Who won the Russell Westbrook for John Wall trade?
The swap of Russell Westbrook for John Wall between the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards had been rumoured since the start of November, but when the jungle drums went quiet a few weeks ago it was assumed that any chance of a deal had dried up.
This week the respective general managers Raphael Stone and Tommy Shepherd reportedly spoke again about a separate matter, revisited the Westbrook for Wall idea, and apparently had a trade nutted out within the hour: Wall and a protected 2021 1st round pick for Westbrook.
In pure contract terms, this trade is a wash. Both Houston and Washington are on the hook for about $130 million over the next three seasons (it’s safe to assume that both players will opt into the 2023 player options), so this is the rare trade where we can talk almost entirely about what each party brings to the table in a purely basketball sense.
This is perhaps the highest-profile ‘challenge’ trade we’ve seen in the NBA for quite some time. There are certainly benefits for both teams, but also some clear drawbacks. Let’s take a look at what each team could be getting and who ultimately wins this trade.
Westbrook had made his wish to be traded loud and clear, though it was still expected that Stone would try to hold onto Russ and fellow former MVP James Harden. Free-agent signing Christian Wood looked to be a perfect complement to his backcourt, yet here we are discussing a post-Westbrook Rockets.
Westbrook’s performances in the Orlando bubble were pretty awful, to be frank. In fairness, there were mitigating circumstances as he contracted COVID after the league shut down and then suffered a calf strain as he struggled to play catch-up, fitness-wise, in preparation for the restart. That said, he was electric after the Rox traded away Clint Capela, opening up the lane for Russ’ rim-rattling drives: across January and February, he posted averages of 32.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists, whilst shooting 53.6% from the floor. He might be 32 years old, but Westbrook is far from washed up.
That said, no matter the revolutionary roster structures, Westbrook’s style simply didn’t (or wouldn’t) mesh with Harden. Westbrook must have the ball to be effective and when you have such a uniquely potent offensive weapon as Harden, you’re almost certainly going to marginalise a player like Russ.
In replacing Westbrook with Wall, the Rockets are getting a man that is younger by two years, but with a far more questionable long term outlook. Even at his marvelously athletic peak, Wall wasn’t exactly known for his commitment to conditioning and after two years out rehabbing an injured heel and then a torn Achilles (injured whilst rehabbing the heel), there is considerable uncertainty around what type of player we’ll see. Interestingly, Harden and Wall have played pickup ball in the short off-season, with Harden raving about how strong the five-time All-Star looked.
This could go one of two ways for Wall. With a fresh realisation of how fleeting an athletic career can be, he could come back in the best shape of his life. He might have an acute understanding of the need to extend his career as his athleticism declines and becomes a late-career Jason Kidd type: running a controlled offense, exploding when he can, and spotting up for the open trey (A career 32.4% shooter from deep, Wall will already help in that regard more than Russ ever could, though hitting closer to 35% would clearly be of benefit).
That type of player will help the Rockets immensely. That version of Wall can run the offense when Harden sits, act as a secondary play maker when the defense loads up on The Beard, and act as a mentor to any young players Stone brings aboard.
Of course, Wall is notoriously strong-willed – a less charitable writer might say he’s pig-headed. If he thinks he can get back to being the player he was (highly unlikely given his age and injury history) and doesn’t, then he becomes a bigger off-ball liability than Westbrook was. In his last season in Washington, Second Spectrum recorded Wall as the player that walked whilst on the court the most in the entire league. His penchant for standing in the corner with his hands on his knees whilst Bradley Beal cooked was a telling image.
The bet here is that Wall is not what he was at his peak, but is a more complete player than he was pre-injuries. He won’t be the player that returns Houston to true contention, but he will keep them in the mix for a top four seed in the West. For a team that wants to convince its biggest talent to stick around, that’s important.
For all the talk of Westbrook being a tough player to fit into a team, Washington might actually be a good landing spot for him. The Wizards can spread the floor in a Houston-lite fashion, with the potentially stretchy Thomas Bryant and an elite sniper in Davis Bertans in the front court. Before he became the centre of the team’s offense, Bradley Beal was a supreme off-ball threat playing off of Wall. Harden never really seemed comfortable in that role alongside Westbrook, but if Beal can find a way to switch between the best version of his current self and the best version of his younger self then Washington could have itself a dynamite 1-2 punch.
Westbrook also reunites with his old Oklahoma City coach in Scotty Brooks; the two are reportedly close. Westbrook is an idiosyncratic type, bordering on obsessive-compulsive; he needs to have his off court needs and rituals met to feel comfortable. Having a man at the helm who understands him should help Russ settle in DC in a way that he seemingly never did in Houston.
Westbrook comes to a team that has open floor weapons that Houston never possessed. Despite his age, Russ is still a one-man fast break, able to gather the defensive board and create a quick basket better than most. With speedy, lane-filling athletes like Beal, Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown, and Bryant as well as a deadly option on the kick-out on Bertans, the Wiz could add a top-ten fast break to their excellent half-court attack from last season.
Of course, Westbrook won’t help fix Washington’s biggest issue: defense (although in fairness Bill Russell in his prime wouldn’t make this defense all that frightening). The Wizards possessed the single worst defense in the NBA last season. Don’t expect a 32-year-old Westbrook – never anything close to an above-average defensive presence – to change that. It’s worth noting that Wall, who was at one time a very good defender, isn’t expected to reach those levels again after all of his injuries.
So: Russell Westbrook for John Wall. Who wins this trade?
It’s tempting – and perhaps a little cheeky – to suggest that the Thunder are the true winners, given what they received for Westbrook as opposed to what Houston received, but we’ll keep the assessment to just this transaction.
In a trade that makes zero sense and simultaneously make complete sense, it can be argued that both teams come away from this trade better and/or worse. The judgment here is that the Wizards are getting the better of the trade, though the protected pick the Rockets receive in the deal does make it a marginal call.
Wall might be the younger of the two fading stars, but he comes into the new season with infinitely more question marks surrounding what he might produce. Westbrook – a relatively known commodity – is certainly the better asset. In his first stint in the Eastern conference, Russ should be able to thrive and return to his borderline All NBA levels. John Wall may be a very good addition to the Rockets, but even at his expected best, he won’t produce in the way Westbrook should.