It’s unkind to bring up the time that the Washington Wizards swapped a toxic and dead on his blown out knee Gilbert Arenas for an equally cooked Rashard Lewis, but Russell Westbrook for John Wall is similarly two bloated contracts passing in the night. From a labor perspective, these huge salaries for aging and/or injured point guards are justifiable as back pay for paltry rookie deals, but your fan and your unionist sympathies can never perfectly align: you don’t want your team to get stuck with the bill. Because you can trade these guys only for each other, and while change is exciting, it’s a fleeting delight.
Russ is Russ. The numbers look good unless you understand where they came from. He’ll appear to be playing defense, but he won’t be. You get it, at this point. John Wall hasn’t played basketball since the day after Christmas, 2018. He’s supposedly healthy, but that definition is flexible, considering he’s 30 and coming off an achilles tear. In late May, he told Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes “I’m gonna be better than I was before, and that’s the scary part. Damn near whole five years I was an All-Star played with two bone spurs in my knee and my heel. People don’t know that. They ain’t even get the best of John Wall yet, they just got a clip of him.”
The guy’s probably wrong, but he is a warrior. In addition to those bone spurs, he once played a pair of playoff games with five fractures in his wrist and hand. John Wall doesn’t like to hang out on the sidelines; he’s just been unlucky enough to spend a lot of time doing so. It’ll be a small shock to see him in action again, even moreso in a Rockets jersey, but stubbornly: age 30, Achilles tear. And he’s not Kevin Durant; he can’t get by on superior skill. The essential advantage Wall had, when he was at his peak, was skull-rattling athleticism. The whole book on him was that you had to keep him out of transition, because he’d murder you with his speed and passing instincts. In the halfcourt, his poor shooting made him guardable.
Wall is the interesting player in this deal, not because of what he’ll do for Houston—there’s a possibility he’ll be quite bad—as much as what the Wizards are losing. To be clear, they’ve already lost most of it. The Wall and Bradley Beal backcourt didn’t realize its potential, and the principals involved didn’t get along interpersonally or on the court. They both thought they should have the ball more and were always doing a Your Turn, My Turn thing rather than pursuing true synchronicity. But for several years there was an idea, a fragile hope, that Wall and Beal would become like Lillard and McCollum or Harden and Chris Paul. Mentioning those names, it occurs: there is/was a lead dance partner in those duos. In retrospect, Beal probably should have led. Wall, raised as a floor general and a couple years older, wasn’t going to let that happen. Then he got hurt and the fraught dynamic no longer mattered.
Wall won his quiet civil war with Beal in one respect: he is the proper heir to Gilbert Arenas, the marquee Wizards star of his era, beloved in D.C. He’s entrenched in the community, famous around town for his generosity, particularly his involvement with children’s charities. He holds a yearly school supply giveaway for lower income kids and regularly donates meals to families around the holidays. Had he played for the Wiz this past year, it would’ve been his tenth season in Washington. That’s a long time, especially in a decade where most of the league’s best players have switched teams at least once. While the Wizards have never been great in Wall’s time there, they have been his.
Now he’ll go to Houston, where James Harden likely won’t be very happy with him. Why did you bring me another aging point guard who can’t shoot? The Wizards will improve with Russ in the fold; he’s exactly the sort of fixer you bring in to take all the shots and breathe all the oxygen that would otherwise go to replacement-level parts. He presents the same There’s Only One Ball issue that Wall did, but while Beal and Wall were bickering behind the scenes, they still made a solid team, carrying Wizards squads to entertaining if faintly anticlimactic playoff defeats. Washington brass has a strong interest in compiling a roster that can at least win 40-odd games this year. Otherwise, Beal is going to put in a trade request. He might do that anyway, but it’s worth trying to dissuade him.
The Russ for Wall swap has the air of generic urban renewal. An old building with rotted guts, objectively an eyesore, gets knocked down and on its demolished bones some developer builds a glass tower with West Elm furniture in the lobby. It needs to be done, everything ends, but you ask if it had to be accomplished with such little care and imagination. John Wall, Houston Rocket. Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizard. Sure, it’s new and it’s something. But it feels, if you think about it for any amount of time, like nothing at all.
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2019 Histories: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Houston Rockets | Golden State Warriors | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards
2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
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2016 Futures: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards