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Christian Wood needs to play center

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Joe does another self-Q&A on why Detroit’s breakout player is at the wrong position

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Christian Wood is romping his way through a breakout season and has stood out as one of the few bright spots of an otherwise miserable Detroit Pistons season. When the Pistons traded Andre Drummond, one of the factors for those who supported the trade was freeing up minutes for Wood to play center. Since the trade, Wood has put up impressive numbers, but he has done it mostly from the power forward position. That matters, and it’s a mistake.

Does it really though?

Yes.

But isn’t there plenty of minutes available at the four spot right now?

Right now doesn’t really matter. This season is lost, the Pistons are tanking, they’ve traded or bought out most of their competent players. Perhaps right now, with Blake Griffin out for the season and Markieff Morris playing in LA, it seems logical to slide him into the four-spot. But the team should only be thinking about how its play now could impact its play next season. This season doesn’t matter.

And looking to the future, the value Wood can bring to the Pistons as a power forward vs as a center is huge. Whether the Pistons decide to go all-in on a rebuild or try to actually compete next season (both of which are totally realistic options at this point), Griffin isn’t going anywhere, and unless you want to start some kind of mutiny the Pistons will not bench him in favor of Wood. In addition, young Sekou Doumbouya has played most of his minutes as a power forward and projects best there long term.

As such, the only reason the Pistons have a real need for minutes at power forward for the next two years are continued Blake injuries (likely, we must admit) and if Sekou is a total bust. Basically, there will only be minutes for Wood at power forward if things go wrong. If things go as planned, the Pistons don’t really have minutes available at the four.

Then consider the center spot: those minutes are currently being taken by Thon Maker and Jon Henson. Both players are free agents this summer, Thon is restricted, and even if the Pistons decide they want to keep one or both of them, both project as clear backups at this point in their respective careers.

This isn’t complicated. The Pistons have guys who will be playing power forward, they need a new starting center, Christian Wood can play either position, so why are they playing him at the one that they don’t need long term?

But position less basketball! Wood and Thon interchange plenty anyways. Isn’t it like Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris when they were here?

I’ve seen people say this and it just isn’t true. First off, Morris and Harris were playing the two forward positions. In Stan Van Gundy’s offense they were largely interchangeable by design. H e even said that they really saw the game as having three positions: guards, wings, and bigs.

Casey doesn’t seem to view the game like that. Other than the Rocket’s wild experiments there is basically no team that views the roles of their center and power forward to be interchangeable. Even further, Casey has played Henson at center next to Wood as well, and there is no argument that those two could play interchangeable roles on the team.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the differences between how Casey’s (and basically every other coach and team in the league) gives very different responsibilities to their center than their power forward, just consider the matchups and remember that the Pistons under Casey almost never switch. In the first game following the trade, Oklahoma City started Steven Adams at center and Danillo Gallinari at power forward. Wood spent the entire night guarding and scoring on Gallinari. Against Denver, he spent the night with Paul Millsap and not Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon and not Nikola Vucevic.

It is very plain to see that those are incredibly different players. It takes an entirely different approach to hang with most teams centers than their power forwards.

Who cares? Can’t he just play center next season?

I care! Wood has already skyrocketed past his career high in minutes played. Even though he is going on 25, he should be treated as a player in his second or third year. And remember that he has to get paid this summer. The Pistons have to find out how he does at the position they need him to play long-term before they invest heavily in him.

He did fine as a backup center earlier in the season, but what if he struggles against starting centers the rest of the season and it turns out he just can’t play the position at a starter level? The Pistons should be finding that out right now so they know how much they should pay him. On the flip side, maybe his effectiveness raises even higher as a center and then the Pistons know they should throw him the entire bag. They are setting themselves up to need to estimate his value as a starting center long-term when there is no reason for them to not simply play him there and find out.

Lastly, even if they’ve already decided what his value is and he is not leaving and they know he will play center. At the very least, let him start learning through mistakes now. Once again, it’s very different playing against NBA centers and there will be learning pains (just like there are with him playing power forward) so why are you having him go through the learning pains of a position he won’t be playing in the future?

Maybe they want to just play Blake at center next season?

That wouldn’t be a great sign. Blake hasn’t played much center so you are still giving yourself needless guess-work, and when he has played center it’s mostly been a disaster. Even if you ignore the numbers, Blake has short arms, doesn’t jump like he used to, and has a penchant for lazy rotations so even without the numbers there isn’t much reason to think that lineups with him at center could hold up on defense.

So they have to let Wood grow where there is actually space for him?

Exactly. There is a good chance the Pistons will invest real money into him this summer, and he deserves that! But they need to put him in a position where he is going to produce the most value for the team and that is clearly at center.

What if he struggles as a center though?

Then at least you know he isn’t the starting center of the future. Even if they decide they still want to keep him long-term then they can maybe start acclimating Sekou to playing more small forward minutes now and/or tell Blake he need to clean up his defensive rotations. I don’t much like that plan but once again, at least they would know. Right now we don’t.