Wood You Do It?
Jeremy Cohen takes a look at a free agent that has been on many Knick fans' minds.
Hey all! Jeremy Cohen is back with his weekly piece, this one about someone who is sure to get a lot of attention once the offseason rolls around…
So I began writing Part 2 of my series on possible off-season avenues for the Knicks and I realized something: I have a take. It’s not exactly blistering but it’s something I want to present before I continue the series and talk about this team adding multiple long term contracts.
The main goal of my series is to present opportunities with pros and cons. Sure, my own recommendations appear to guide each plan, but ideally it’s all open to interpretation. I want you, the reader, to evaluate players and plans on your own, while using my own machinations as a basis.
For this topic though, the goal is to be more assertive in where I stand on signing a player. There’s an infatuation amongst some Knicks fans with the Detroit Pistons’ Christian Wood and I Wood like to state my case.
(Ed’s note: I see what you did there)
Wood is an unrestricted free agent and therefore has the power to sign wherever he would like. He’s turning 25 years old in September and he had a breakout year with Detroit. There was even a report, by SNY‘s Ian Begley, stating that the Knicks are “enamored” with the young big man. With all that said, I’m not comfortable with the idea of the Knicks getting in to a bidding war over a fairly unproven, seemingly good-but-not-great player.
Let’s do a blind test of two bigs recently entering their age-25 season as unrestricted free agents. Here are their per-36 minute stats.
You ready for the big reveal?
You really sure?
Am I elongating this so you don’t see the names of the players directly underneath, as it may or may not potentially serve as confirmation bias?
Player A is Julius Randle in 2018-19.
Player B is Christian Wood in 2019-20.
Maybe it’s because we’re basically living in Groundhog Day in real life but it feels like déjà vu all over again with Wood. I see Knicks fans looking to cast away Randle to sign another big who isn’t a major upgrade.
But Wood’s three-point shooting, right? Well, ackshually…
The one thing Knicks fans who wanted to sign Randle last summer said was that Randle’s three-point shooting was coming around. Despite shooting 27.8%, 27%, and 22.2% from deep on 0.4, 0.9, and 0.5 attempts per game, respectively, Randle connected on 34.4% on 2.7 attempts per game in 2018-19. I didn’t buy that he’d be average given the smaller sample size but I was cautiously optimistic by the result nonetheless.
Over his first three seasons, Christian Wood shot 36.4%, zero percent (yes), and 34.6% on 0.6, 0.4, and 1.2 attempts per game, respectively. This past season, Wood shot 38.6% on 2.3 attempts per game. I am, once again, feeling quite wary of the lack of consistency and the small sample size.
Perhaps Wood pans out as more than he projects to be. I would appreciate signing a player on a similar trajectory as New York’s core. Yet what proof is there that Christian Wood’s impact on winning is greater than that of Julius Randle’s? Or that trading away Randle to sign Wood is wise?
This was Wood’s first time playing more than 21 games in a season. His lack of appearances in games wasn’t due to injury but the fact that he simply wasn’t cracking the rotation. Wood flourished in the 13 games after Detroit traded Andre Drummond. He averaged 22.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, and one block per game on 56.2/40.0/75.7 shooting. His efficient field goal percentage was 62% and his true shooting percentage was 65.9%. His usage rate ballooned to 25.3, compared to 20.8 before Drummond was dealt. He absolutely went off.
The Pistons also went off… the rails. Their record in those 13 games? 1-12. Their one win came against the Suns. The game ended 113-111 despite Detroit holding an 11-point lead with 3:34 seconds left in the game. Wood can’t do it all himself but at times, he had a similar level of talent around him as the Knicks had around Randle.
And yes, the advanced numbers are kinder to Wood than they are to Randle. For example, it would be misleading if I didn’t include that Wood’s eFG% and TS% were 62% and 65.9%, respectively. Those are really good. Randle’s were much worse: 49.2% and 53.8%. How much of that was impacted by the Knicks’ front office creating arguably the worst lineup in regards to spacing and having few players who are willing to share the ball?
Here are the five players who played with Wood the most this past season, as well as their individual three-point percentage and their attempted threes per game.
Now compare that to Randle and the Knicks:
Here’s a fun fact: 205 guards took at least 1.5 threes this past season. Elfrid Payton ranked 199th of the 205. What’s more, he played (45) and started (36) more games than any of the players who finished with a lower percentage.
So yeah, Randle’s standard and advanced numbers would pop a lot more if he had three players almost shooting 40% from three or higher while averaging north of four attempts per game, and not playing alongside Elfrid fucking Payton.
Speaking of Randle, the Knicks played 15 games after the trade deadline. His numbers? 21.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists on 49.6/34.4/80.2 shooting. He saw his eFG% go up to 51.9% and his TS% rise to 57.5%. His usage rate was 27.1 over that span. The Knicks went 5-10 over those 15 games. No one would argue 5-10 is good but it’s not 1-12 bad either.
I don’t want to treat Randle as a negative asset, when his stock is already low, to then sign Wood, who has yet to show he can be that much better before he starts earning a similar contract, well…I’d rather hang on to Randle and deal him in the right trade.
A Lack of Cohesion
Wood can play both the 4 and the 5 but you run into potential issues with each. As discussed, Wood doesn’t take enough threes to be considered a reliable three-point shooter. So if Wood’s not a 4, he has to be a 5. If you’re thinking “we’re in the era of positionless basketball so why should his position matter?”, I say it does matter because it still impacts the players around him.
Even if you ignored Mitchell Robinson’s existence for just a moment, Wood weighs 214 pounds. How will he do against bruising centers? After the Drummond trade, Wood guarded Danilo Gallinari, Paul Millsap, and Aaron Gordon as opposed to guarding Steven Adams, Nikola Jokic, and Nikola Vucevic. Now put Robinson back into the equation. Robinson needs to add muscle and get bigger if he wants to reach his ceiling. Starting Wood and Robinson together would be disastrous against bruising bigs.
This doesn’t mean Wood can’t eventually guard those players well but he’s turning 25 in September and may not be able to add the necessary weight to his frame to be a solid defender against post players. Robinson at least has three years to catch up to where Wood is at physically. So you’re signing someone who isn’t the strongest defender, who doesn’t elevate your game that much offensively, and whose spacing is questionable given a smaller sample size.
Let’s talk about offense now too. Christian Wood averaged 1.6 assists per 36 minutes last season. Per 36 minutes! He averaged 1.8 potential assists per game. Robinson, meanwhile, averaged 1.2 potential assists per game. How are two big men, who need to gain strength and seldom look for their teammates, supposed to coexist and win? There has to be more ball movement and Wood doesn’t supply that.
Randle, surprisingly enough, does. The problem is that while the stats don’t lie, Randle won’t pass out of double- or triple-teams and turns the ball over frequently. Or the player he’s passing to the most is Payton, who shouldn’t be on the team moving forward anyway.
I Want You Back
With all that said, I’m skeptical the Pistons let him leave Motown anyway. Earlier this year, the Pistons dealt Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers for expiring salaries and a 2023 second round pick. With the salary cap likely decreasing from the initial projection, and Drummond likely to opt in to his contract, the Pistons could have effectively traded one and a half years of a former All-Star for a second round pick. The optics of such a deal are terrible.
The Pistons 2020 roster features a fascinating cast of characters. There’s Blake Griffin and his massive contract. Griffin was on track to miss 64 of 82 games this past season. He’s an expensive big man with a rich injury history, especially with his left knee.
You have Derrick Rose, another player fully aware of what riding the injury bus is like. Rose is entering the last year of his contract and was the subject of numerous rumors before the trade deadline. It’s certainly possible that the Pistons decide to flip Rose during the off-season. Rose hasn’t played more than 66 games in a season in almost a decade. He’s productive in the right role though, and if the goal is to tank, shipping him out makes sense.
Luke Kennard has played 73, 63, and 28 games, respectively, over his first three seasons. A deal to send him to the Suns fell through and was leaked. Sekou Doumbouya doesn’t turn 20 until December 23rd and is the very definition of a projection. Tony Snell is a quality role player and you can be sure teams will be calling about him.
The Pistons need a healthy, marketable player with high upside. Detroit will get that in the draft but it shouldn’t have an immediate impact on fans unless it’s LaMelo Ball or possibly Anthony Edwards. The Pistons were tied for 28th in home attendance this past season. They have the cap space to pay Christian Wood. Their owner, Tom Gores, approved Drummond’s exit so the team could get something in return for him. Trading Drummond for peanuts and letting Wood walk would be incredibly embarrassing.
Show Me the Money
I corresponded with Jeff Siegel of Early Bird Rights recently and this is what he had to say on the financial implications with Wood and the Pistons.
With Wood’s Early Bird rights, the Pistons can pay him up to 175% of his previous salary or 105% of the estimated average player salary, whichever is greater. In his case, 105% of the estimated average is clearly much larger than 175%, so that would be his max under the Early Bird Exception.
However, since [the Pistons] have cap space, they can sign him with that, should he command more than about $10 million a year (we’re not sure where the 2020-21 EAPS will come in, but $10 million is a good estimate). They can absolutely do that, but they lose the advantage of his small cap hold, because signing a player with cap space essentially treats him as though he’s an outside free agent, meaning that his entire new salary comes out of their cap space. If they can agree to terms with him on a contract that fits the Early Bird Exception, then he only counts for $1.71M on their books until he actually signs that contract, meaning that they can use the rest of their cap space on other players, then come back and sign him once they’re over the cap. That path gives them a lot more flexibility.
Any outside team can sign him just like they can any other free agent – it doesn’t matter what the Pistons do, any of the other 29 teams can sign him up to the 25% max, as long as they have the cap space for that or can work a sign-and-trade with the Pistons.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how the Knicks could fuck up New Orleans’ summer Scottie Pippen style. New York would offer Brandon Ingram a player-friendly deal that gives him the chance to leave the Pelicans by 2022. Well, New York could do something evil to Detroit too.
The smart play would be for Wood and the Knicks to use each other as leverage so that Detroit has to overpay for the big man’s services. That way, the Pistons lose the ability to make any possible upgrades and instead can only really pay Wood.
Let’s say that the salary cap will be the originally projected $115,000,000 next year (it won’t be). The Pistons could agree to terms with Wood for up to $10,000,000 or so, sign other players with their roughly $30,000,000 in cap space, and then officially sign Wood by going over the cap.
Now imagine Wood garners $18,000,000 a year thanks to the Knicks bidding against the Pistons. It might seem outlandish to you, and perhaps it’s not quite that high in reality, but if Randle can get that number, what’s to stop Wood from securing the bag with a smaller market team? Detroit has to sign Wood out of cap space and only has around $12,000,000 left in free agency. That would probably take the Pistons out of the running from doing much else because they wouldn’t have the necessary funds. And as teams lose the ability to spend, New York’s leverage only grows.
Wood could be entering a situation similar to what Clint Capela found himself in back in 2018. The former Houston Rockets big man was a restricted free agent with seemingly nowhere to go, as almost every team lacked enough cap space and the Rockets had the opportunity to set the market price. What happens if the Nets, a team that had plenty of cap space before they took on Kenneth Faried’s salary dump in mid-July, had thrown Capela a larger offer sheet?
That’s what the Knicks should do. The good news is that the Knicks aren’t dealing with an offer sheet due to Wood’s unrestricted status, so they wouldn’t have to worry about the Pistons not matching a contract that’s too expensive.
Yet dealing Randle to sign Wood? In the grand scheme of things, you’re making a lateral move at best. For what it’s worth, if the Knicks did find a trade for Randle with matching salary and had the room to sign Wood, here’s an approximation of what their salary situation would look like.
The Knicks are still in very strong shape financially if they sign Wood to a long term contract. They would have enough for a seven- to nine-year max player and can trim the fat with Ntilikina and Kevin Knox if necessary.
However, I’m of the belief that if you’re going to pay an unrestricted free agent in his mid-twenties this summer, pay Fred VanVleet. He immediately solves your point guard problem and doesn’t inhibit developing another young lead guard. The difference between starting VanVleet ahead of a player and Jarrett Jack in front of Ntilikina or Payton over Dennis Smith Jr. is that VanVleet is currently a bonafide starter for a contending team. You can still play your prized guard valuable minutes without him starting. I’m sure we’ll talk about Mr. VanVleet once the series resumes.
Bring It on Home
It’s also important to note that, for all we know, Begley’s source may be expressing what the Mills administration believed or that those who like Wood may not be with the team long term. We just don’t know.
Wood had a fantastic season and deserves to be in the conversation for the Most Improved Player Award. I’m confident he can be a fine player moving forward. If Wood progresses into a star, especially if the Knicks don’t sign him, you’ll see me figuratively eat crow. If the Knicks believe Wood will be a star, signing him makes sense. And if you believe he’s such an upgrade over Randle that dumping Randle for matching salary is the best path, so be it. I’m hesitant that Wood’s production and contract would surpass the combined total of Randle and possibly what it takes to dump his salary.
I didn’t think I’d be writing a piece defending Randle, yet here I sort of am. Randle infuriates fans to no end, but adding talent, especially shooters, should mitigate his flaws. He won’t be a winning player, especially not in New York, but Knicks fans are giving him too hard of a time. And I say that as someone who has used him as the proverbial punching bag repeatedly. Trading Randle away to sign Wood feels akin to giving Randle a contract extension. They’re not the same player but they’re not so different that it makes a dramatic difference to the Knicks.
Wood doesn’t financially hamstring the Knicks moving forward except for eliminating two max spots, but I’m not convinced he brings anything drastically new to the table. There are other, more pressing areas of need at the point and at the wing than replacing one expensive big man with another.
So to answer my own question: No, I Woodn’t do it. I Wood not sign Wood.