to add to its draft haul.


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(Photo of Christian Wood: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

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