Making Sense of the John Wall-Russell Westbrook Trade

The Deal

The Washington Wizards and Houston Rockets reached an agreement to swap their disgruntled point guards yesterday. The Wizards will send John Wall and a protected 2023 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook reunites with former coach Scott Brooks to reinvigorate a Wizards franchise that fell on hard times once Wall went down with his injuries.

This deal feels like a desperation heave from both franchises. The Wizards are desperate to get back to the playoffs and keep Bradley Beal, who improved without Wall alongside him, happy. The Rockets are desperate to placate James Harden, who just requested a trade and didn’t enjoy playing with Westbrook as much as expected. It’s fair to wonder what other offers were out there for either player. They’re both lead guards with massive contracts that are reliant on athleticism that is set to decline since both are on the wrong side of the 30. I would’ve guessed that poorly run teams like the Knicks or Hornets (Batum’s expiring, picks, and one from their litany of guards should’ve sufficed before they elected to waive the Frenchman) would have made a run at either player first, but they may not have been able to do much better than each other.

Wizards POV

From the Wizards’ point of view, a John Wall trade has felt inevitable from the moment he got hurt after signing his massive $207M extension in the summer of 2017. It was only a matter of finding a team that would take on the contract. Before getting hit with a rash of injures, Wall looked like he was elevating his game to another level. His 2017 Playoff performance saw him average 27-10-4 while bringing the Wizards to within a game of an Eastern Conference Finals berth. While he was never a highly efficient scorer, he was one of the best creative forces in the game as he averaged 10 assists in 3 straight seasons before getting hurt.

The Beal-Wall backcourt felt destined to be great based on raw talent. But Beal started coming into his own without Wall and bristled at the notion that he was the Robin to Wall’s Batman. It’s unfortunate because both players seem to have a deep connection with the fans and Washington D.C at large. It must be bittersweet for Wizards seeing Wall, who grew up in front of them as he led the franchise out of the Gilbert Arenas-induced mess from the early part of the decade, to have to leave for the team to improve.

And they should absolutely improve with Westbrook. He was just 3rd Team All-NBA a season ago and if not for some bad injury luck and getting stuck with a 2nd round matchup with the Lakers, might have helped the Rockets figure out how to finally make it to the NBA Finals. Scott Brooks will still need to contend with two alpha dogs who have both earned the right to have the offense run through them. He couldn’t figure things out with Beal and Wall, but maybe his history with Russ will help him resolve any potential conflicts.

A Beal-Westbrook backcourt would be the best in the Eastern Conference on paper and should be enough to power them back into the playoffs. Whether they’d make any real noise is dependent almost entirely on “the others” that are playing around them. Davis Bertans looks like a qualified 3rd option and they’re now paying him like one. Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant, and Mo Wagner aren’t the worst big man rotation, though improvements can be made. If Deni Avidja can contribute right away, he’d give them some much-needed help on the wing where they are thin on talent (although Troy Brown could be a solid rotational player).

Rockets POV

The best thing about this deal from the Rockets’ point of view is that they are reuniting John Wall and Boogie Cousins. The two formed the first great (yet ultimately disappointing) Kentucky squad for John Calipari over a decade ago. Seeing them play together again should make for a nice dose of nostalgia for hoop fans. It just sucks that the reunion is coming after both players suffered Achilles injuries that will limit them from being their best.

Beyond that and the first-round pick, the Rockets are making a huge bet on Wall returning to the 2017 version of himself. Wall is more of a traditional floor general than Westbrook and could be used to get the other guys on the floor engaged in the offense in-between Harden takeovers. PNRs with newly acquired Christian Wood could be particularly effective, though there should still be plenty of drive and kick action to the Rockets’ gamut of shooters.

Wall’s fit alongside Harden is still questionable because of Wall’s lack of a jump shot. He got up to 38% in 2017-2018 and is a marginally better outside shooter than Westbrook over the course of their careers. If he’s hitting from outside at close to the same clip, he can be another catch and shoot option for Houston when they go to their 5 out offense with Harden running things. If not, teams will sag off of him and clog the lane, making life more difficult for Harden and the Rockets as a whole to thrive

What It All Means

There are still a lot of ‘ifs’ linked with this trade for Houston that you have to wonder whether this is going to kickstart a rebuild where they begin selling off veterans for draft capital. Houston has reiterated that they want to keep Harden and aren’t looking to trade him despite his request to leave a few weeks ago. But with a shortened offseason and a new coach who wants to move away from Mike D’Antoni’s system, it’s fair to wonder if this will click fast enough to assuage Harden’s concerns.

Does this trade change anything in the grand scheme of things? Probably not. Neither team figures to seriously contend for a title as currently constructed, but playoff berths are likely for both teams. The Wizards will be delighted to make it back into the top 8, even if it’s only to get swept by the Nets or Celtics. The Rockets just want to make Harden happy and get him to back off of his trade request. If they can get him to buy back in, that would be a huge win for a front office that desperately needs one, while possibly altering the landscape of the league by preventing him from joining the Nets or any other contender.