The Los Angeles Lakers made perhaps the biggest addition of their offseason when they signed Christian Wood in September, but when any player is available that late in the offseason, there’s usually a pretty good reason. In Wood’s case, there were several. Splitting his first seven NBA seasons across seven different teams was a reasonable red flag. Some effort and locker room concerns loomed particularly from his time with the Houston Rockets as well, but his biggest weakness by far has been his defense.
Most advanced metrics have painted Wood as a significant defensive negative throughout his NBA career. He’s never posted a positive Defensive Box Plus-Minus. His -1.8 Defensive EPM ranked him in the 12th percentile league-wide last season. Despite strong performances out of most lineups featuring Wood and Luka Doncic last season, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd yanked his minutes around in part because of defense. After he signed with the Lakers, Wood issued a statement saying that he was “motivated after what Dallas did.”
Wood still hasn’t earned the minutes he wanted out of the Mavericks, but he’s making the most of the minutes he’s getting by doing the things the Mavericks could never get him to do. Facing a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit and the prospect of an 0-2 start, Wood turned what could have been a brief bench stint into arguably the best defensive quarter of his career. For significant stretches of the 12-minute period, Wood defended arguably the NBA’s best scorer and more than held his own.
Wood wasn’t Kevin Durant’s primary matchup. Several Lakers got shots at him, and when it counted, the Lakers leaned on Anthony Davis against the former MVP. But on some of the biggest plays of the night, it was Wood generating the stops the Lakers needed to win. He sticks to Durant like glue on this play, with the Lakers trailing by three, and forces a miss off of the backboard.
One minute later, Durant tries to get the switch onto the shorter Gabe Vincent, but Wood sticks with the play and contests Durant’s miss.
Jusuf Nurkic thinks Durant is headed for a back-cut on this play, but when Wood takes it away and Durant tries to pivot back to the ball, Nurkic throws it away.
Neither Wood nor Davis has the bulk of the traditional center, but both make up for it with exceptional positional athleticism. Having two big men that can move the way they can creates some of the most dangerous blitzes you’ll ever see. Together, they managed to eclipse even the 6-11 Durant’s vision, and that forced an easy interception by James. Even if Durant had successfully completed the pass, one of the big men could have scampered back into position.
This is Kevin Durant we’re talking about here. Naturally, Wood didn’t blank him completely. But after scoring 30 points in the first three quarters, Wood and the Lakers held him to a respectable seven in the competitive portion of the fourth quarter. Even when Durant made shots, Wood at least made him work for them. There were no effort concerns on Thursday.
After a tumultuous year with Kidd, Wood seemed to make a fan out of Darvin Ham on Thursday. “I thought he did about as good as anyone can do,” Ham told reporters after the game. “He made a commitment to me when we signed him that that was a part of his game that he wants to get better at. With his length, his agility, he’s able to contest at a high rate.”
Those tools always gave Wood at least reasonable defensive potential. Whether he ultimately lives up to them consistently remains to be seen, but the Lakers offer an environment far more conducive to growth on that end of the floor than his previous teams. Despite playing for seven different franchises, Wood has never seen the court in a playoff game. He did play for a playoff team during the 2018-19 season when he suited up 13 times for the Milwaukee Bucks, but he finished that season with the New Orleans Pelicans. The lead assistant on that Bucks team, though, was Darvin Ham.
Now Ham is leading a contender in Los Angeles that is fresh off of a trip to the Western Conference finals. LeBron James is by far the most accomplished veteran Wood has ever played with, and Davis can cover up just about anyone’s weaknesses on the defensive end of the floor. Wood may never be a great defender, but as he proved on Thursday, he’s capable of being a good one outside of the chaotic environments he endured in Dallas and Houston. He told Ham he was committed to defense, and against Durant, he more than delivered.