Russell Westbrook-John Wall trade grades: How much actually changes for Rockets, Wizards?

Just last week, Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard told reporters that Washington had “no plans” to trade John Wall. As is often the case in the NBA, plans change quickly.

The Rockets and Wizards both shared official announcements around 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday night confirming the teams had agreed to swap their disgruntled guards. Houston is sending Russell Westbrook to Washington in exchange for Wall and a protected future first-round pick.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who first broke the news of the trade, revealed that Sheppard and Rockets GM Rafael Stone hadn’t spoken about a deal in weeks but hopped on the phone Wednesday afternoon and ironed out the details in a few hours. With the season fast approaching, these organizations realized they couldn’t move forward with unhappy stars on the roster. Something had to be done, and with Wall and Westbrook having nearly identical contracts (three years, $133 million remaining), Houston and Washington determined this was the best way to solve their problems.

But how much does this trade really move the needle for the Rockets and Wizards? Here is a breakdown of the short- and long-term ramifications for each side.

Russell Westbrook-John Wall trade grades

Rockets receive: John Wall, protected 2023 first-round pick

Wizards receive: Russell Westbrook

Rockets: C-

Dec. 26, 2018. That’s the last time John Wall played in an NBA game. He was ruled out for the rest of the 2018-19 campaign with a heel injury, then suffered a torn Achillies after he slipped and fell in his home. So how do you evaluate someone who will have missed nearly two calendar years by the time the Rockets kick off a new season?

Beyond trusting Kevin Durant’s review, it’s impossible to know exactly what Wall will offer in his return. In his prime, Wall was one of the most explosive forces in the league, a speedster who could fly down the floor and finish at the rim or dish to an open teammate. In 2016-17, his last full season, Wall averaged 23.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. He hit a memorable game-winner against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals that year, but the Wizards ultimately fell to Boston.

Even if Wall is able to get back to close to All-Star level — and that’s a huge if — there will still be issues with his fit next to Harden. The old adage “there’s only one ball” comes to mind. NBA.com tracking data shows Harden and Wall were the top two players in terms of time of possession during the 2018-19 season when Wall was last active. (Westbrook was fourth behind Damian Lillard.)

Harden must participate in a more egalitarian offense. He can’t be solely focused on isolation possessions and then float away off ball. He could be a terrific spot-up threat, as he shot 41.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season. Wall is in the same boat — take the open looks (not a flamethrower, but better than Westbrook), cut hard to the basket, throw in a screen. Please, we’re begging you.

Wojnarowski reported on ESPN’s “Get Up” that Harden preferred Wall over Westbrook, so we’ll see if he’s willing to cede some offensive control under new coach Stephen Silas.

And really, this comes down to the Rockets attempting to stay competitive with Harden. An eventual Harden trade feels inevitable, but Houston hasn’t reached that point yet. The front office is (understandably) waiting for a monster package, and that’s not on the table right now.

The Rockets managed to snag another asset in the form of a first-round pick for the moment if/when the rebuild begins, but in the best-case scenario, it would be a No. 9 pick in 2026. That has to be disappointing considering Houston attached multiple picks and swaps to Chris Paul in order to complete last year’s trade with Oklahoma City. There just wasn’t a market for Westbrook.

Perhaps the Wall addition gives Harden a temporary boost, but it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which this pairing works and keeps Harden in Houston long-term.

Wizards: C+

Well, this is weird, huh? Mr. Triple-Double is on the move again. He is the first NBA MVP to be traded in consecutive offseasons.

Westbrook has his faults — and those faults can lead to some really ugly moments — but he is undoubtedly the better player in this trade. He made the All-NBA Third Team after averaging 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game. He shifted into another gear from January until the stoppage in March, but a positive coronavirus test and quad injury limited him inside the NBA “bubble.”

The Wizards are hoping they can unleash that January-March version of Westbrook. Putting shooting around Westbrook and letting him go full “Russ Smash” is a simple but effective formula, and Washington should be able to incorporate that into the game plan.

However, similar to the potential Harden-Wall struggles, Westbrook and Bradley Beal aren’t puzzle pieces that slide together perfectly. Wall has never struck fear into the hearts of defenders as he launched a 3-pointer, but Westbrook is the worst high-volume 3-point shooter of all time. That means Beal may have to do more off-ball work and occasionally jump out of the driver’s seat after logging the highest usage percentage of his career last season (34.4).

If nothing else, Westbrook should push the Wizards into the playoff hunt. Is that enough of a step to convince Beal he shouldn’t eventually search for an escape door? Maybe not, but it’s worth noting how Beal reportedly felt about Wall and why he might take to Westbrook’s personality and work ethic.

From The Athletic’s David Aldridge:

Do Wall and Beal still like each other? Yes. They’d been through too much together over eight years together, had done too much together to make the Wizards semi-relevant in the East again, and had become fathers within a couple of years of one another, not to still respect each other, as men and teammates. They saw each other Tuesday in D.C., as the Wizards reported to town for the start of individual workouts and training camp.

But did Beal want to wait any more for Wall to get back to where he was before the injuries? Did he believe Wall was as diligent about his rehab as he could have been? Did he want to go back to a supporting, catch-and-shoot role, which seemed inevitable even as Wall professed he’d play differently with Beal going forward, seeing how Beal’s game had grown the last two years?

No.

Westbrook isn’t (and probably will never be) a plug-and-play piece. He hasn’t been willing to truly adjust, so it would be foolish to expect him to suddenly transform into a new guy. This deal could simply be a precursor to a Beal trade if the partnership goes south. 

At the end of the day, though, Westbrook is an upgrade over Wall, and we know what he brings to the court. That’s enough to give the Wizards a higher mark than the Rockets, but not by much.

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