Houston, We Have A Trade Partner
We kick off our run through the NBA with a deep dive on the Houston Rockets and a possible trade for their talented stretch big
Good morning, and a belated Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there. While I’m at it, a very special thanks to my mom, without whom I certainly wouldn’t be writing this newsletter. “Do what you love” is still the best advice I ever got, and eventually, it got me here. Thanks for always inspiring, encouraging and supporting me. You’re not only an amazing mom, but an amazing grandmother as well. We’re all luckier than words can say to have you.
OK, on to business…today begins a new extended segment of the KFS Newsletter in which we’re going to go through all 29 NBA teams from the bottom up and analyze whether & how the Knicks might be able to do business with each one this summer. I’ll revisit as necessary after the draft lottery, but for the most part, we already have a pretty good idea of what opportunities might be available. If you want to get on board to gain full access to the most in depth Knicks coverage you’ll find anywhere, you know what to do…
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 After a few forgettable games to start the second round, Jalen Brunson bounced back in a big way, helping lead the Mavs to a 2-0 sweep in Dallas to even up their series with the Suns. After 28 points on Friday night, Brunson put up 18 yesterday afternoon. We saw him do a lot of the little things that he’s been known for since his days at ‘Nova, in addition to simply making more shots like he did in the first round against the Jazz.
The longer this goes on for - can you imagine if the Mavs actually pulled off the upset in this series? - the more difficult it’s going to be for the Knicks to pry away the fourth-year guard. At the conclusion of yesterday’s game, Brunson’s playoff scoring average of 23.5 was tops for any team’s second leading postseason scorer, just ahead of Jordan Poole (22.9 points) and Jaylen Brown (22.7). We’re officially back in four years, $100 million territory, if we ever even left in the first place.
🏀 Other playoff news: the defending champs showed some grit and Jayson Tatum forgot to show up as the Bucks beat the Celtics on Saturday afternoon, 103-101. Tatum finished with just 10 points on 4-of-19 shooting while Giannis became just the fifth player ever to put up at least 40 points (he had 42), 12 rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and two steals in a playoff game, joining Charles Barkley, LeBron James (who did it twice) and Kevin Durant, who pulled off the feat against Milwaukee in Game 5 of their series last year. These teams play again tonight.
Later on Saturday, the Warriors blew the doors off the Grizzlies 142-112 as they got their shooting stroke going for the first time this series. Just as notably, Ja Morant will likely miss tomorrow’s Game 4. Morant tweaked his knee late on Saturday after Jordan Poole inadvertently hit him while they were both going for a loose ball. Finally, Joel Embiid returned, and with him, so did a competitive Philly squad. That, plus a lot more makes from deep and a big opening fourth quarter stretch on Sunday from James Harden (!) has this series 2-2 as well.
🏀 Mark Jackson is the bridesmaid yet again. He lost out to Mike Brown for the Kings job after Sacramento reportedly agreed to a four-year contract with the former Lakers and Cavs coach to become their next head man.
Offseason Trade Primer: Houston Rockets 🚀
We start our offseason-long series examining all 29 teams for possible Knicks trade fits at the bottom, with the team that finished with the worst record in the league at 20-62: the Houston Rockets. We’ll start with their cap sheet, as we will for every one of these deep dives, courtesy of HoopsHype:
Let’s start at the high end of their salary cap, with the man tied with James Harden for the second largest salary in the NBA behind Steph Curry.
There’s been intermittent speculation amongst the fan base regarding John Wall, mostly because he went to Kentucky and plays point guard. That said, there is no conceivable scenario where the Knicks would trade for his expiring contract. New York would have to view Julius Randle as a contract so toxic that they’d be willing to dump him for a player who may not even be starting caliber anymore, let alone an All-Star. The salaries also don’t match up, as Wall makes north of $20 million more than Julius. Even if the Rockets were willing to eat additional bad money to get Randle, it’s unclear what the incentive would be for the Knicks. As we’ve discussed, there is no obvious reason to open up a boatload of cap space for the summer of 2023.
It’s also unclear why Houston - who’d theoretically see Randle as a talent upgrade that could help them win games right now - would be trying to make a win-now move. Thanks to Westbrook/CP3 swap that is quickly moving up the contender ranks and may soon be challenging the Boston/Brooklyn Garnett & Pierce deal for worst NBA trade of the 21st century, next season is the last year the Rockets can tank for a while. Houston owes OKC top-four protected firsts in 2024 and 2026 with a 2025 swap in between. In other words, expect another year of blatant tankery for James Harden’s old stomping grounds.
That shouldn’t be a problem for the Rockets. They have a nice young core comprised of Jalen Green, Alperen Sengün, Usman Garuba, Kevin Porter Jr, Josh Christopher, Kenyon Martin Jr and the slightly older Jae’Sean Tate and Garrison Mathews that all need time, plus their own pick in the upcoming draft (no worse than 5th) and Brooklyn’s choice (17th) from the Harden deal. That’s 10 players right there.
That leaves no room not only for Wall, but for two other players who doesn’t appear to fit Houston’s timeline in Eric Gordon and Christian Wood. Wall, assuming he’s not dealt to LA for Russ, will be bought out at some point. Do the Knicks go back to the well with a buyout guy after the Kemba experiment failed so spectacularly? If they miss out on Brunson, Wall is as likely an option for them as anyone, and they could give him their full midlevel for one season with a team option for 2022-23.
Gordon’s name came up in trade rumors last winter when the Knicks were still futzing around with notions of a playoff run. He’s 33 years old and is a prime candidate to be moved to a contender, not to New York. Pass.
Wood is a different story. His name has been floated in connection with the Knicks ever since he was in the midst of a breakout season with the Pistons two and a half years ago. The Knicks wound up moving forward with a big man rotation of Julius, Obi, Mitch and Nerlens, but that grouping appears to have run its course. The only issue is that it’s unclear who benefits most by the acquisition of Wood, as well as who would be on the way out.
We’ll get to that in a sec. First, it’s fair to ask whether Wood is all that interesting of a trade target to begin with. He’s on an expiring $14.3 million contract that will have him entering unrestricted free agency next summer. There’s a high likelihood that Wood won’t be amenable to an extension at this point either, as he’ll be capped at a starting salary that is 20 percent higher than his current figure, meaning the most a new deal can start at is $17.2 million. Given that he’ll be entering his age-28 season and that he might very well wind up as one of the biggest names on the open market once pending 2023 free agents start signing extensions, I’d be shocked if he boxes himself into such a low deal.
Be that as it may, if the Knicks like him, I’m sure they’ll feel comfortable trading for him and then feeling confident in their ability to re-sign him when the time comes. As for who they’d be trading for, here’s what Eric Jay Santos of The Dream Shake had to say about Wood in a recent piece entitled “Despite criticism, Christian Wood remained Rockets’ best player this season”:
Of course, there have been games where Wood has struggled defensively. That’s been a career-long issue for him, as he’s never been a plus defender. And there have been questions about his attitude on several occasions this season, but neither of those have been enough to squash his immense offensive talents.
This reminds me of an episode of the Lowe Post podcast earlier this season when Zach Lowe lamented Wood for being the opposite of the sort of “lead by example” veteran a young team needs. It seems like he showed up this season, got his numbers, didn’t always do the little things that lead to winning, and went on his merry way.
And then there was also an incident earlier in the year when Wood reportedly refused to check back into a game after a heated exchange with assistant coach John Lucas at halftime:
Shams Charania @ShamsCharaniaSources: After Rockets assistant John Lucas called out multiple players including Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood at halftime tonight vs. Nuggets, Porter had a heated exchange with Lucas, threw an object and promptly left the arena – and Wood refused to sub into second half.
So that’s not great.
By the same token, can you really blame him? Houston clearly had no intention of winning games, and while Wood may not be a galvanizing, Taj Gibson-esque locker room force that inspires all to play the right way, it’s not like taking plays off this season is an indication he can’t be part of a winner. That get’s us to the good stuff: We’re talking about a 6'11" dude who hit just over 38 percent on 4.3 above the break threes per game this season. Among big men, it’s basically him, KAT and Kevin Love who had that level of efficiency on such high volume. He’s also not someone who becomes useless if you run him off the line. If he needs to, Wood can put the ball on the floor and do some damage that way as well.
Watch these four plays, all of which occurred within one six-minute stretch of a late season game against the Pacers:
After a casual step-back triple in the face of the opposing big man, Wood takes advantage of the fact that he was now being guarded more closely. After a few dribble moves, he goes baseline and finishes with the slam.
A few minutes later, Wood drains another triple, and then after faking a lunging Pacer out of their shoes, he puts the ball on the floor yet again, this time finishing at the rim through contact:
Of all seasons, this was a perfect opportunity for Wood to become a black hole and call his own number more than he should, but he still averaged 2.7 dimes per 36 and finished in the 72nd percentile among big men for dishing.
For as inconsistent as he was on the other end of the floor this season, Wood also isn’t a zero on D. He amassed 65 blocks and 54 steals in 68 games and he pulled down nearly a dozen board per 36 minutes. The makings of an impactful two-way player are there, assuming he’s fully committed. This is where the contract year piece might not be the worst thing in the world.
As for how the Knicks would incorporate him, I’m loath to even suggest adapting the roster to fit Julius Randle’s needs at this point, but it’s hard to argue that Wood’s floor spacing wouldn’t be a boon to Randle’s efficiency. Those two might also be a disaster on the defensive end. Wood seems like he can be an adequate backstop if there’s a strong ecosystem around him.
Enter Obi Toppin. Obi averaged just one block per 36 minutes, but did so exclusively as the help man. I wonder what he and Wood would look like together on defense with their roles occasionally inverted, and Obi manning the paint and Wood playign more of the rover. On offense, imagining those two on the floor together is really exciting.
Wood would also be a boon to New York’s guards as well. He was one of only 14 players to finish at least 175 possessions in the pick and roll this season, and his efficiency was very respectable considering the company he kept:
As with everything else in the NBA, this will ultimately come down to cost. The Rockets aren’t going to give Wood away, but they also have an incentive to move him so the promising Sengün can move into the starting lineup. There also aren’t many teams with a need for a starting center and for whom Wood is an obvious fit.
Charlotte is probably the most obvious team on the lookout for a new big, but unless they hire Mike D’Antoni and simply try to outscore teams 155-150 every game, you’d think they’d be in the market for more of a stopper. Brooklyn doesn’t have the salary to trade unless the Rockets want Joe Harris. Don’t see a fit there. Toronto is perpetually in need of a big man, but there’s a salary matching issue there as well unless the Raps want to break up their core, which I doubt. Do the Mavs want to cash out even more of their future draft equity to swap one of their less than palatable salaries for Wood? I’m not sure that’s the sort of second star Luka has in mind.
Even with a dry market, New York would need to pony up something decent. They’d probably be happy to swap out a couple 2023 seconds with a few expiring salaries and call it a day, but I’m not sure how much Houston wants extra equity in next year’s draft. They already have their own pick, Milwaukee’s unprotected first, and they get to keep their own second rounder if it lands at either 31 or 32. For that reason, I don’t know that the Dallas top-10 protected first is getting it done either, especially if Houston is doing New York the additional favor of taking bad money off their hands (hi Nerlens!). The Knicks also certainly don’t want to tie up their future pick obligations on a trade that nets anything less than a star, and for all of Wood’s nice qualities, a star he ain’t.
The next most obvious option is for the Knicks to send this year’s first along with a bad salary (likely Noel) to Houston for Wood, but again, there’s a question of how many young players is too many for the Rockets, as they already have Brooklyn’s pick (the 17th) coming their way1. Might Houston be interested in a pick swap, with the Knicks moving down to 17 from 11? A six-pick jump probably isn’t enough to nab a player of Wood’s caliber. Maybe toss Deuce in the deal? I kid, I kid…
That leaves one final option: package Cam Reddish with Noel straight up for Wood. For Houston, it’s another young mouth to feed, but one who is theoretically further along his development track. In Houston, Reddish would get the sort of run he clearly desires as they’ve shown ample willingness to let their kids work out the kinks on the fly with Kevin Porter Jr and Jalen Green. For the Knicks, they solve a rotation issue (“Whose minutes is Cam eating into?” is a question I still haven’t quite figured out the answer to yet), clear out bad salary, improve their team on the court, and get a guy who is still young enough to credibly designate as part of the young core (he’ll turn 27 right before next season). I bet the Knicks would have to kick in a future second to get this done, and even that may not be enough. If Wood was so easily attainable, one would think the Rockets would have sent him packing before the 2021 deadline, but they didn’t.
The biggest obstacle besides the cost, I’d guess, would be Thibs, who loves elite rim protection like a fat kid loves cake. Trading for Wood would almost certainly mean that the team and Mitch would be going their separate ways, although there’s a chicken and egg question here…if Robinson decides first that he’d rather be elsewhere and there’s nothing the Knicks can do about it, maybe they’d feel that Wood is the best alternative option. Remember: no one ever thought of Pau Gasol as a rim deterrent, but Thibs made it work in his final season in Chicago and helped earn Pau his first All-NBA spot in four years. The presence of Sims as a more traditional rim protecting dive man might ease Thibs’ worries.
This ultimately comes down to whether the Knicks feel they need to get stretchy at the five. Thibodaeu himself has spoken often about how many teams now go five out, and Wood is arguably the most attainable floor spacing five who doesn’t come with question marks about injury (Myles Turner) or effectiveness (Mo Bamba).
Don’t rule this one out. If perfect is the enemy of the good, the Knicks may decide that Wood is just good enough.
This trade would also need to be executed in this league year for salary matching purposes. If it happened after July 1, New York would need to add some additional salary in the deal.