Five big questions from the Russell Westbrook for John Wall trade
Welcome to the NBA, where no contract is untradable.
Washington’s John Wall and Houston’s Russell Westbrook had two of the top five worst contracts in the NBA (maybe two of the top three), and Wednesday the Rockets and Wizards decided to swap problems. Because Westbrook is the better player at this point, the Wizards had to throw in a future first-round pick.
It’s a trade of big-name players — each of whom reportedly asked for a trade — and massive contracts, but it doesn’t move the needle much for either Houston or Washington on the court. If anything, this trade raises more questions than it provides answers.
Here are the five biggest questions from the Westbrook for Wall trade.
1) How much does John Wall have left in the tank?
That is the single biggest unknown in this entire trade. Wall hasn’t been on an NBA court since December of 2018 — almost two years — and has had a couple of major surgeries since then. Is Wall still an All-Star level player? Is he more like a good starter now? Has he slid to being backup-level? Nobody really knows, but the answer ties into the other big question for the Rockets:
Will Wall fit well next to James Harden?
The risk with Wall is his lengthy injury history. Wall has some craft to his game, he’s a decent spot-up shooter (37% on catch-and-shoot threes the last season he played regularly), and he can get to the rim and create. You have to cover Wall at the arc (unlike Westbrook the past season or two). Wall also is a better defender than Westbrook.
However, Wall was last an All-Star in the 2017-18 season, since then he had major knee surgery and ruptured his Achilles. But even before the injuries, in the last two seasons he played, Wall’s efficiency was starting to fall off. Was that due to injuries — he played through bone spurs in his heel before his knee and Achilles injuries — or was his game just starting to show age?
The past couple of seasons in Houston, Mike D’Antoni directed the James Harden show — Harden was given an all-he-could-eat buffet of isolation touches. Houston traded Clint Capela, so there wasn’t even a guy to set picks, it was just The Beard doing what he wanted. Westbrook had the ball in his hands plenty last season, but Harden still had a ridiculous usage rate (third highest in the league).
Will the addition of a point guard like Wall, bringing in some more traditional players such as centers Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins, and a change of coaches to Stephen Silas, mean a shift back toward a more traditional offensive system in Houston? Maybe. The last couple of seasons maxed out the Harden-against-the-world offense and showed its limitations. Silas will likely shake things up by making the Rockets more traditional in some ways (and getting Houston to play faster).
Will Wall and Harden fit together? Maybe the better question is, will they get a chance?
2) Does this mean a fire sale in Houston?
Not a fire sale, but the day the Rockets traded Robert Covington to Portland for draft picks was the day it became obvious the Rockets front office was thinking about the long term and a potential rebuild. Trading Westbrook — even for Wall — is just another step down that road (as they added another pick).
Houston is dealing, and there is strong interest around the league in PJ Tucker, plus guys like Eric Gordon and Danuel House also could be trade targets. Just about anyone wearing a Rockets’ jersey will be available at the deadline, including Harden.
Don’t sleep on the fact the Rockets picked up a first-round pick in this trade (protected, but it likely conveys as a first-rounder in 2024 or 2025). Houston sent out a lot of picks to trade for Westbrook, getting one back in this deal is a good pick up for the rebuild that is eventually coming.
3) What does this trade mean for Bradley Beal? The Wizards’ offense?
Owner Ted Leonsis wants his Washington squad to make the playoffs, and the Wizards just got better because Westbrook will actually be on the court putting up numbers. Wall is back this season, but the injury risk is high and, as previously noted (question No. 1), nobody is sure where his game stands.
At age 32, Westbrook may be in decline, but he was an All-NBA player last season who averaged 27 points a night and had a very efficient stretch through the middle of the season. Westbrook’s contract may have scared teams, but he can still play — he was Third Team All-NBA last season — and him at the point next to Beal makes the Wizards better. (How much better? Skip ahead to question four.)
How well Westbrook and Beal mesh is an open question, with a lot falling on Scott Brooks and staff (remember Brooks coached Westbrook in Oklahoma City). Beal had the rock in his hands any time he wanted the past couple of seasons, now Westbrook will take some of those touches but he is not as efficient as Beal. Will Beal get frustrated, or will Washington win enough that issues are smoothed over?
This trade was a clear sign to other front offices (and fans) — Washington is not trading Beal. At least not this season. The Wizards were never planning to, and they kept saying that publicly, but now it’s even more clear the goal is to make the playoffs, then try to convince Beal to stay long term.
Beal has three years on his contract, but the last one of those is a player option at $37.2 million. Beal likely will choose not to pick that final year up so he can get the security of a longer deal. If Beal tells the Washington front office he wants out, the Wizards need to make a move next offseason.
Whether he wants out or not will possibly hinge on how this season goes.
4) Can the Wizards make the playoffs?
Probably. If you consider making the play-in games in the East making the playoffs.
These Wizards are a win-now team. Washington has its stars in Beal and Westbrook and a potentially strong group of role players around them: Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Robin Lopez at center, and the just drafted Deni Avdija. It’s a pretty good roster.
However, the East is improving. Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami are the likely top five in the conference (in whatever order you want to place them), followed by Toronto and Indiana in my mind. That’s seven. I have Atlanta eighth. Is Washington better than the retooled Hawks?
In a play-in world where the Wizards just need to make the top 10, they should be fine (Orlando is in that mix, too). But advancing beyond the play-in games may be a big ask, and even then the Wizards will draw a series against the Bucks or Nets or Celtics in the first round, and that will be too much to overcome.
5) Can the Rockets repair their relationship with Harden and keep him?
Only Harden can answer this question.
The Rockets continue to say they are committed to repairing the relationship with Harden, keeping him, and retooling a contender around him. He’s not being traded before the season starts, according to reports. All that despite Harden’s attempt to force his way to Brooklyn. Let’s just say there is plenty of skepticism around the league that Houston can fix things; but the Rockets need to say they will keep him for the trade leverage.
Houston wants the motherload in return for Harden — if Jrue Holiday drew three first-round picks, two pick swaps, and two rotation players in his trade, what is Harden worth? — but currently there are no takers. For now, the Rockets and Harden will continue an uneasy marriage... unless the Rockets are going to spring another unexpected trade in the coming days.