Why the Lakers' no-risk signing of Christian Wood could free up Anthony Davis' game

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Thursday, September 7, 2023

The Los Angeles Lakers agreed to terms with free agent big man Christian Wood on Tuesday, wrapping up their offseason moves with about a month to go before training camp.

Wood tweeted that it had "always been my dream" to play for the Lakers. It turns out his dream coincides with the desires of L.A.'s most important player: Anthony Davis.

Sources told ESPN that Davis made it clear to the organization he wanted to have more support at center so he wouldn't have to play so much 5 during the regular season.

Davis was slotted at center in 99% of his minutes last season, according to Cleaning the Glass data. While Davis' performance in the middle earned him athree-year, $186 million contract extension this summer, the Lakers' strategy with Rob Pelinka in charge of basketball operations has been to partner with their stars as stakeholders in the process.

Davis' desire to spend more time at power forward was heard. (In addition to Wood, L.A. also signed 7-footer Jaxson Hayes.)

The 27-year-old Wood is the seventh new face on a team that finished eight wins short of the title last season, losing in a sweep in the Western Conference finals to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets.

And while there's something to be said for a few of the departing players -- Dennis Schroder's overall competitiveness, Lonnie Walker IV's playoff timing, Troy Brown Jr.'s role flexibility and Wenyen Gabriel's tenacity were all positive elements for last season's squad -- L.A. has seemingly improved while keeping its core untouched.

That was easier said than done: Pelinka and the Lakers had just the biannual exception worth $4.5 million, the full midlevel exception worth $12.4 million and veteran minimum contracts to offer.

L.A.'s summer, culminating with the Wood signing, presents a cohesive vision. The Lakers didn't make the same mistake of ill-fitting wholesale changes, as they did going into 2020-21. They didn't prioritize name recognition and experience over youth and athleticism, as they did going into 2021-22. They aren't still trying to make a three-star system work, as they did going into 2022-23.

They maintained continuity while adding players who theoretically mesh with the defensive-minded expectations that Darvin Ham put in place in his first year as coach. They added players who thrived in high-basketball-IQ situations in Miami (Gabe Vincent) and Minnesota (Taurean Prince).

They took a chance on a few young players with upside (Wood, Hayes and Cam Reddish). And they addressed the one glaring weakness of last season's team by adding shooting everywhere they could find it: Vincent shot 43% on catch-and-shoot 3s during the Heat's run through the playoffs, Prince hit 38.1% from deep last season, and rookie two-way signing D'Moi Hodge shot 40% from 3 for Missouri last season.

Because of the timing of Wood's two-year, $5.7 million agreement -- the deal includes a player option in Year 2 -- coming nearly two months after the team's previous transactions when it signed draftees Jalen Hood-Schifino and Maxwell Lewis, it might stand out more than the others.

The truth is, the most consequential moves the Lakers made were reupping their own stars.

In addition to extending Davis, they re-signed the young trio of Austin Reaves (four years, $56 million), D'Angelo Russell (two years, $37 million) and Rui Hachimura (three years, $51 million). That core helped L.A. go 18-6 through the end of the regular season, play-in tournament and first two rounds of the playoffs. Add a healthy and rejuvenated LeBron James for his 21st season, and there are plenty of reasons for optimism in Lakerland.

Wood could become a steal coming off a season in which he averaged 16.6 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 37.6% from 3 with the Dallas Mavericks. He could use the Lakers' platform the same way Malik Monk and Schroder did in recent seasons to reestablish value and gain an even bigger role if James or Davis miss any significant time because of injuries.

But if Wood, who, according to NBA Advanced Stats, finished last in individual defensive rating among Mavericks rotation players last season, doesn't fit within the Lakers' agenda of coming together to pursue the franchise's 18th championship, there's little at stake.

"If he's on his best behavior, it could be a good fit," a league front office source told ESPN. "If he's not, well, you cut him."

Wood joins a franchise that's been on a roller coaster since winning the 2020 Finals inside the NBA's Orlando bubble. Despite that title, a mix of injuries and underwhelming trades has prevented the LeBron era from being considered a smashing success.

Now, like any team with title aspirations, the Lakers hope their reinforced roster -- capped by their latest big man signing -- can stay healthy. Knock on wood.

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