Analyzing Rockets' best NBA draft options, Christian Wood's free agency

Analyzing Rockets’ best NBA draft options, Christian Wood’s free agency

The Rockets, while in the beginning stages of a promising rebuild, still could benefit from a productive summer. From the upcoming draft to free agency and planning ahead, it’s all about getting back to winning ways — someday.

The Athletic’s senior NBA analyst John Hollinger and Rockets beat writer Kelly Iko discussed Houston’s summer from all angles.

(Editor’s note: The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Iko: John, with the recent speech about the No. 3 pick and which player will be available to Houston out of the “Tier 1” of Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith, we’re assuming the Rockets should simply go with the best player available, right? Do we know who that is right now? Did the combine do anything to help or hurt those decisions, and is there an alternative where it’s not one of those three?

hollinger: The only imaginable alternative aside from those three is Purdue guard Jaden Ivey, who I think wouldn’t be the first choice in Houston given his positional overlap with Jalen Green. So, Paolo, Chet or Jabari it is.

Where Ivey could make things interesting is if Oklahoma City takes him second; it would leave the Rockets potentially choosing between two of the three named players above. Otherwise, in a lot of ways, it’s an easy draft night for the Rockets. Orlando and Oklahoma City will take two of those three players off the board, and Houston will draft the one who’s left. No matter what, it’s a frontcourt player, so Houston’s other plans don’t hinge that much on how the pick turns out.

As far as the NBA Draft Combine goes, one of the truisms over the last several years is that high lottery picks don’t even bother with it. The respective agents for these three players will mete workouts and medical information as they see fit among the top three teams, so the Rockets will have to work with them to get all their ducks in a row before draft night. The only thing seemingly coming out of the combine is a thought that Banchero might be the guy at No. 3 if Smith and Holmgren are the top two picks.

Iko: Let’s just go with that notion that Banchero is their guy at No. 3. I know Houston is in best-player-available mode right now, but is he also the best fit? I guess I’m coming from more of a backcourt-frontcourt synergy. We’ve only seen a season of Jalen Green in this rebuild, but you should begin to faintly outline what this team wants to look like in the near future. That starts with complementary pieces, and Banchero is that — a 6-foot-10, playmaking, three-level scorer.

But now, let’s look at the other side of the coin. Do you see that working? What happens to the other frontcourt options on the roster? Jae’Sean Tate plays the same position, and Christian Wood is the same height, albeit with different skill sets. Could Banchero theoretically play alongside names like that, as well as Alperen Şengün?

hollinger: In terms of “working,” the Rockets need to think more long-term than short-term on this. They lost 62 games last year, so whatever they do is unlikely to immediately morph this team into contenders. The best thing for a team in its situation to do is let things play out a little before committing to one path or another. See what Banchero looks like next to Wood and Şengün, see where Tate fits in the mix (although on a playoff-caliber team, he’s almost certainly not a starter), and then figure out who should stay and who should move on.

As far as what I expect to happen, I think Banchero is a natural four who would only play the five in some extreme small-ball settings. He doesn’t have great length and isn’t a natural rim protector. Because he, Wood and Şengün all have some perimeter skills, I think the frontcourt pairings would likely work on offense. Defensively is where it gets more questionable, since Şengün and Wood are both suspect on that end right now, and Banchero also profiles as more of an offensive player.

Iko: You mentioned thinking long-term, and I recently wrote about Christian Wood, his looming free agency and the uncertainty about his future in a Rockets uniform. What’s your stance on him as a part of this group? Is he still young enough to fit in their current timeline? I used the NBA age/actual age analogy, basically using his 222 career games played as comparable to a three- or four-year player.

If you think he’s better served elsewhere, what are some good landing spots? One crazy idea I had was trying to picture the framework of a Wood/Eric Gordon package for Toronto’s OG Anunoby, but there are more realistic options (Charlotte, for example).

Are you also at the point where you can write off Wood’s time just because of Şengün’s presence? Is it still too early in the rebuild to make such a call? Are you part of the #SengunSquad?

hollinger: I am a founding member of #SengunSquad, but I don’t think that necessarily forces the Rockets to do anything with Wood. For starters, just because I’m a fan doesn’t mean Şengün has proven that he’s a long-term starter. Let’s walk before we run here.

More importantly, Wood as a third big on a contract in the mid-teens isn’t exactly a crazy proposition, especially if he’s amenable to staying in Houston and extending his deal.

The issue with Wood, instead, is that his contract is about to expire, so it behooves the Rockets to determine his market value and their own alternate pathways to filling his niche in the frontcourt. If a team like Charlotte is willing to cough up a decent first-round pick, the Rockets are probably better off giving him his wings. Houston will have copious amounts of cap room once his contract comes off the books after this season to sign a potential replacement.

The alternate strategy is to see about extending Wood’s contract, which would cut into the 2023 cap space but not enough to take any meaningful possibilities off the board; in fact, he’d be the team’s highest-paid player and the only one making more than $10 million (assuming the rockets decline to guarantee Gordon’s $20.9 million).

The overriding key is to not let Wood walk out the door this summer without getting something in return. In the absence of an extension or a bowl-you-over trade, it’s possible that Houston could play this out until the trade deadline, when injuries could create needs on other rosters and the Rockets would have a better idea of ​​Şengün’s trajectory.

Iko: You’re right: Wood’s free agency is something the Rockets need to get right, whatever the outcome.

Outside of that, how aggressive should they be with their available midlevel exception? This team has needs across the board, but it looks like 2023 is the time to pounce. Could they take a similar approach to last summer, bringing on a veteran (Daniel Theis) and flipping him at next season’s deadline?

Alternatively, what do they do with their own free agents-to-be? Dennis Schröder is likely gone, Tate and Kevin Porter Jr. are eligible for extensions, and the John Wall situation is still rather expensive.

hollinger: I think one lesson learned from last year is that if they’re going to add a veteran on the midlevel, it can’t be a four-year deal. That very nearly blew up in their face when Theis struggled last year, and Boston’s familiarity with him and general desperation for depth was the only thing that bailed them out.

That said, I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t bring in somebody on a shorter deal to shore up some key positions, especially at backup point guard. Even a deal that goes into next year won’t functionally impact Houston’s cap space (they’ll have about $70 million in room, give or take depending on where their first-round pick and the one from Milwaukee falls).

As far as their own free agents, I don’t think this is a complicated summer for Houston. Tate’s low cap hold next summer favors Houston taking a wait-and-see approach before inking him to a new deal. Wall, of course, seems headed for a buyout of some kind, but whatever number is agreed to is unlikely to impact the rest of the offseason. Houston is over the cap but more than $20 million from the tax line; it’s tough to envision scenarios where Wall’s buyout ends up mattering beyond its impact on Tilman Fertitta’s checkbook.

As for Porter, he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer, but this is one the Rockets definitely might want to play out. As much promised as he’s shown in flashes throughout the past two years, stories about the difficulties of dealing with him off the court have made their way around the league. I think the Rockets need a bit more trust that this is somebody they want to go forward with before they commit.

Iko: I wanted to touch on one more important draft item: No. 17. This class has a lot of talent that might fall outside of the lottery, and with a second first-rounder, the Rockets should be looking once again to take the best player available.

The combine didn’t do a whole lot in terms of setting some of these names apart, but there are a number of guys who could be interesting: Malaki Branham, Tari Eason and my sleeper MarJon Beauchamp to name a few. Jalen Williams is another fast riser. Who has impressed you recently, whether it be pro days, interviews, tape, etc.?

hollinger: Most of the players Houston will consider at 17 didn’t take the court at the combine, but Williams is the exception. He is definitely the hot name right now after a strong on-court performance at the combine, after he’d already intrigued teams with his strong analytical and size profile. He mostly played point guard in college, but he’s huge for a guard and likely plays the wing at the pro level. His feet can be a bit heavy at times on defense, but he has size, shooting and can handle the ball. He made a couple moves against Holmgren in particular where he put him on skates. That type of multipositional, multiskilled player tends to find his way onto the court, even if the upside might not be as exciting as for some of the other one-and-dones.

Another player the Rockets should take a long look at is TyTy Washington Jr., the point guard from Kentucky. He had a very strong first half of the season before injuries held him back toward the end of the year, but going back through his body of work as a freshman in the SEC, he had a really good season. It’s not a great draft for point guards, but Houston could use another one in the pipeline; plus, he has enough size to play off the ball when needed. Washington didn’t play in the combine.

Finally, the Rockets could use a true rim protector and might have to take a very long look at Duke’s Mark Williams if he falls to 17. I suspect center-needy Charlotte has eyes on him with the 13th pick, however.

(Photo of Paolo Banchero: Rob Kinnan/USA Today)


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