Christian Wood: Starter or Sixth Man?

The Dallas Mavericks’ acquisition of Kyrie Irving has reshaped the team. Luka Dončić has finally found the Robin to his Batman, and Dallas is quickly growing into a legitimate playoff contender.

With growth, however, comes growing pains, and Christian Wood might be experiencing the brunt of that pain. 

Wood began the season as the team’s sixth man and then worked his way into the starting lineup. Yet, he was sidelined by a thumb injury, and with the steady performance of Dwight Powell, the resurgence of JaVale McGee and the upcoming return of Maxi Kleber, Wood finds himself as the odd man out among the Mavericks’ big men. 

With the All-Star break approaching, the coaching staff must decide on Wood’s role, either by returning him to the starting lineup or once again using him as the sixth man.

The Starter

Starting Wood will provide Dončić and Irving an elite offensive complementary piece.

During his 17-game stretch as a starter, Wood validated his offensive prowess by averaging 20.4 points and 9.4 rebounds on 51.7% shooting from the floor and 37.1% shooting from three-point range. 

With Dončić and Irving being two of the best isolation scorers in the NBA, Wood’s scoring threat as a roll-man or shooter can discourage double teams. Wood converts on a blistering 43.7% of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers, which will discourage defenses from deploying Wood’s defender to play help defense or to double-team Dončić or Irving. His scoring potential as a starter would enable Dallas to fully lean into the five-out offense.

Wood is also one of the most potent pick-and-roll (PnR) players in the league, as his 1.52 points-per-roll places him in the 95th percentile of roll-men. Furthermore, CraftedNBA ranks him as the best pick-and-pop (PnP) big in the league.

Wood is not great in isolation, ranking in the 48th percentile in isolation efficiency, but he is the third-best isolation scorer on the team and would likely see his isolation efficiency improve due to Dončić’s and Irving’s floor gravity. His passable isolation skills will, at the very least, keep defenses honest and open up more scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. 

The defense will certainly be sloppy, yet Wood, unlike Powell, provides the offensive firepower necessary to overcome a leaky defense. Powell has equally great chemistry with Dončić, but his inability to spread the floor clogs up driving lanes and gives help defenders more freedom to double-team. Pairing Wood with Kleber in the starting lineup can compensate for Wood’s defensive deficiencies, as Kleber’s ability to guard both wings and centers will allow Wood to predominantly focus on paint protection, where he was averaging 2.3 blocks per game as a starter.

The Sixth Man

As I previously discussed, the more likely scenario involves Wood remaining in his sixth-man role, which is indicative of Jason Kidd and his staff wanting to take a more balanced approach to the rotation. 

During his 31 games off the bench, Wood is averaging 16.3 points and 7.2 rebounds on 53.6% shooting from the floor and 38.5% shooting from three-point range. 

Wood’s offensive versatility might be diluted if he plays in a lineup with both Dončić and Irving, as the ball-dominant guard duo would likely relegate Wood to a corner shooter role. Plus, with the newfound wrinkle of Dončić setting screens for Irving and vice versa, Wood’s functionality as a PnR or PnP big will be diminished. 

Wood’s mediocre isolation skill set limits his ability to function as the primary offensive option, and thus his offensive skill set is best maximized in lineups where he functions as the second option. This strikes a good balance in maximizing Wood’s touches while also reducing his need to carry the offense. Wood and Dončić have fantastic chemistry, and this pairing has a +4.8 box plus-minus when on the floor. Similar success can be expected from an Irving-Wood duo as well, as Irving ranks in the 85th percentile in PnR scoring. 

Wood’s offensive skills will also bring lineups absent of Dončić and Irving some scoring punch. Wood is the most talented offensive player off the bench and has feasted on opponents’ secondary units. He scored 13 points in just five minutes against the Sacramento Kings’ bench and led a personal 16-0 run against the Phoenix Suns’ backups in the season opener. His ability to go on a hot streak can keep the team afloat offensively while Dončić and Irving get rest. 

Wood’s role off the bench, additionally, allows Kidd to design more Dončić-and Irving-friendly lineups. Wood, despite the physical tools and career-high block numbers, gets lost in defensive rotations, struggles to hold his ground in the low block and occasionally fails to get back on defense. Offensively, Wood struggles with decision-making, occasionally taking heavily contested threes or layups simply because he is shooting well, which disrupts the flow of the offense. Bullock and Kleber better suit Dončić’s and Irving’s needs as three-and-D role players.

Ultimately, Wood’s role as the sixth man might be both better for him and for the team. In this capacity, Wood will be able to operate as the primary or secondary offensive option and receive many more attempts to showcase his offensive skill set against vastly inferior competition. His inconsistent offensive decision-making can be channeled into more productive efforts against less talented opponents, and his defensive liabilities can be masked by playing alongside McGee or Kleber.

Plus, in pursuit of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Wood might just pick up the John Havlicek Trophy along the way.

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