This is the only way it could have ended—both spiritually and financially.
In recent weeks, Russell Westbrook has made it known that he wants out of Houston, and John Wall no-commented rumors that he was ready to move on from Washington. Despite their All-Star pedigrees, both make too much money and have too many health concerns to have the kind of trade market they would have had five years ago.
There was nobody to trade them for but each other, which is exactly what the Wizards and Rockets did on Wednesday evening, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski first reported.
This is Rashard Lewis for Gilbert Arenas, a decade later and hopefully with higher upside. Westbrook was awful in the Orlando bubble over the summer, after battling COVID-19 and a quad injury, but he had been playing some of the best basketball of his career with the Rockets before the league shut down in March. Wall hasn’t played an NBA game in almost two calendar years because of a torn Achilles. Maybe both just needed a change of scenery.
There are a lot of angles to unpack with this trade, perhaps the biggest of what’s been a jam-packed offseason less than a month out from the 2020-21 season tipping off.
Winner: The Rockets’ Ceiling
Trading both Westbrook and James Harden by the start of the season was unlikely, even though both superstars reportedly wanted out of Houston. Instead, new Rockets general manager Rafael Stone had to do something different.
Stone had a low-key first offseason after taking over for longtime Rockets GM Daryl Morey. He shipped starting forward Robert Covington to Portland for Trevor Ariza and draft picks, and then he sent Ariza to Detroit in a sign-and-trade for up-and-coming big man Christian Wood. He also hired Stephen Silas as head coach to replace Mike D’Antoni.
If Westbrook and Harden trades didn’t happen, the Rockets were mostly going to run back last year’s core. In a Western Conference that’s more loaded than ever, that wouldn’t have been good enough.
No one knows what the Rockets will get out of Wall this season. He’s supposedly looked great in offseason workouts since recovering from the Achilles tear, but that’s a common refrain at this time of the season. He hasn’t played against NBA competition in two years, so he’ll have plenty of rust to shake off.
But if Wall is something close to his former self—an admittedly big if—he’s a more natural fit next to Harden than Westbrook was, and he’ll likely raise their ceiling. At the very least, this is worth a look as the Rockets try to retool around Harden while he still hopes to get moved.
If nothing else, they’ll now certainly be more interesting.
Loser: James Harden Trade Suitors (For Now)
The Rockets may trade Harden at some point. But if the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers or any other would-be suitor hoped that day would come before opening night, they might be out of luck.
If Houston had traded Westbrook for a bunch of lesser-paid players, it would have signaled a willingness to tear the entire thing down. The Rockets likely didn’t take a home run swing on Wall just to turn around and trade Harden somewhere else before the two have had a chance to play together, though.
In an ideal world, Wall is healthy and productive, fits well next to Harden, and Harden walks back his desire to be traded. That’s the best-case scenario, and maybe wishful thinking from the Rockets’ front office.
But unless they get blown away by an offer for Harden, which seemingly hasn’t happened yet, they aren’t in a rush to move the NBA’s leading scorer just because he wants to play somewhere else. Other teams will either have to wait Houston out or up their offers considerably.
Winner: Bradley Beal
They’ve both denied it on the record, but it isn’t hard to tell that Wall and Bradley Beal don’t love playing together. They both want to be the first scoring option, and while Wall has earned that right over his time in Washington, his extended time on the sidelines has led to Beal’s ascendance in the league’s hierarchy.
Coming back from a two-year absence, Wall was going to have a chip on his shoulder to prove he can still play at an All-Star level. That was inevitably going to lead to increased tension between him and Beal.
Perhaps similar issues will arise between Beal and Westbrook, but at least Westbrook is more of a sure thing than Wall is. And with Beal and a re-signed Davis Bertans flanking him, he’ll be surrounded by shooters just like he was in Houston.
The Wizards haven’t made the playoffs since 2017-18. After flipping Wall for Westbrook, they should at least be in the mix to qualify for the Eastern Conference’s play-in tournament.
And if it doesn’t work out, Beal can turn down his player option after the 2021-22 season and flee in free agency that summer.
Loser: Wizards Fans
If you’re a Wizards fan, you haven’t had much to be excited about since the then-Bullets’ lone NBA championship in 1978.
There was a string of first-round playoff exits in the ’80s, Michael Jordan’s strange two-year comeback effort from 2001 to 2003, four years of playoff appearances with Gilbert Arenas in the mid-2000s before injuries cut short his peak, and that’s about it.
Until Washington won the 2010 draft lottery and took Wall with the No. 1 overall pick, that is.
After that, the Wizards had an identity and a star that was theirs. And they were pretty good. They weren’t title contenders, but they made the playoffs four times in five years from 2014-18 and made it to the second round in three of those seasons, something they previously had done only once since 1982.
In that time, Wall became one of the most explosive point guards in the NBA. He racked up five straight All-Star appearances along with a third-team All-NBA nod in 2016-17. He also developed a strong bond with Washington, throwing himself into various charitable efforts in the city. It’s a lock that the Wizards will retire his No. 2 jersey some day.
A combination of injuries and the supermax contract that was supposed to keep Wall there for his entire career made it unpalatable for the partnership to continue. Westbrook may make the Wizards better on the court in the short term, but he’ll never have the kind of citywide impact Wall did in his 10 years there.
It’s a shame Wall’s tenure in Washington had to end this way.
Winner: DeMarcus Cousins
This might have gotten lost in last week’s flurry of free-agency moves, but the Rockets took a minimum-salary flier on former All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. Now, they’ve reunited Cousins with Wall, his close friend and former college teammate at Kentucky.
Cousins tweeted his approval of the move minutes after it was first reported.
Like Wall, Cousins hasn’t played basketball in a long time. He signed with the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, but he missed the entire 2019-20 season after suffering a torn ACL in an offseason workout. Mere months earlier, he suffered a torn quad in the same leg during the playoffs with the Golden State Warriors, and he suffered a torn left Achilles with the New Orleans Pelicans in January 2018.
After that many major injuries, it’s fair to question whether Cousins has anything left in the tank. He was one of the most dominant big men in the league for close to a decade, but three serious injuries to the same leg in an 18-month span is a lot to ask someone his size to recover from. There’s a reason a player as talented as Cousins is signing minimum deals at the age of 30.
While it’s unclear how much Cousins and Wall have left to contribute after their terrible run of injury luck, they should both at least feel good about getting to do so together.
Winners: John Wall and Russell Westbrook
Both Wall and Westbrook got what they wanted: a fresh start.
Neither of them had the leverage to pick their destination like, say, Anthony Davis was able to do. Their contracts and injury histories made the market for both of them soft. In this case, beggars can’t be choosers.
Given those constraints, they both ended up in good spots. Wall gets to team with Harden and try to make a run in the West. Westbrook gets a new backcourt partner more used to playing off the ball with a ball-dominant point guard, and he’ll reunite with former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks.
Neither team is a contender after the trade, but both Wall and Westbrook are better fits on their new teams than they were on their old teams. It’s a win all around for them.
This is the only way it could have ended—both spiritually and financially.