The Houston Rockets are set to start the season in… *checks notes* …like three weeks. First off, that’s an incredible feat for the NBA to accomplish. Second, how in the HELL are the Rockets supposed to convince James Harden to stay with the team in this microwaved environment? Well, grabbing one of the most coveted free agents on the market in Christian Wood is certainly an option.
While there are no assurances that James Harden will be in a Rockets uniform by the end of the season, nabbing Christian Wood was a no-brainer for the team. Wood emerged as a breakout player prior to the season being suspended and his role largely grew when Detroit traded Andre Drummond to the Cleveland Cavaliers. While his season-long averages of 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds don’t look like a franchise player on paper, Wood’s averages from February until the season was suspended on March 11 skyrocketed to 22.3 points and 9.5 rebounds, shooting .410 from three.
There may be some speculation that a short breakout stint like Wood’s is undeserving of a huge new contract, but the Rockets needed to factor in a couple of things when they scouted Wood. One, what does James Harden want? If the Rockets are serious about keeping James Harden, they most assuredly would have to have his buy-in on Wood and the Rockets had been scouting him prior to free agency, as they tried to trade for him at the deadline.
Next, what is the best player available to play next to James Harden? Looking at the roster over the last few years, there are a couple of ways to surround James Harden; either give him a pick-and-roll lob threat (e.g. Clint Capela) or you surround him with competent defense and shooters (e.g. Robert Covington, Luc Mbah a Moute). With Christian Wood, the Rockets have set Harden up to utilize a versatile offensive player who can catch alley-oops, pop out for a three, or attack off a close-out.
What this means for James Harden, frankly, is easy buckets. When Harden had the lob threat of Capela, he regularly attacked the basket with the release valve of an alley-oop to the dependable big man. When Capela was traded, Harden lost this option and the team showed signs of this adjustment, losing 4 of 5 (including losses to Charlotte, New York, and Orlando) prior to the season being suspended due to COVID-19. The working theory amongst Rockets Twitter was that the Rockets traded Capela and brought in Covington to mitigate Russell Westbrook’s struggles, as Westbrook and Capela were never on the same page and Westbrook’s inability to shoot became more glaringly obvious because of it.
The third, and worst, option is that there is a world where James Harden is not a member of the Rockets, Russell Westbrook has been traded, and the team is trying to give fans something to look forward to. Hard to do better than a relatively cheap, promising 25-year-old prospect when you’re a franchise with an owner who has shown a resistance to spending.
The first game of the season is scheduled for December 22nd and the first day of training camp is December 1st. In a normal offseason, it would be much easier to get a feel for how the Rockets are planning to move forward as a franchise, but with the shortened timeline, it seems more and more likely that the Rockets are standing pat with James Harden on the roster and trying to sweeten the deal for him. Whether or not it will happen could land on Christian Wood’s shoulders.