In some corners of the NBA, the Dallas Mavericks’ offseason acquisition of Christian Wood was initially met with a shrug. The cost for Dallas to land such an intriguing talent—coming off two seasons in Houston where he averaged 19.1 points and 9.9 rebounds with a 59.3 true shooting percentage—was reasonable (four non-rotation players and a late first-round pick) but the skepticism about Wood’s fit dampened any excitement for a team that had just made the conference finals by surrounding Luka Doncic with shooting and two-way versatility.
On one hand: Adding a big with no playoff experience and little evidence of being able to anchor a defense was a curious decision. On the other hand: The Mavs may have created one of the most resourceful and frightening pick-and-roll duos in all of basketball. Doncic has had skilled, athletic, and very large dance partners before. None (Kristaps Porzingis included!) broaden his palette quite like Wood, though.
While acknowledging the defensive concerns that have prevented Wood from closing games (he’s been on the bench for the final buzzer in every contest except one this season), the early returns alongside Luka have been explosive. Dallas’ top-10 offense generates a staggering 120.4 points per 100 possessions when Wood and Luka share the floor, which is 26th best out of 455 duos that have played at least 150 minutes.
The production, as new teammates who make plenty of sense collaborating directly, has been hard to ignore, even as those aforementioned defensive issues have prevented Wood from starting or closing games. According to Second Spectrum, 74 different tandems have engaged in at least 75 pick-and-rolls this season. Doncic and Wood rank first in quantified shot probability (in other words, they generate very good looks) and eighth in points per direct play. (It’s also a glimpse of what the Rockets could’ve had if James Harden didn’t demand a trade a couple years ago, after Houston traded for Wood in a last-ditch effort to appease their frustrated franchise player.)
Luka doesn’t need the finest ingredients to cook at a Michelin three-star restaurant. But give him a near 7-footer who can shoot 3s, drive on closeouts, bully smaller defenders, and carve up 4-on-3 situations, and the dish is fine dining’s own peanut butter and jelly.
“It’s a little bit better than what I expected it to be,” Wood said earlier this month when asked about his pick-and-roll partnership with Luka. “I guess you could say that, especially with me coming off the bench. It’s been great.” Overall, Wood has been the fifth-most-efficient screener this season with a minimum of 100 plays, which is a testament to how his complementary skill set has worked with Luka and, also, Spencer Dinwiddie.
Doncic is pleased. “[Christian] is an amazing player,” Doncic said earlier this season. “He shows what he can do … and we just gotta feed him the ball more.”
When Wood sets a screen for Doncic, there’s a range of abuse that can be inflicted on the defense. Sometimes the two grind a coverage into submission. Torture before death. Sometimes they hit quickly. Slip, pass, dunk. Or switch, seal, dunk. Or switch, stepback, splash. “Luka really enjoys playing with C-Wood, and vice versa, C-Wood enjoys playing with Luka,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said. “It’s early, but we like the way they’re playing. Both guys play off of each other extremely well.”
Beside Luka, Wood’s touch can be leveraged as an unused threat instead of a tangible weapon, depending on how the opponent wants to guard them. “Some defenses like to blitz, some defenses like to switch, some defenses like to be in a drop—which I don’t think is a good idea with me—but we’re just mixing it up,” Wood says.
He’s right. A soft drop isn’t really an option against Wood because he can just pop out for 3 or attack an off-balance closeout. Instead, teams are forced to switch, thus discombobulating themselves. “That’s what we want as a team,” Wood says. “It makes my job easier because as I roll, if I keep rolling every time he’s gonna find me eventually, and he puts so much pressure on the defense.”
There are dozens of plays already this season where Wood’s self-reliance and gravity accentuate Doncic’s 1-on-1 brilliance when the opponent switches. Unlike other bigs Luka has played with, Wood isn’t someone who lets you exhale when he catches a pass while defended. But when Luka gets the matchup he wants and then still lets Wood go to work against his own mismatch, the Mavs become terrifying.
Anything that lessens Doncic’s play-to-play exertion and still results in a bucket is a huge win for Dallas. Wood’s ability to moonlight as Randy Moss doesn’t hurt:
The relationship is mutually beneficial. Wood eats for the same reasons everyone else who’s ever set a screen for Luka does: Life is less complicated when the game’s most advanced playmaker is conducting the offense. The percentage of Wood’s shots taken at the rim is a whopping 22 percent higher with Luka on the court than when he sits.
The Mavericks are incredibly difficult to slow down when they get organized and space the floor around Wood’s dive. In this series of (increasingly complex) single-side actions against Portland, Damian Lillard, Nassir Little, and then Jerami Grant all decide to stay home on the perimeter instead of tagging Wood’s roll. This wasn’t wise.
“[Luka] sees all the options, and the options are options for him, because he can find guys with his size,” says Mavs center Dwight Powell, who’s set more picks for Doncic than any other teammate he’s had since entering the NBA. “But also his threat to score gives anybody who’s screening properly a great advantage just because they’re so worried about the stepback. They’re so worried about him slow-stepping to the basket, creating fouls. So you kind of sometimes get forgotten.”
Teams haven’t bothered blitzing the ball when Wood sets a screen after watching the Grizzlies light themselves on fire trying out that strategy.
“I had to go in the short roll and then I had to make a play on the 2-on-1 on the backside,” Wood says, explaining that matchup. “So it was pretty good.”
Dorian Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Josh Green are terrific complementary pieces around Luka, but the Mavs still ultimately need a second star.
Wood is a dynamic exclamation point but not the reliable shot creator Luka will (probably?) need to win it all. But until they find him, Wood is a fascinating and effective tool that makes life a little easier for Dallas’ MVP candidate. And they’re still learning how to make each other better, even with Wood averaging nearly eight fewer minutes than he did two years ago as the best player on a bad Houston team. With few avenues to improve externally—bleeding any more draft picks isn’t the answer right now—the key to Dallas’ season may be a commitment to maximizing the minutes Doncic spends beside Wood, defensive errors and growing pains be damned.
“We still haven’t really figured each other out. It’s early in the season and we’re still a good pick-and-roll tandem,” Wood says, before being asked what he would do as a coach who had to slow down a Luka-Wood pick-and-roll. “I couldn’t tell you,” he laughs. “I couldn’t tell you.”