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The Wall-Westbrook Trade Was an Act of Total Desperation

The Wizards and Rockets had no choice but to unload their overpriced stars in an attempt to keep their real franchise stars. It’s a last-ditch attempt for both teams to salvage their current cores.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Russell Westbrook for John Wall seems like a trade that would happen only in NBA 2K. But it’s become a reality because the Rockets and Wizards are both under immense pressure to get better fast or they risk losing their franchise players. Along with Wall, the Wizards sent a heavily protected 2023 first-round pick to the Rockets to complete the deal. With so much at stake, this trade reeks of desperation. But more than that, it was made out of necessity.

League sources say Westbrook demanded a trade primarily because James Harden also wanted out of Houston, but also because the duo didn’t fit that well together. Unlike Houston’s rightful reluctance to trade Harden, the Rockets’ new front office searched far and wide for Westbrook destinations as soon as he expressed that he didn’t want to be there anymore, according to multiple league sources. Houston viewed Westbrook’s desire to leave as a blessing in disguise. Trading him provides another opportunity to make Harden happy again. Many members of the Rockets’ organization believe Harden doesn’t actually want to leave, he just wants to win a title. The Rockets need to prove to Harden they’re the franchise best suited to help him win one before his contract can expire in 2022.

Interest in Westbrook was limited, since there just aren’t many teams that need a point guard, nevermind one who’s 32 years old and making over $40 million annually over the next three seasons. The Rockets did find three interested suitors, though, and proposed them to Westbrook as potential solutions: Charlotte, New York, and Washington. Trade discussions with the Hornets ended once it became apparent they’d select LaMelo Ball in the draft, and interest from the Knicks eventually fizzled, league sources say. That left the Wizards, a franchise dealing with its own challenges involving another polarizing point guard making over $40 million per year.

In September, Wall was recorded on video flashing gang signs at a party, which NBC Sports Washington’s Chris Miller reported “rubbed a lot of people within the organization the wrong way.” Wall apologized for the incident, but league sources confirmed that the video helped fuel Wall’s departure. But any disappointment over Wall’s off-the-court choices is insignificant compared to the pressure the organization faces to win now. Washington’s desire to keep Bradley Beal long term was the overriding factor in the franchise’s choice to flip Wall for Westbrook.

Beal, who is 27, has become the type of franchise player who’s worth building around. He averaged 30.5 points and 6.1 assists with a 57.9 true shooting percentage last season; numbers that have been exceeded only by Harden, Michael Jordan, and Oscar Robertson. Sure, Beal did it for a team that missed the playoffs. But anyone with common sense could recognize this was a two-time All-Star who went Super Saiyan. Unfortunately for the Wizards, Beal has only two seasons left on his contract before his player option, and virtually every team in the league is waiting around for a chance to acquire him. But the Wizards just showed they’re willing to do everything possible to keep him, including trading away a future first-round pick for a possible upgrade over Wall.

Wall became disgruntled about his future in Washington as soon as trade conversations became public, league sources say. But the market for his services was even more muted than it was for Westbrook; any team that had even mild interest in acquiring him also wanted multiple draft picks as compensation, according to sources. The difference between the two former All-Stars is simple: Wall is one of the most accomplished players to ever wear a Wizards jersey, but Westbrook is one of the most accomplished to ever play in the NBA. Westbrook is a former MVP and a nine-time All-NBA player; Wall is a one-time All-NBA player.

For all of Westbrook’s well-recorded flaws, the Wizards still landed a player who was producing some of the best basketball of his entire career before the NBA hiatus in March. Wall hasn’t played in two years and suffered a ruptured Achilles in February 2019. Players returning from injury need to be load-managed to some degree throughout the season as they continue to rehabilitate. But the Wizards can go full throttle immediately with Beal and Westbrook. Every game will matter in the suddenly deeper Eastern Conference, particularly with the truncated season and the new play-in tournament rules guaranteeing a playoff spot for only the top six seeds; playing at full strength as often as possible will be paramount for Washington’s chances to make the postseason.

All the same questions about Westbrook’s time in Houston will apply in Washington too, though. Will he commit to playing hard on defense? Can he make a jumper? Will he move off the ball and cut to the rim? Maybe Wizards head coach Scott Brooks, who coached Westbrook in Oklahoma City, will get through to him. Beal is an excellent off-ball threat, but Westbrook’s involvement can’t come at the cost of limiting Beal’s on-ball performance, or their intentions to build a system that emphasizes shooting and movement.

This trade is a clear Hail Mary by both teams. For Houston, it’s a last-ditch effort to appease Harden before blowing it up becomes inevitable. It’s been two years since we’ve seen Wall play competitive basketball. He’s 30 now, and Achilles injuries are historically not kind to players so reliant on their explosiveness and burst. But it could work, as slim as the odds might be. Wall, at least on paper, is a better fit next to Harden. He has made 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s since 2013-14, per NBA Advanced Stats. Defenses will need to respect his shot when the ball isn’t in his hands, which wasn’t the case with Westbrook, whom defenses sagged off due to his ineptitude as a shooter.

“With the level Brad is playing, I don’t need to be a ball-dominant guy,” Wall told me for a feature story on the Wizards that was published in July. “To be honest, I wish it was like that for a long time. But it all comes in time and being patient. I’m happy not being on the ball 24/7, pushing the pace, creating everything. That shit is tiring.” Plug in Harden for Beal, and that’s music to the Rockets’ ears, if Wall walks the walk. Add in a bevy of 3-and-D wings, a versatile big in Christian Wood, and a new system under a new coach, and the Rockets could potentially improve next season. And if Wall can bring something out in his former Kentucky teammate DeMarcus Cousins, who joined Houston after a lengthy rehabilitation of his own, the Rockets will be even more formidable.

That’s a lot of ifs, though. There’s no certainty for either team involved. Wall-for-Westbrook is one of the bigger trades involving high-profile names in recent league history, but it’s really just a gamble on both ends. It’s a roll of the dice by two franchises that need to win now or their true stars, Harden and Beal, are goners.