While this trade didn’t come completely out of thin air (there had been rumblings for a couple weeks prior,) there was sense of surreal-ness when the notification popped up on my phone at work. “Russell Westbrook has been traded to the Washington Wizards in exchange for John Wall.” The James Harden-Russell Westbrook experiment officially lasted just one season for the Houston Rockets.
The trade has immediate ramifications that shake up the landscape of the NBA. The Houston Rockets lose a triple double machine at point guard, but bring in a talented player in John Wall to fill the position. The Wizards unload Wall, whose career has taken a step backwards in Washington amidst some injuries. Westbrook will now play in the Eastern Conference, competing to make the playoffs against the likes of his former teammate, Kevin Durant, and the Brooklyn Nets.
The swap also creates two new star duos: Harden and Wall in Houston as well as Westbrook and Bradley Beal in Washington.
Who won this trade? Which team will see a greater benefit in 2021? What about when the dust settles in three to five years?
Grading the Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets are putting a lot of faith in John Wall moving forward. While Wall is an explosive player when healthy, he’s been limited to 32 and 41 games over the past two seasons. At 30 years old, Wall still has some good basketball left in him. But was it worth giving up Westbrook, a once-in-a-generation talent?
The Rockets received Wall and a protected 2023 first-round pick from the Wizards. While this pick could hold some value, right now Houston is literally just swapping point guards with Washington.
Is Wall as good as Westbrook? Even at his best, it’s not even really that close. Wall posted a career-high 23.1 points and 10.7 assists per game in the 2016-17 season, his last full and healthy campaign. Westbrook has only averaged less than 23.1 points per game once in the last six seasons, peaking at 31.6 points per game in 2015-16 and posting 27.2 points per game last season.
Westbrook is two years older than Wall, but even when both are fully healthy, Westbrook is the better player. Considering the wildcard factor of Wall’s healthy, I’m sure almost every NBA team would prefer Wall over Westbrook if given the choice.
How will Wall mesh with Harden? In a best case scenario, they don’t get in each other’s way, and it works out just as well as the Harden-Westbrook experiment. But Wall is a ball-dominant player, dishing out assists at a high rate. Of course, Westbrook preferred the ball in his hands too. Wall is technically a more efficient shooter than Westbrook from outside the paint, but he doesn’t score or take shots at the same level of volume as Westbrook.
In the short-term outlook, this is a player-for-player trade. And even if Wall plays his best and Westbrook plays his worst, Westbrook is probably the better player. In this sense, I think trading Westbrook away lowers Houston’s win total and playoff aspirations for the 2020-21 season.
Looking further out, the Rockets will gain a first round pick in 2023. In the landscape of today’s NBA, Wall could be long-gone in three years. And even if that pick pans out to be a good one for Houston, you still have to think they could have gotten more.
The Rockets probably could have traded Westbrook for a larger package: one not headlined by a star player, but one including multiple players and future first round draft picks. Houston could have traded Westbrook for a handful of role players in a win-now move. Or they could have shipped him to the highest bidder in terms of draft capital. Instead, they got a good player (who still might be a downgrade) and a first round pick a few years down the line. It feels like they didn’t win on either front.
Grading the Washington Wizards
Based on the tone of my grade for the Houston Rockets, you might think the Washington Wizards have won the lottery. While I would stop short of saying that, Washington instantly gets better by adding Russell Westbrook, and trading away an oft-injured John Wall doesn’t hurt that bad. The worst thing the trade does is ship away the franchise’s heart and soul of the last nine seasons. Wizards fans will certainly miss Wall, but they may find a new favorite point guard very quickly in Westbrook.
At 32 years old, Westbrook is still one of the best players in the game. In my upcoming Top 10 NBA Players list (which I won’t spoil too much,) he makes the cut, while Wall wasn’t even considered. Wall is probably a Top 30 player, but Westbrook is a special talent that few teams in the league can say they have on their roster.
Including a 2023 first-round pick will hardly be noticeable for Washington if Westbrook has a good career in a Wizards uniform. Worst case scenario, Westbrook quickly falls off, loses trade value, and the Wizards don’t have a pick in 2023. But more realistically, even if Westbrook’s tenure in Washington wasn’t flowers and roses, he would likely hold trade value based on name alone for a couple more years. The Wizards could potentially flip him in to more assets, if he doesn’t mesh well in Washington.
Will Bradley Beal and Westbrook be a perfect pairing? Probably not, and that’s still okay. Beal shined last year in Wall’s absence. Even with Wall on the court, there was years of chemistry between the two star guards. Westbrook and the increasingly ball-dominant Beal might struggle to find offensive balance in the early season. Is Westbrook a perfect player? No, and his turnover rate could hamper the Wizards offense at times.
At the end of the day, Westbrook is currently a better player than Wall. Assuming he plays at a career-average level, Westbrook should be able to elevate the Wizards in to borderline playoff contention. And if everything clicks, the Wizards could be a darkhorse team in the Eastern Conference, capable of outscoring you with an onslaught of Westbrook and Beal.
Who Won the Trade?
It’s clear to me that the Washington Wizards won this trade. While they gave up a future first-round pick, they end up with a better player than they had at point guard yesterday. In the absolute best-case scenario for Houston (Wall plays well and the 2023 pick proves to be valuable,) I’m still not sure we’ll be able to look back and say it was a worthwhile trade for the Rockets.
The Rockets should still make the playoffs this season, as long as James Harden remains on the roster. But while they looked like a firm third or fourth seed before, now they could fall to the fifth or sixth seed. The Wizards, on the other hand, go from the ninth or tenth best team in the Eastern Conference to a potential top eight, playoff team.
Winner: Washington Wizards
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Header Photo Credit: ABC8News/WRIC/Alonzo Small