The Russell Westbrook experiment is over for the Rockets, who on Wednesday traded Westbrook to the Washington Wizards in exchange for John Wall and a protected future first-round pick. What does that mean for James Harden? A quick inventory illustrates a consistent downgrading of Harden co-stars in Houston. Two seasons ago he had Chris Paul. Last season he had Westbrook. Now, for the moment, he has Wall, who is coming off a ruptured Achilles and hasn’t played in an NBA game in almost two calendar years.
At first glance, it would appear to be a clear indication that an eventual Harden trade is inevitable. The Rockets already moved off Robert Covington for a pair of first-round picks from the Blazers (the first of which was this year’s No. 16 overall pick, Isaiah Stewart), and they’re getting another protected first-round pick from Washington in the Wall deal. The rebuild appears to be on.
Or is it?
Obviously, we’re not going to believe a word that comes out of Houston’s camp. This is all a game of leverage, and the less desperate they seem to trade Harden, the better offers they’ll get. And the thing is, they’re actually not desperate. Unlike the majority of superstars who start demanding trades, Harden is not in a walk year. He has two years plus a player option left on his contract, meaning the Rockets are not under the immediate threat of losing him.
Might they actually be under the belief that Wall and Harden can fit together better than Westbrook and Harden did? I certainly hope not. Like Westbrook, Wall is a bad shooter who has absolutely no experience playing off the ball, and seemingly no desire to do so. Indeed, this analysis from ESPN’s Zach Lowe in November of 2018, just two months before the last time we saw Wall play, paints a startlingly grim picture of Wall’s off-ball prospects:
He never evolved into a 3-point threat. His speed — the thing that makes Wall special — manifests only here and there. Last season, only Dirk Nowitzki and DeMarcus Cousins spent a higher percentage of court time than Wall standing still or walking, per Second Spectrum tracking data — a stat that set off alarm bells throughout the league and within the Wizards.
I’ve never been able to forget reading that. Never has a stat lined up more with the eye test. Watch even a few minutes of Wall film and you’ll see a really fast guy who for whatever reason loves to play slow, and if he doesn’t have the ball, he is a statue. And now that speed — as Lowe said, once his greatest asset — is likely severely compromised post-Achilles surgery? And he can’t shoot alongside a guy in Harden who needs shooting around him more than anything else?
If you want this Harden era in Houston to continue, you could try to convince yourself that Wall is, or at least was before his injuries, a bit more like Chris Paul than Westbrook ever was in that he expertly probes the mid-range and can at least crest the 30-percent mark from beyond the arc. But this is a reach.
The simple truth is Wall has long been about the closest thing to a Westbrook clone, and indeed he’s a nearly identically ill-fitting player alongside Harden with a nearly identically crippling contract. The only meaningful difference between the two is Houston never would’ve gotten a first-round pick for Westbrook from any team other than the Wizards, who are desperate to convince Bradley Beal to stay long term. Fact is, the Rockets likely would’ve had to give up a first-round pick to unload Russ on anyone else.
The Rockets can try to spin this all they want, but they’re not looking to compete with Wall and Harden. They’re smack dab in a rebuild, acquiring assets when and where they can with the limited resources at their disposal. Harden, obviously, is the most valuable asset, and it’s hard to imagine the end game being anything other than eventually cashing him in.