One third of the way through the season, the Phoenix Suns have the best record in the NBA, with only 5 losses to the Golden State Warrior’s 6. Devin Booker returned from a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined for several weeks, and Deandre Ayton is back as well. Chris Paul leads the league in assists per game and seems relatively healthy after offseason surgery on his hand.
You’d think this means all’s well on Planet Orange, right?
For the most part: yes, but underneath all this good news are reasons for worry. Despite having the best record in the NBA so far, the Suns lag behind the Warriors and Jazz in terms of point average differential (+10.3, +10.5, to +7.3 respectively). Most purely quantitative measures of team strength put the Suns behind these two as a result. Generally, point differential is strongly correlated with how good a team is, and this is why some of the models think the Suns are going to struggle to reach the finals again.
When the Suns win, they frequently do so by the skin of their teeth. Their record is a testament to Chris Paul’s ridiculous league-leading 53.5 clutch time net rating, more than the total quality of their play. When the Suns do lose, they get obliterated by an average of 16.4 points. If you exclude their single close loss, it rises to 20 points per game. The common denominator in all of these games is the Suns lost the battle on the boards, often by double digits. The result was teams averaging 117 points in these losses.
The statistic that exposes the Suns’ weaknesses the most is rebounding. The team is 20th in the league in defensive rebounding rate, and 23rd on offense. The fault doesn’t lie with Ayton or JaVale McGee: both rebound at a very high rate. The issue is with the Suns power forward play. While Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson are somewhere between good to great defenders, they’re both undersized for the position, and poor rebounders, even small forwards. Additionally, that lack of height and athleticism was a killer in the playoffs, where Giannis had his way with everyone but Ayton.
Rebounding is a key to good defense and offense: offensive rebounds tend to result in higher percentage shots close to the basket while defenses are scrambled. When you get them, your true shooting percentage goes up. The converse is true for opponent offensive rebounds. It’s tough to argue that a team doing very well in the regular season should make changes, but the only season that really matters is the post season. And right now, a strong argument can be made that the team, as composed, isn’t built for the playoffs.
Luckily for the Suns, there’s a player on the table who would go a long way towards addressing rebounding issues, while still providing 3-point shooting and defense at the power forward position. The Houston Rockets have signaled that they’re willing to take offers on Christian Wood. Let’s review the pros and cons of a potential trade here, along with what it would cost.
Physically, and skills-wise, Christian Wood is a prototypical modern 4. He’s 6’9” (without shoes), has a 7’3” wing-span, and big hands. He’s light enough, and has good enough lateral mobility, to jump out on perimeter players. He’s also got good explosiveness and a 9’3” reach, making him a constant threat to block (or alter) shots on the inside.
Wood is quick to attack the rim and has a repertoire of vicious dunks. He also has the ability to take other bigs off the dribble and attack the basket. He’s at his best in the pick-and-roll, which is the basis for the Suns offense.
On the perimeter, he’s an excellent shooter for a big man, averaging between 34.3% and 38.6% from downtown over the past three seasons. This inside-outside combo makes him a tough threat to guard, and he averaged 20.1 ppg during the shortened 2020-2021 season. Additionally, he’s a better than average passer for a big, averaging 2.3 assists per game.
Most importantly for the Suns, he’d be a positional upgrade in height, shot blocking, and especially rebounding. This season he’s averaging 11.0 rebounds per game, good for 8th in the league just behind DeAndre Ayton. Last season, he averaged over 20 points per game.
Advanced stats tell a similar tale: Wood was 26th in real plus minus last season, even on a very bad Houston team. In 2019-2020, he was 16th in the league in real plus minus. He’s good enough at both ends of the court that he has consistently made his teams better when he’s on the court, and he’s been improving year after year (though he’s a bit down this year competing with Daniel Theis and lottery pick Alperen Sengun at PF/C.)
Finally, he’s only 26, with two years left on a contract that runs a well-below-average 13.5 million per year. You don’t have to break the bank to make salaries match here. He’s also been playing out of position at center (where he can sometimes get steamrolled) and would likely welcome the opportunity to move back to power forward.
Anyone with common sense would ask themselves why the Rockets are willing to entertain offers on Christian Wood, when he produces at such a high level at both ends of the court. The answer is that the best way to describe Wood is with the word “difficult”. He’s had a long history of tactlessness and immaturity, dating back to his days at UNLV. During the draft combine he was described as being lethargic in practice and showing up late to meetings. He’s still a bit of a faux pas waiting to happen, but he’s toned it down. His most recent gaffe was admitting it was “a little surprising” that his own team was on a winning streak after losing 15 straight.
He bounced around the league for several years. He went undrafted in part because of this reputation for having a bad attitude and questionable work ethic on defense. He played for the Suns summer league team in 2017, but was unable to secure a roster spot even on that wretched roster during the regular season.
NBA analyst Kevin O’Conner had some harsh words regarding Wood’s attitude in 2021 as well. “”I think he’s a tough guy to play with. I think he’s a tough guy to have around... I think he’s kind of a tough teammate. I’m talking about the locker room stuff, doesn’t get the ball enough, shaking his head in the timeout, making sure everybody knows that he’s pissed, you know. That kind of stuff.”
There are some reasons to be hopeful, however. Wood did work his way back into the league after realizing that he couldn’t just get by on talent alone. His defensive intensity, while not perfect, improved dramatically when Detroit coach Dwayne Casey would bench him for egregious lapses. The stats tend to confirm the eyeball test on this: based on real plus minus, Wood had the fifth highest defensive real plus minus among power forwards in 2020-2021. It’s also possible that Monty Williams has cracked the code of how to get to guys like Cam Payne and Christian Wood, who struggled in the league initially because of the mental side of the game. Payne, in particular, re-signed with Phoenix in great part because he bought into Williams’ system and “saw the light” (so to speak), reviving his career by embracing becoming part of a system.
It’s also an open question how well Wood would work alongside Chris Paul. Paul is basically legendary for making the big men playing alongside him look better, and Wood would likely be no exception as a high-flying rim runner who excels in the pick and roll.
But, there’s so many unanswered questions about how Christian would adapt to being part of a Chris Paul / Monty Williams team. How would he handle the Point God’s inevitable criticisms? Would he take them on board like Ayton? Would he be content to play on the perimeter when playing alongside Ayton, filling the role of Jae Crowder or Cam Johnson, while Ayton and CP3 play the two-man game? Would he be able to accept that he wasn’t the focus of the offense and embrace Monty Williams’ .5 second scheme? Is he the sort of person who can put winning first, and personal accolades second?
Would he grow into the kind of player that helps win a championship, or would he metastasize from mere distraction into a full-blown stage-4 cancer?
Given that he’s matured significantly since he went undrafted in 2015 and improved his defensive focus through tough love from his former coach, there’s reason for optimism that he could evolve into the piece that transforms the Suns from iffy contenders, to the team everyone is terrified to meet in the playoffs.
But there’s also significant risk he would blow it all up as well. So far, James Jones has been all about “system guys”, and Wood hasn’t demonstrated yet that he can be one.
Wood has exceptional value as a 26-year-old borderline all-star caliber player, with 2 years left on a $41 million dollar contract. However, Houston looks willing to let him go for a couple of reasons. First, with the development of Sengun, and Daniel Theis as a top notch veteran back-up at PF/C, Wood may be seen as less of a cornerstone of the franchise. But, it seems even more likely that he’s rubbed some teammates and coaches the wrong way, particularly during Houston’s 15 game losing streak.
The Suns could offer some combination of Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric, Jalen Smith, and an unprotected 2024 1st round pick. Despite being injured, Saric offers some value in his disabled player exception. Smith is an expiring who’s shown some flashes of ability at the 4/5, particularly as a rebounder.
From the Suns perspective, they won’t trade away both Johnson and Crowder, and would prefer to offer up Saric, Smith, and the 1st rounder. This likely is nowhere near sufficient.
From the perspective of Houston, they’d much rather have Cam Johnson than anyone else on the list. Conversely, this is whom the Suns can least afford to give up, given he is the backup SF/PF behind both bridges and Crowder. Between Crowder and Johnson, though, Jae is more dispensable as his offensive efficiency is sub-par, and he sometimes struggles to keep up with small forwards at this stage in his career.
Suns management would have to juggle several competing risk trade-offs here. On a pure talent level, Wood is an improvement over both Johnson and Crowder, and likely a good fit based on his strengths and the composition of the team. By doing nothing, James Jones risks getting steamrolled by a bigger team in the playoffs again.
Wood represents the best opportunity to take the Suns from being “very good” to “easily the most terrifying team in the league with few, if any, real weaknesses.”
But Wood could turn out to be a complete pain-in-the-***, disrupting locker-room and on-court chemistry if he decides he is unhappy. Trading away Johnson would disrupt chemistry with a lot of the excellent bench mob (McGee in particular), and his bestie Mikal Bridges. Trading Crowder might scare away other free agents in the future who would otherwise consider signing with Phoenix.
In the end, this could be the mid-season acquisition that everyone looks back on as a turning point for the team, much the way Tim Thomas was in 2005-2006. It could just as easily be trading Dan Majerle for John “Hot Rod” Williams level bad. Hopefully, James Jones and Monty Williams are in a position to accurately assess the risk/reward calculation here.