When fans of other teams see every thinkable star player from every other NBA team photoshopped into a Lakers uniform, I can only imagine what goes through their heads. That it’s the sick, special type of arrogance that they believe only Lakers fans really have. That it’s a symptom of that stupid Lakers exceptionalism. That it’s just another example of fans embracing that particular dumb delusion that seems to fester in the brains of those fans.
And while there are some over-the-top Lakers faithful who might take things a bit too far from time to time, a more generous portrayal of this approach is that it’s actually a form of optimism. Like, what’s really happening is that they are devout followers of the Lavar Ball ethos of “speaking things into existence,” or that they prefer the power of positive thinking over some defeatist mindset of expecting things to go wrong.
This is the real reason why a google image search will allow you to find anyone you want — from Giannis to D-Book, Luka to Donovan Mitchell, KD to Trae Young, and everyone inbetween — rocking the forum blue and gold (shoutout to Grant!) as the next star to bring the Lakers a title. Fans are just projecting positivity and hoping it proves fortuitous.
And, really, in some ways, who can blame them for taking this approach. Sure, there will always be a subset of folks who look for the negative outcome to spring out like a child does the boogeyman from their closet. But beyond a handful of truly traumatic moments or times when the basketball gods ruled against them, the Lakers have been a blessed franchise where so much has gone in their favor it seems odd to expect their fans to act as though the sky is falling.
A funny thing about fan optimism is that it’s not just tied to the most obvious or big ideas like... I don’t know... that it’s possible to trade Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol, or that LeBron James would decided to leave the Cavs for the Lakers in free agency (and do so without another star joining him). No, fans can and will be optimistic about a slew of much smaller things, all in the name of what helps the team they root for win.
And, of late, in the bullseye of fan buoyancy is the idea of the reclamation project who will either be better than expected, or finally live up to their potential to perform at a high level in ways that they either couldn’t or didn’t do consistently enough for whatever other team employed them previously.
There are reasons for this, of course.
Two seasons ago, Malik Monk went from being a lottery pick castoff from one of the worst teams in the league, to a super fun and truly helpful bench player on a minimum contract for the Lakers. Then, last season, it was Lonnie Walker IV who went from a guy the Spurs no longer wanted, to someone winning a 2nd round playoff game with an explosive 4th quarter scoring burst — while playing on the taxpayer MLE for the Lakers. Even beyond Lonnie, Dennis Schröder, Troy Brown, and Thomas Bryant were all minimum salaried players who played real, positive roles for the Lakers last season when most everyone else had given up on them in one way or another.
So, Lakers have have a recent history of bringing in players who many (most? everyone??) around the league have disregarded and defined as unable to play winning basketball or help towards it in meaningful ways, only to have them defy those expectations in tangible ways for them.
Which brings me to the newest child of Lakers optimism, former Maverick, Rocket, Piston, Pelican, Buck, Hornet, and 76er: Christian Wood.
Over two months after free agency opened, Wood signed a two year deal for the veteran minimum to play for the Lakers. Yes, it will be his eighth team in as many seasons, but as he said himself, it’s the one destination he always dreamed about.
It’s always been my dream to be a laker— 35 (@Chriswood_5) September 6, 2023
There are many reasons for the optimism, of course. Wood is an extremely talented basketball player, particularly on offense. A big man who can stretch the floor, has dive ability in the P&R, and can pour in buckets in isolation out of the post and off the bounce, Wood scores with ease an efficiency. He’s a career 37.9% shooter from behind the arc, and in the last five seasons has never shot lower than 57.0% on two-pointers (while peaking at 63.6%).
He’s a multifaceted, offensive-minded big man that is now joining a roster that already has Anthony Davis and LeBron James, creating possibilities where teams will be forced to defend him with players who are unlikely to have the strength, speed, and dexterity to keep up with the diversity of his offensive attack. Much like how Rui Hachimura benefited from having teams’ second or third-best frontcourt athlete on him, Wood too will discover what it’s like to no longer be the other team’s top priority to stop, and the world of opportunity that opens up for a player because of it.
The potential for Wood to slot into lineups that not only flank him with Davis and/or James, but any combination of Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Gabe Vincent, Hachimura, or Taurean Prince can lead to dynamic offensive groups that many teams won’t have defensive answers for. The player groupings are endless, and in all of them Wood’s own ability to be an inside-outside scoring force can lead to a prying open of defensive coverages in ways that only make his teammates’ lives easier, even if he’s not the primary option on any given possession.
It’s impossible to not see the upside here. Of course, upside is not all there is...
Mariam-Webster defines optimism as “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome”.
In other words, optimism is about seeing the best in something and, I’d add, doing so even in times where seeing the best isn’t the only relevant point of view (or even necessarily warranted). Sometimes, the potential negatives also deserve consideration because, well, the greatest predictor of the future is the past and those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Which brings me back to Christian Wood.
Everything I said above about Wood’s potential offensive fit on the Lakers, his general talent level, and the potential impact he can have on his teammates’ games is true. That said, what’s also true is that Wood was an unsigned free agent in the first week of September that ended up signing for the minimum. That doesn’t happen for nothing.
In every situation since coming into the league, there has not been a team that had the ability to keep Wood around that has actually committed to doing so. Early in his career, when he was an undrafted player trying to make his way in the league and was clawing for a chance to make a mark or show off his full talent base, the vagabond nature of his career can be explained away.
But after his breakout season with the Pistons, Wood was a free agent and Detroit, who had the ability to pay him what the Rockets ultimately did, ultimately let him leave. And then after signing a 3-year contract with Houston, longtime ESPN reporter Tim McMahon (whose beats include the Mavericks and the Rockets), noted on a recent episode of the Lowe Post Podcast that Wood was on the trading block after a single season and ultimately traded after his 2nd campaign there. And now, after his lone season in Dallas, Wood was again allowed to seek a new team even though the Mavs spent a 1st round pick to acquire him and had the ability to extend him during the season.
Part of the reason Wood has moved around as much as he has — even after showing how good he can be offensively — is that his defense has not kept pace with what he does on the other side of the ball. On that same episode of the Lowe Post, Zach Lowe and McMahon both noted the word on Wood is that he’s been known to not lock into his team’s defensive gameplan and that on any given possession he might not know what his team is running, make the right rotation, or be in the right position. Wood can certainly make a highlight block and has shown an ability to get defensive stops on an island in isolation, but over the course of a full game, those individual wins don’t often outweigh the mistakes that help contribute to losing possessions and, ultimately, games.
Now, to be fair to Wood, Lowe and McMahon also discussed how the intel on Wood reveals that he’s “not a bad guy or a bad teammate,” and that he’s been generally liked in the locker room. McMahon added Wood’s had some issues with “punctuality” in the past, but that those were less frequent in Dallas than in previous stops. Further, some of Wood’s challenges on defense or the general lack of success his teams have experienced cannot and should not be dropped solely at Wood’s feet, as though he’s the only reason for losing or that he operates out of the context of the rest of his environment.
Said another way, if a team doesn’t take defense seriously or lacks accountability on that end (like, say, the Rockets teams he played for), Wood not being as locked in defensively fits into a larger context that matters. If the Mavs suddenly shift from trying to compete, to upending their roster at the trade deadline and then generally going into the tank in the final weeks of the season, that’s not on Wood — he’s neither the best player nor the leader on that roster.
That said, Wood not being a part of the solutions in these places is something that he should have some accountability for too.
If the Rockets would rather go into the tank and play younger players who might not be as talented or as experienced — but who they believe can be molded into playing winning basketball — that should reflect on Wood, because, in some ways, those other players are viewed as part of the solution and Wood is not. And if the Mavs would rather let Wood walk for nothing and go back to other in-house solutions when their goal is to win a title, that too is an inference that they don’t believe Wood is a part of the group that can help them get to that goal.
Now, does any of this mean the Lakers are wrong for bringing in Wood? Of course not. The environment Wood is joining and the leadership structure of this team is different than any of the others he has been a part of in the past. Decision-makers who have input on the roster should be accounting for the leadership LeBron and AD bring to the table, to say nothing of how Darvin Ham has shown he can connect with players in a positive way. And, for the contract he signed, it’s a risk that is easy to understand taking.
That said, all the understandable optimism around Wood should not be the only perspective represented. His history tells us that his talent has not usually overcome the challenges of the faults that are also a part of his game. And maybe none of that will matter for the player signed on a minimum deal to the 14th roster spot. Because, when you’re that player, you can always simply cut bait.
But, then again, contingencies around what happens when something goes wrong is not how optimism really works.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.