As the NBA continues to evolve, it feels like the center position evolves exponentially quicker. The three-point revolution ushered in a generation of big men who were comfortable launching from beyond the arc.
A logical consequence of that evolution has been the evolution of the big man’s defensive versatility. There’s nothing complicated at play here: if a player’s primary assignment shoots threes, you’ll benefit from being able to capably close out three-point attempts.
All of which is to provide some broad context for a specific question: should the Rockets pursue Nic Claxton?
Nic Claxton is the Archetypical Modern Big
Rumors indicate that the Rockets are interested in the soon-to-be Restricted Free Agent, among other potential backup bigs.
I’ll touch more on the other candidates later, but there’s a reason this article is about Claxton:
He’s the best big man the Rockets could potentially acquire this summer.
FiveThirtyEight has a metric called D-RAPTOR that uses “play-by-play and player-tracking data to calculate each player’s individual plus-minus measurements and wins above replacement”.
Don’t ask me to explain it any further than that. It’s widely regarded as one of the best metrics available to measure defensive impact. I don’t personally need to know how the sausage is made.
If you care to put stock in metrics, you’ll like what they have to say about Claxton’s defensive impact. Among centers with four years of NBA experience or less who played at least 1,000 minutes last season, he tied for sixth at +1.6.
A few notes provide further context. Claxton tied with rookie Evan Mobley, who was primarily touted as a potentially generational defender leading up to the 2021 draft. Of the players who ranked ahead of him using the same criteria, Brandon Clarke is really a power forward who saw enough time as a small-ball five to qualify.
Otherwise, the players ahead of Claxton sound like a who’s who of young defensive big men. Robert Williams III, Mitchell Robinson, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Onyeka Onkongwu are all highly regarded stoppers.
Of course, you may not trust metrics. They’re especially unreliable in terms of tracking defensive impact. Still, it’s worth noting that all of the names listed above have reputations that match the numbers. It’s safe to assume that D-RAPTOR isn’t just an arbitrary mishmash of random data points.
The eye test might suggest that Claxton ought to rank a little higher. Mitchell Robinson is likely a better rim protector, but he doesn’t have the same versatility as Claxton. At 6’10”, 215 pounds with an impressive wingspan and lateral mobility, Claxton can check some guards and most wings.
In other words, he’s the perfect modern big man from a defensive point of view.
Claxton gives the Rockets Options
There’s an elephant in this room, and he’s likely to stomp all over the comments section of this article.
Alperen Sengun will be the starting center for the Rockets next season. The acquisition of Claxton shouldn’t threaten that outcome. Still, if you’ve got enough faith in Sengun, you shouldn’t be concerned with a little internal competition.
I’ve already committed too many words to Sengun’s potential defensive shortcomings. I’ve acknowledged his offensive brilliance with equal vigor. Suffice is to say, acquiring a player who’s almost the exact inverse of Sengun makes perfect sense for a rebuilding Rockets squad.
Claxton doesn’t do much on offense. He struggles to hit free throws, let alone threes. On the other hand, the Rockets aren’t likely to land a two-way big man this summer. Most of them are untouchable. Entering the 2022-23 season with an offensively gifted, defensively limited big man and one who’s his opposite allows the Rockets to get a full range of data on what works for them.
Unless, of course, there’s a better big available to them in free agency?
Is Claxton Better Than The Field?
Outside of Claxton, the Houston Chronicle recently named Isaiah Hartenstein, Andre Drummond, Mason Plumlee, Mo Bamba, Hassan Whiteside, JaVale McGee, and Dewayne Dedmon as potential free agency targets for the Rockets.
Bamba and Hartenstein are interesting options. They’re both young enough to potentially be part of this team’s future. Bamba is especially intriguing, as he offers floor spacing that Claxton does not. Furthermore, Rockets fans will surely be drawn to the redemptive nature of a reunion with Hartenstein. He was a fan favorite and widely seen as underused during his last tenure with the team.
Still, they’re both ultimately drop coverage bigs. Versatility is the name of the game for the modern big man. Five-out spacing is nice, but if this year’s playoffs were any indication, five-out perimeter defense is more important. Looking at just the Finals, Robert Williams III and Kevon Looney started for the Celtics and Warriors.
Neither can shoot, and both can defend shooters. Slow-footed bigs who can’t survive in space have been getting played off the floor in recent years, but that trend was especially pronounced in this year’s playoffs.
Otherwise, Plumlee has a degree of defensive versatility, but as a veteran, he won’t have an opportunity to be a long-term part of this Rockets core. Finally, McGee, Whiteside, Drummond, and Dedmon each feel like a bad allocation of resources. The Rockets would do just as well to stick with the recently acquired Boban Marjanovic.
It’s hard to say what Claxton is worth. The full Mid-Level Exception will feel a bit pricey for some Rockets fans, but anything less probably doesn’t pry him from the Nets.
One thing is certain: if the team doesn’t acquire a player like Claxton now, they’ll probably need to eventually.
These days, it feels like every title contender has one.