Rockets get: John Wall, protected 2023 first-round pick
Wizards get: Russell Westbrook
Houston Rockets: C+
A Westbrook-for-Wall swap was always the most obvious solution for the Rockets to Westbrook's desire for a trade. Almost any other team would surely have demanded draft picks in return to take on the remaining three years and $133 million on Westbrook's contract, and those remain in short supply in Houston because of the multiple picks and swaps given out to acquire Westbrook last summer.
In this construction, taking back Wall's similar contract allows the Rockets to actually add a first-round pick rather than sending one out. That pick is acknowledgement that Westbrook's value remains higher at the moment. He was, after all, an All-NBA Third Team pick last season thanks to the most efficient sustained stretch of basketball of his career when Houston began playing without a center.
Wall, by contrast, is a complete question mark coming off surgery to repair an Achilles rupture. By opening night, it will have been nearly two full years since Wall last took the court in a competitive game on Dec. 26, 2018 -- back when the Rockets still had Chris Paul as their All-Star point guard.
Even before undergoing surgery, Wall wasn't the same player after leading the Wizards to within a game of the conference finals in 2017. He managed just 73 combined games his last two seasons in Washington, producing at a sub-All-Star level when he was on the court.
The optimistic view is that Wall was far less than 100% then as he dealt with bone spurs in his left heel that dug into his Achilles and required surgery. The pessimistic view is that the condition of his Achilles worsened in a subsequent fall in his home that resulted in a rupture of the tendon and required a second surgery that cost him the entire 2019-20 campaign. And realistically, Wall is now 30 and has a game that -- much like the older Westbrook -- has always relied heavily on his athleticism.
It's impossible to gauge exactly where Wall is after his extended rehab, but it's unlikely he's still an All-Star point guard. It's possible that he'll come back scarcely capable of starting, much like we saw with the All-Star point guard who knocked Wall and the Wizards out of the 2017 playoffs, Isaiah Thomas. If so, Houston would have to eat a huge amount of salary to walk away with a first-round pick.
In the scenario where Wall is at least 85% of his pre-surgery self, there's still the question of how well he fits alongside James Harden. As well as both Harden and Westbrook played for long stretches last season, the Rockets never really managed to get both guards going at the same time.
Harden played at an MVP level while Westbrook struggled early in the season, then took a back seat when Westbrook shined after the move to smallball. In the playoffs, with Westbrook slowed by a quad strain and coming back from experiencing COVID-19, Harden was more of a one-man show.
Much like Westbrook, Wall has spent his entire NBA career with the ball in his hands. In fact, before his injury in 2018-19, the only player with higher time of possession in the league was ... Harden (via Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA Advanced Stats). And much like Westbrook, Wall is less effective in an off-ball role because he's an iffy shooter. At 32%, Wall is a slightly better career 3-point shooter than Westbrook (30.5% and trending downward in recent seasons), but neither draws much respect from opponents as a shooter.
The last issue here in projecting Houston's upcoming season is availability. The best argument for the Westbrook-Paul trade was Westbrook's durability. That ended up backfiring on the Rockets, as Westbrook ended up sitting out one game of back-to-backs prior to the stoppage of play and missed time with the quad injury in the bubble. Meanwhile, Paul stayed healthy all season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now, Houston has downgraded again in terms of likely health. Players coming back from an Achilles rupture have missed about 20% of their team's games over the first season of their return historically, not counting any games missed during the rehab process. Swapping Westbrook for Wall may force the Rockets deeper into their weak bench.
So far, I've discussed this trade in terms of Houston's ability to win with Harden in the short term. With Harden apparently wanting out, that can't be the Rockets' only concern. If and when they decide to trade Harden, they're probably better off starting some sort of a rebuilding process with an extra draft pick in hand even if Wall is no longer as productive a player as Westbrook. From that standpoint, and in terms of dealing with the immediate issue of Westbrook wanting out, this deal is understandable.
For the Wizards even more than the Rockets, this has the air of kicking the can down the road rather than actually dealing with the issue. In Washington's case, that's the future of All-Star guard Bradley Beal, who has two years left on his contract before potential free agency in the summer of 2022.
According to the reporting, the Beal-Wall relationship was always fraught, and bringing Wall back into the mix after Beal had taken on a larger role in his absence figured to be a challenge. Beal didn't necessarily handle the ball more last season, but his usage rate exploded to a career-high 34% of the Wizards' plays after it had never previously been any higher than 28%. Would Wall have willingly acceded to a secondary role in support of Beal? We'll never know.
In this case, again, the fit is hardly much better with Westbrook in Wall's place. Wall is ball-dominant, but as much in the service of setting up his teammates as scoring himself. The 2016-17 season was the only time he's cracked a 30% usage rate. Meanwhile, 31% is the floor for Westbrook's usage since his first two seasons in the NBA.
Clearly, Washington will be better off with Beal as the primary scorer. He managed to shoulder the extra load last season without any decline in efficiency, posting a .579 true shooting percentage that was right in line with his .581 mark in 2018-19. (There was a noticeable drop-off in Beal's effort at the defensive end of the court.) Westbrook's best career true shooting percentage is .554, so any shots he takes from Beal will likely be less efficient ones.
In part, this brings us to an age-old Scott Brooks question dating back to his days as the Oklahoma City coach: How much should he stagger rotations to separate the minutes for Westbrook and his more efficient, high-scoring teammate? Beal and Wall nearly always shared the court together, which made sense given Wall's playmaking was more complementary to Beal's ability to knock down open shots. The Westbrook-Beal pairing will be maximized by playing apart as much as possible.
In the short term, it's certainly possible Westbrook could see a lift in his offensive efficiency in Washington. He'll be surrounded by the best shooting of his career, particularly when he plays with Davis Bertans, whose 4.5 3-pointers per 36 minutes led qualifying players last season. We saw during January and February how effective Westbrook can still be when given proper floor spacing.
But Westbrook is 32 and his athleticism is going to head only in the wrong direction at this point. He doesn't fit a Wizards roster that has trended younger. Veteran reserves Robin Lopez and Ish Smith are the two other Washington players in their 30s. As the Wizards ponder a post-Beal future, building around a declining Westbrook with young talent doesn't really make sense.
Worse yet, a rebuilding Washington team could at some point find itself out a lottery pick because of this trade. The protections prevent the Wizards from ever giving up a premier draft pick -- the highest possible being the ninth overall selection in 2026 -- but Washington might have to sweat out some lotteries if the team is neither in the playoffs nor truly awful.
I get the reasons the Wizards would make this deal, and it's worth noting that they have more information on Wall's current condition than others do. Nonetheless, it's a move I would not have made. I don't think it either makes Washington a likely playoff team now or positions the team to move forward without Beal.