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(Editor’s note: We are reviewing all players from the Houston Rockets who finished the 2020-21 season on regular contracts, i.e. not hardship. To access other reviews in this ongoing series, click here.)
Rockets Player: Christian Wood, 6-foot-10 forward/center, 25 years old
2020-21 statistics in Houston: 21.0 points (51.4% FG, 37.4% on 3-pointers), 9.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks in 32.3 minutes per game
Professional Experience: Five NBA seasons
Contract Status: Signed through 2022-23 season at approximately $14 million per year
The Rockets acquired Wood in 2020 free agency through a sign-and-trade deal with Detroit. It was a calculated gamble on an emerging talent who had yet to have a consistent role as a starter, which made some teams hesitant to offer major money (based on it being a small sample). That gamble paid off in a big way for Houston, with which Wood’s production was able to translate over a larger sample and role.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-L18ywEePoM [lawrence-related id=49649,49519]
Prior to a severe right ankle sprain on Feb. 4, Wood was making a serious push for All-Star consideration. An agile big man, Wood is a threat in both pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations — with the athleticism and touch to finish inside and the shooting ability to hit 3-pointers. Defense and playmaking for others were considered weaknesses for Wood earlier in the season, but he showed growth in both areas as 2020-21 progressed. Wood also proved to have more positional versatility than the Rockets first expected. His stint next to Kelly Olynyk after the trade deadline showed Wood could succeed at power forward. Wood believes he's still improving in many areas, including leadership, and he hopes to become a "max player" by his next contract. It's certainly not unfathomable, since versatile big men who can exceed 20 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting well from 3-point range are rare commodities. At this point, Wood isn't nearly as dominant or consistent as elite big men such as Anthony Davis (who he watches closely), but a similar template for high-level success is there. https://twitter.com/BigSargeSportz/status/1387262711248130049 The biggest area of needed improvement for Wood is durability. While he was excellent in 2020-21 when able to play, he missed 31 of 72 games due to injury — primarily in the form of persistent ankle issues. While there's nothing to indicate Wood has any chronic injury, he's indicated a desire to strengthen his ankles in the offseason, along with a willingness to experiment with precautionary measures such as high-top sneakers. In order for Wood to receive the max contract that he wants when he next becomes a free agent in 2023, a prerequisite will be proving he's able to handle starter's minutes over a long NBA season. [lawrence-related id=48592,48394]
General manager Rafael Stone has referred to Wood as part of a "young core" for the rebuilding Rockets, with other members including KJ Martin, Kevin Porter Jr., and Jae'Sean Tate. Wood's inclusion in that group is interesting, since the first two were just 20 years old at the time of Stone's statement, and Tate an NBA rookie. Wood is more experienced. Yet, it could be argued Wood is still earlier in his development cycle than what his age would initially suggest. After going undrafted in 2015, it took Wood several years of playing overseas and in the G League before getting an extended opportunity at the NBA level. That made 2020-21 his first year as a consistent starter. Relative to most players of his age, Wood has reduced mileage on his legs, and he's also had less time to make adjustments. Thus, even though he's a few years older than Porter and Martin, Wood might not be as far off from them — in terms of their NBA lifespans — as what the age gap might suggest. https://twitter.com/TheRocketsWire/status/1376935022922506244 For a rebuilding franchise like the Rockets in 2021, having age alignment among key players is critical. The idea, of course, is to have all members of the core group entering or still in their peak form by the time that the franchise is next ready to contend for an NBA title. While that exact timetable is unclear, a closer look at Wood's personal story offers hope on the basketball side that he has many elite years still ahead of him. That's the basketball side. Unfortunately for Houston, any examination of Wood's long-term outlook also has to include contractual factors. Unlike a player on his first contract such as Porter, who will initially be a restricted free agent, Wood will be unrestricted when he hits free agency in 2023. That means the Rockets can't automatically retain him by matching any outside offer. He has to want to be there. Moreover, Wood has made it clear he hopes to land a maximum contract — representing a huge pay increase from his current deal at under $14 million per season. The good news is Wood has already expressed his love for Houston and a desire to stick around. But the dollars and cents will still need to line up. From the team's perspective, the money they're willing to offer Wood may also depend on factors entirely unrelated to him. For example, if Houston lands an elite prospect via the June 22 draft lottery and/or acquires any star player(s) via free agency or trade over the next year or so, there's less risk to giving Wood a massive contract. Even if larger salaries are added to Houston's roster, Stone can simply use Wood's Bird rights to go over the salary cap to retain him. While it could limit future financial flexibility, that factor becomes less important if the foundation to a potential title contender is already in place. The same logic might also apply if Porter and/or Martin show strong signs of developing into star players, themselves. https://twitter.com/TheRocketsWire/status/1387271865178021892 On the other hand, what if Houston isn't as lucky? What if the draft lottery goes bust, and they aren't yet able to pull off any of their desired trades for (or signings of) a star? It would be risky to give Wood a big deal if the foundation of a contender isn't yet in place, since a max salary could prohibit the financial flexibility needed for other big moves. In any dire scenario, the Rockets would likely explore trading Wood, rather than risk losing him for no compensation. That would especially be the case if Houston is nowhere close to title contention, which further limits the upside of playing out the contract and delaying a decision. The good news is the Rockets don't need a final answer to those questions in 2021. For that matter, based on his injuries last season, Wood isn't yet in position to command a max deal. For the time being, both sides are highly likely to stay the course. But if Wood stays relatively healthy and plays as well as he expects in 2021-22, it's a storyline to watch as next year's trade deadline and the 2022 offseason approach. If Wood plays well enough to justify a max contract from an NBA team, will Houston be at a point in its rebuilding plan by July 2023 to where they can give him that type of deal without having to worry about losing financial flexibility? If the Rockets aren't at such a point, trading Wood before his cheaper contract expires could become a consideration. [listicle id=49912]