This postseason, the Dallas Mavericks’ roster problems were exposed harshly in the playoff brilliance. They didn’t have enough championship-caliber rotation players, and they especially didn’t have enough size. They had fired at Creation, but not far enough past the three leading guards to sustain them against the tightest defenses. This is what often happens to teams that advance further than expected in the playoffs. When the Mavericks’ season ended in the Conference Finals, the team cited their lack of depth at center and vowed to improve.
This offseason, however, the Mavericks headed for another roster problem, which understandably lacks the same spotlight because, well, it’s more cheesy.
In other words, they had too many players. By Wednesday, Dallas had 12 guaranteed contracts and two unsecured ones — Maxi Kleber and Frank Ntilikina — that they would have been foolish not to exercise. In other words, if Dallas hadn’t moved, every player under contract last season would have been on the verge of returning, all but Jalen Brunson.
A superb playoff performance from Brunson eased any qualms the team might have had about paying him, and it’s more likely than ever that the Mavericks will re-sign him on a date yet to be negotiated – wink wink – price this July. Before Wednesday, that would have given them contractual obligations to 15 players – without solving depth problems, without adding another center, without bringing back Theo Pinson (who is no longer eligible for a two-way contract), without consideration for the impending luxury of the team -tax bill.
On Wednesday, the Mavericks agreed to a trade with the Houston Rockets for 26-year-old center Christian Wood, as first reported by Athleticism. In return, the Mavericks agreed to send Houston the 26th pick in next week’s NBA draft and four players: Boban Marjanović, Trey Burke, Sterling Brown and Marquese Chriss. (The trade can’t be officially completed until after the 2022 draft due to the NBA’s Stepien Rule.) In one move, Dallas solved its roster conundrum by offloading four end-of-the-bench players, including neither has played significant minutes this playoffs. when the team was healthy. They did so at the low cost of a late first round, which I was told they would be unlikely to use on a player who would be on next season’s 15-man roster.
Along with Wood, the Mavericks may have tried to address the roster’s on-field issues as well. The 6-foot-10 center was the only player in the league last season to have a defensive rebound percentage above 30 percent and a 3-point shooting percentage above 38 percent. If you expand that criteria to include 300 3-point attempts, he is one of three players in league history to achieve this in a single season. (The others are Nikola Vučević and, amusingly, Troy Murphy.) Yes, that’s a terribly chosen stat, a literally impossible numerical combination before the 3-point revolution. Wood’s percentages could fall into either category next season, but he’s an extremely effective rebounder who has shown his legitimate ability to take and convert high volumes of shots from behind the arc.
Dallas may also have a curious eye on Wood’s shot creation and offensive drive. He’s averaged over 19 points for the Rockets over the past two seasons for a reason. About 40% of Wood’s 2-point field goals were self-made last season, to go along with 15% of his 3s; Wood wasn’t particularly good at creating for himself, but he has the ability.
Even many of his assisted buckets were far from being spoon-fed by someone; the “audience” was more like someone handing him a bow and arrow and pushing him into the woods. That, in an attack led by Luka Dončić, certainly looks interesting. Dončić creates truckloads of wide-open looks, but his job is easier when his teammates can reliably attack closures or score from deep post positioning – or even sometimes bail him out with late pull jumpers . And, believe me, Wood can also throw lobs.
We’ve already seen a talented big man with a relaxed attitude towards self-made shots struggle alongside Dončić. Wood has played for teams in the dregs of the standings for the past three years, and he’ll need to shift his offensive leanings to accommodate what sent the Mavericks to the Conference Finals. I don’t think it will be too hard. Wood’s road to relevance in this league has been a long and arduous one, one where he has gone through four franchises in his first three seasons. While he was suspended one game by the Rockets last year for an outburst on the bench and subsequent refusal to return in a game, it was a low moment that did not reflect his overall tenure with the team. The Mavericks spent last season establishing a clearly understood culture, and I expect Wood, in a contract season, to strive to fit into it.
If there’s anything that will keep Wood from successfully integrating as the Mavericks’ starting center, it’s his defense. He’s been bad for most of his career, an OK rim protector but too often the kind of immobile defender that good attacks shoot around the perimeter and target ruthlessly. Can he improve in the scheme of Sean Sweeney, someone who coached him three seasons ago in Detroit? How has the loss consistently affected his effort? Will the motivation of the contract year affect him on both sides? Does defensive talent and the membership around him increase his effectiveness?
Nico Harrison might have optimistic answers to each of these questions. But even if Wood’s play answers them in the negative this season – even if he takes too many bad shots, or if his 3-point shot unexpectedly falls apart, or if he’s even relegated to a role of bench – what did Dallas really lose? Passing multiple end-of-the-bench players was necessary, and Mark Cuban certainly didn’t want to give that up, not with every dead cap dollar multiplied once the team passed the luxury tax line. The 26th pick doesn’t have a high pass rate, especially in what is considered this year’s weakest draft class. The Mavericks could try to trade Wood at next year’s deadline if he’s found to be a poor fit; they might even try to do that now, packing him with, say, Tim Hardaway Jr. or Spencer Dinwiddie before July 1, though all indications point to them hanging on to Wood heading into the next offseason.
It’s a low-risk move for the Mavericks, and it’s one that gives them a lot more flexibility than they had when they entered this offseason. It’s not the only thing they decided to fix before next season, but it’s a very good start.
harpist: Christian Wood traded to Mavericks: instant ratings and reaction
(Photo by Luka Dončić and Christian Wood: Kevin Jairaj/USA Today)