LOS ANGELES — The best version of the LeBron James-Anthony Davis Lakers’ supporting cast, the group that won the title in 2020, was always able to overwhelm teams with a combination of length and physicality and just enough shooting to keep the team’s offense from collapsing in on itself.
Although that version of the team could tap into a higher gear when it slid AD to the five and, with him, LeBron down to the four, they reserved that increased defensive ask for the highest leverage moments and in the postseason. By treading water or better with a big flanking AD and LBJ, both stars could refrain from having to do everything themselves, leveraging their precious energy into transition scoring, help defense, and whatever else the team might need, especially down the stretch.
In the years since that title run, the quality of both the Lakers’ backup rim protectors and supplementary perimeter shooting has declined precipitously, making two-big lineups basically untenable.
Now, in Christian Wood, the Lakers have found a player who has breathed life into the viability of those lineups, even given the reality of LeBron and AD’s declining perimeter shooting. By stretching the floor on offense while shrinking it on defense, Wood’s presence permits the Lakers’ stars clean paths to the rim while taking some pressure off of them having to do all of the dirty work in the paint.
Specifically, despite being a perennially maligned defender, Wood’s actually one of the better defensive rebounders in the NBA, having finished around the top quarter of all bigs in terms of defensive rebounding percentage in each of the last four seasons.
Following the Lakers’ home win against the Suns, Darvin Ham directly praised Wood for his work on the boards,
“Bron, AD, and Christian Wood really dominated the defensive glass between the three of them, and we needed all of it.”
After opening the fourth quarter down a dozen, the Lakers out-rebounded the Suns in the period 17-13, a margin buoyed by Wood’s six boards in the frame alone.
It wasn’t just Wood’s rebounding that helped steady the Lakers. He also did a commendable job on Kevin Durant, an impossible cover for any human, let alone ones with less-than-stellar defensive reputations.
Postgame, Anthony Davis chimed in on Wood’s desire to step up to the challenge of guarding one of the game’s greatest scorers, “He took on a challenge. We threw a couple of different looks [at KD], myself, Bron and C-Wood. We just talked to him, ‘Try and make it tough for him.’”
Davis continued, “C-Wood did a great job, being physical with him. Making him take tough shots.”
Ultimately, the Lakers outscored the Suns 28-11 in the fourth and although KD had nine points in the closing quarter, six of them came within the final two minutes and two came after the game was effectively over. For the bulk of the most important stretch of the Lakers’ very early season, Wood kept the opposing team’s most potent offensive threat in check.
Ham reflected on speaking to Wood following his late-game defensive contributions during his presser, “I told Christian... ‘This is the balance in your game that people need to see.’”
Then, at Saturday’s practice, Ham amended his praise for Wood, discussing his multifaceted fourth-quarter defensive performance.
“I loved it,” Ham said. “The ability for him, AD, Bron, those guys being able to switch on and off KD, and Christian being the initial defender on-ball, I was happy for him, and he’s only going to get better on that side.”
To Ham’s point, just two games into the season, it’s already obvious how cleanly Wood’s skillset complements the Lakers’ star duo. In 26 minutes of time with both Wood and AD on the floor, the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 16 points. With Wood and LeBron, that figure jumps to +41. While the sample sizes remain small, their opponents have been among the West’s probable title contenders.
Wood’s early season play merits some excitement, but the reasons to doubt that it will last are at least as real. As recently as last season, after a honeymoon period with the Mavs, Wood’s inability to be the backline of their post-trade deadline defense contributed to the erosion of his relationship with the franchise and his eventual departure this offseason.
However, that uncomfortable history is no mystery to Wood or the Lakers, as it’s something Ham said he’s discussed directly with Wood on numerous occasions.
“That’s one of the things he and I talked about when we signed him,” Ham said. “He initiated the process of telling me, ‘I wanna be great on that side of the ball.’ He can rebound — six tough rebounds in that [fourth] quarter — he definitely can score, but it’s the defensive thing that’s gonna take his game to a whole different level.”
The idea that Wood wants to thrive defensively implies a knowledge that he typically hasn’t, and Ham’s disclosure of this conversation shows that growth is necessary for Wood to lock down a central role in the Lakers’ season.
Two games in, all signs are pointing towards a breakout season for Christian Wood. With so much talent, a clearly defined role to set aside for him to earn and the support of a winning culture, the only person likely to stop Christian Wood from flipping the script on his career and becoming a winning player is himself.
All quotes obtained firsthand. Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.