Updated: Oct 9, 2021
Rumors had been swirling ever since the Houston Rockets' elimination in the second round of the Orlando playoffs that their star tandem of James Harden and Russell Westbrook just wasn't working. Impaired by a strained quadriceps, Westbrook was coming off the worst postseason performance in his 12-year career. In February, Westbrook realized that he could do more damage (and complement Harden) by driving to the basket more often. Six months later, he had reverted back to his shot-heaving ways in a desperate attempt to make a scoring impact for Houston.
According to Shams Charania, Westbrook was concerned about the Rockets' "accountability and culture" and wanted to join a team where he could become a "floor-general" like he was in Oklahoma City. Basically, he was disgruntled about not having the ball in his hands enough. The problem is that his teammate was James Harden, one of the most isolation-heavy players in NBA history. It was clear that although the two stars were previously teammates for three years in Oklahoma City, their chemistry simply wasn't present in H-Town.
So, the Rockets traded him away to Washington D.C. in exchange for John Wall and a first-round pick.
John Wall had been the third-longest tenured player in the league before Wednesday. Drafted by the Wizards in 2010, Wall was the lifeblood of Washington and led them to four playoff appearances. He is known for his speed and ability in the fastbreak, but heel surgery and a ruptured Achilles tendon has prevented him from seeing the court in almost two years. Though Wall is heavily reliant on his athleticism to score, his floor vision won't fade. With a career average of over nine assists per game, the Kentucky alum is a pass-first point guard.
During Wall's absence, the Wizards were aimless in terms of direction. Were they selling, rebuilding, attempting to contend? Bradley Beal surely stepped it up, but one man can't singlehandedly lead his team to wins night in, night out. In the last two drafts, Washington used two lottery picks on wings: Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija. It was almost as if they expected to keep Wall around, but things change in the NBA at the blink of an eye.
This trade is a strange one, as both Westbrook and Wall are on the wrong side of 30 with enormous contracts. For Houston, the best case scenario is that Wall returns to his dynamic self and makes the team around him better. This includes kicking passes out to James Harden on the perimeter and working the pick-and-roll with new signing Christian Wood. If everything goes wrong in terms of their new point guard, at least the Rockets come away with first-round draft capital.
For the Wizards, the duo of Westbrook and Beal could be one of the best in the league. They can surely make some waves in the Eastern Conference, with their ceiling as high as the fourth to sixth seed in the playoffs. Still, Washington's success will largely depend on Westbrook's shot selection and the performances of Hachimura and Avdija. They're impatient and in win-now mode, as evidenced by their taking on Westbrook's massive contract (he's owed $132.6 million over the next three years).
The swap of Westbrook and Wall is only the second time that players with at least five All-Star appearances have been traded for each other. It just goes to show that both were disgruntled enough with their former situations to force their way out. It's unlikely that either team drastically improves with their new point guard, but it'll surely be fun to watch the double revenge tour on January 26th.