Shortly before the season, the Wizards did what was once unthinkable, sending John Wall and a protected first round pick to the Houston Rockets for Russell Westbrook.
It was a classic problem for problem trade. Wall had just suffered through three seasons of significant injuries, which culminated in missing a season and a half with a torn Achilles.
Westbrook still had some — he somehow got named third team All-NBA last season — but he was clearly aging, had largely lost whatever shooting touch he once had, and wasn’t getting along with Rockets star James Harden.
Both had gargantuan contracts that ended in the same summer.
Given that Westbrook was the more accomplished player without a lengthy (and recent) history of serious injury, the Wizards paid the draft pick to get it done. Now 80% through the regular season, it’s worth checking in to see how the trade worked out.
For the Rockets, it’s fair to say the deal was a disaster. They made the move to make Harden happy, and he forced a trade to Brooklyn instead. After an initial hot start, Wall’s health and production has steadily faded.
No one should get too excited about that recent spike in the 10-game rolling average. Wall missed several games with injury, had a great game and then cratered again.
Westbrook’s production is almost the inverse. He stunk early in the season before getting healthy and playing some quality basketball.
Westbrook’s best 10-game stretch of the season ended with the victory over the Sacramento Kings — a 170 PPA over that span, which would put him in the running for All-NBA if he performed at that level for the full season.
Here’s another comparison, this time with the full season PPA for each player after each game on the chart. Wall in Rockets red; Westbrook in Wizards blue.
Yes, to answer the question I know will come, Wall’s overall performance has dipped below league average. His PPA is down to 92, the lowest it’s been since his rookie year.
None of this, by the way, is to denigrate Wall. He was a terrific player in his prime, but as I wrote in 2018, players like him have tended not to age well. And as I wrote in 2019, the history of All-Star level talents returning from extended injury absences typically experience significant drops in production. How he’s performing was unfortunately predictable. The Rockets’ crummy roster surely isn’t helping. And there’s always a chance a player as smart as Wall can figure out how to regain effectiveness.
Of course, each player is under contract for another two years after this one, and Washington still owes that pick — although Tommy Sheppard did a good job of negotiating protections that limit its value. The earliest the pick can convey is 2023. As a reminder, here are the protections:
- 2023 — picks 1-14 — lottery protected
- 2024 — picks 1-12
- 2025 — picks 1-10
- 2026 — picks 1-8
If the pick hasn’t moved by 2026, the Wizards instead pay second round picks in 2026 and 2027. In other words, the best pick the Rockets get is the ninth selection in 2026.
Looking at on-court impact, the trade is a clear win for the Wizards. It’s possible Westbrook’s leadership and maniacal work ethic could shift the team’s culture in positive ways that aren’t showing up in results yet, but may pay off in the future. The on-court stuff could change too. There’s still 20% of this season and two more seasons to go. Things can change.
Caveats laid out, my prediction is that even with the inevitable age-related decline Westbrook will experience over the next couple seasons, even with the future pick the Rockets will get, the Wizards will end up on the plus side of this trade. What we’re seeing this year is probably the best either Westbrook or Wall will play, and I suspect the slide will be worse for Wall than it is for Westbrook.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.