The Rockets gave up two nearly unprotected first-round picks and two pick swaps to bring Russell Westbrook to Houston. They received one heavily protected first-rounder back to unload him a year later. Getting a pick to swap the equally massive salaries of Westbrook and John Wall begins the process of digging out of an unfathomably deep hole. It probably won’t keep James Harden in Houston for the long term, and it doesn’t even do that much to set up the Rockets for their post-Harden future. But it’s a small step in the right direction.
The basketball considerations in this trade are almost secondary. For all his flaws, Westbrook is much closer to his peak than Wall, who is coming off a torn Achilles and hasn’t played in an NBA game in two years. Westbrook averaged 27.2 points on 47.2 percent shooting, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game last season, and played some of the best basketball of his career after the Rockets dealt Clint Capela and reshaped their offensive system to make him more comfortable.
Wall will have to adjust his game to play with Harden even more than Westbrook did. Both traded stars are ball-dominant guards who depend on size and athleticism to make up for streaky jumpers. The difference is that Westbrook is a dominant scorer, while Wall is a more traditional floor general. But Harden is a great passer in his own right and doesn’t need someone to set him up. He never showed interest in playing off the ball with either Westbrook or Chris Paul, so it’s hard to imagine he will suddenly do it with Wall. Westbrook and Paul averaged fewer assists playing with Harden than they had in a long time. Wall will have to find a way to succeed in Houston without showcasing his primary skill.
The good news is that he’s a better shooter than Westbrook. He shot 33.6 percent from 3 on 4.6 attempts per game in his last two healthy seasons with the Wizards. He will be more of a catch-and-shoot threat with Harden, but that will mean accepting the smallest offensive role of his NBA career. Wall can relive his glory days in Washington when running the second unit in Houston. The problem is that isn’t a very big window given that Harden averaged 36.5 minutes per game last season.
The Rockets are still a good team. Harden gives them a high offensive floor, regardless of who is around him. They have most of their supporting cast (Eric Gordon, Danuel House Jr., P.J. Tucker, and Ben McLemore) back from last season, and added Wall and Christian Wood, the most skilled big man of the Harden era. But they still can’t challenge the Lakers, who embarrassed them in last season’s playoffs. Harden’s reported trade demand to the Nets isn’t going anywhere.
The benefit of trading Westbrook to the Wizards, as opposed to a team like the Knicks that would have sent back nothing but bad salaries, is that the Rockets received a good player to go along with a future draft pick. The Rockets won’t sink to the bottom of the league with a veteran-laden roster, so they shouldn’t feel desperate to deal Harden immediately. Houston was never going to get much for Westbrook. Their future depends entirely on the seemingly inevitable Harden deal, which likely means waiting for the trade deadline and hoping that some contender will get desperate enough to package a young star and a mountain of draft assets.
Reuniting Harden with former GM Daryl Morey in Philadelphia for either Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid still makes the most sense for Houston. No one the Rockets could get back from Brooklyn is that kind of foundational star. Not getting such a player would mean committing to a full-scale rebuilding project without having their first-round pick in 2021, or between 2024 and 2026, thanks to the first Westbrook deal. That is as bleak a timeline as exists in the NBA. There’s a reason why Morey walked away a month before the situation began to unravel completely.
The biggest win for Houston’s front office, led by new GM Rafael Stone, is that it’s been able to somewhat replenish its draft cupboard since the recent trade demands from its two former MVPs. They received one future first-rounder for Westbrook and two more firsts from Portland for Robert Covington, and could get similar hauls for Tucker and House. Combine those picks with whatever they get for Harden and they would at least have something to build around. While Thunder GM Sam Presti still has Houston’s future tucked away in his treasure chest of assets, now the Rockets can at least start to rebuild with someone else’s.
Stone, who worked under Morey, has no margin for error. He has to nail every draft pick they have, and squeeze as many assets as he can out of every trade. It’s a daunting task for a first-time GM. He’s made good deals so far, but his time with the Rockets will be defined by what he receives for Harden. Stone is in the exact opposite situation of his mentor, who made his name by giving up so little to acquire Harden in 2012.
Like Morey at the end of the Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming era, Stone has to rebuild without the benefit of high draft picks. Morey pulled off the NBA equivalent of trading a paperclip for a house with a nearly endless series of transactions that gave him enough assets to pounce when the Thunder made Harden available. Stone has started to make his series of moves, but he still has a long way to go. It will take a lot of skill and luck to get out of a hole this deep.