Yesterday, as you might have heard, the Houston Rockets traded Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a future first-round pick. My first reaction to learning of this trade was: so what?
Does exchanging Russell Westbrook for John Wall really change anything?
Westbrook, much as I love him, has a severe weakness in his outside shooting. Wall, much as I love him, hasn’t played basketball since 2018 and might not be the same dynamic burst of sudden energy that he was at the height of his powers, before the injuries began.
Westbrook is going from a team with a backcourt running mate who’s at least as good as he is (Harden) to another team with an elite guard in Bradley Beal. Ditto Wall from Beal to Harden, but that’s a different story since Wall and Beal have barely played together these past few years, and Harden is a much more potent offensive force than Beal (than just about anyone, aside from a very, very few).
The teams surrounding Westbrook and Wall are also flawed. The Rockets have a TON of unknowns (injury returns for Wall, Eric Gordon, and Boogie Cousins), along with Christian Wood, who seemed good, but for only a short amount of time (still, as a Pistons fan, I’m pissed we didn’t resign him). If everyone’s healthy, then great! The Rockets are still a strong playoff team, based mostly on Harden. Eric Gordon is still a good player, and a really good complement to the Beard. Boogie can stroke it from outside a bit, and PJ Tucker, the Small Ball Center with the Mostest, is still there, along with Wood. Unfortunately, Wall isn’t a good three point shooter, either, so the Westbrook weakness still exists.
Meanwhile, Westbrook and the Wizards will have a “defense,” but they’ll be winning games in the Eastern Conference by scoring a helluva lot more points than other teams. Davis Bertans isn’t James Harden, but he is one of the best perimeter shooters in the league (good to have when Russell Westbrook is on your team). Beal’s a career 38% three point shooter. But, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija and Troy Brown are really going to have to improve their outside shots to cover for Westbrook’s poor perimeter offense. Thomas Bryant improved last year, but he’s not going to turn into Bam Adebayo or Anthony Davis.
If Houston is healthy, and Christian Wood, John Wall, and Boogie Cousins are actually nearly as good as we remember them, then the Rockets will still be a playoff team. Hell, they could be dangerous, if everyone’s healthy and good! There’s still a theoretically high ceiling for the Rockets.
If Washington stays healthy, then I think they’re definitely a playoff team in the East. The combo of Westbrook and Beal should be too much for some of the lower rung teams in the East.
Westbrook and Harden were sensational together for a period last season, and everything looked like it was finally working in Houston, that D’Antoni had unlocked “good” Westbrook, and the Rockets were a force to be reckoned with. Then COVID happened. It’s a shame, it would’ve been fun to see that platonic ideal of ultra small ball in the playoffs, but the Rockets just never got it back after players got sick. Then Morey left, D’Antoni left, now Westbrook’s gone, and people are wondering if Harden is the next player to get traded out of Houston. Trading his contract will be even tougher, so I’m a little skeptical, but we know, as I said above, that it’s absolutely possible. Harden, Gordon, and PJ Tucker are still a good combination of players, though. If Wood is actually good, and if Wall and Boogie can return to form, then Houston’s really just one trade away from being a really dangerous team, no? Time will tell.
Washington is a team searching for success that isn’t just a blip. Westbrook is still one of the best players in the NBA, even if his weaknesses continue to be highlighted by the rest of the league. The Wizards play in a more traditional manner than the Rockets did, so maybe that will please Westbrook, or who knows? Maybe he’ll try to institute some of the things that the Rockets did well last season, before the league had to shut down. Westbrook’s new coach, Scott Brooks, is also his old coach from the OKC Thunder. Maybe a reunion will be a good thing? Both men started together, then traveled different paths, but arrived at the same point. The Wizards will get to play the Cavs, the Pistons, the Bulls, the Magic, and the Knicks. That’s a healthy amount of wins right there. I’m prrrrretty sure Westbrook and the Wiz will be in the playoffs, especially with the play-in games.
Fantasy-wise, does this really change our feelings about these two players for 2020-2021? Do we really think that Westbrook’s shot portfolio will change that much? The answer is no, we do not. We really do not. We have no idea what Wall is capable of after being gone from the game for so long, but we knew he would’ve been playing with a shooting guard who was better than him in Beal. That’s still true playing with Harden. Granted, Wall might not get as many shots as he’d like, but that, too, was probably going to be true in Washington.
I don’t think this changes much for fantasy value for either player. Maybe an uptick in points for Westbrook? (He actually averaged more shots per game in Houston last year than he did in his final two years in Oklahoma City, so maybe not.)
Nor do I think this changes much in real life (unless it’s prelude to a Harden trade). I expected Beal’s Wizards to make the playoffs in the East and I expected the Rockets to make the playoffs in the West. I still expect these things.
This is a big trade, but I’m not sure it actually changes that much.