The James Harden/Russell Westbrook era ended in Houston last night after one unremarkable season. The Rockets sent Westbrook to the Washington Wizards in exchange for John Wall. Wall hasn't seen the floor in two years, spending that time recovering from a torn Achilles. The two teams basically swapped two big contracts, and the Wizards sent Houston a lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick.
To some, it might appear as the start of a teardown in Houston. But according to Adrian Wojnarowski, the trade was made because Harden preferred Wall to Westbrook.
As Woj notes, this does not mean Harden will want to be in Houston for the remainder of his contract. He has given "serious thought" to wanting out, and the Rockets are hoping this will convince him to stay.
It is interesting, though, that Harden likes Wall over Westbrook as his running mate. We outside the locker room cannot be certain as to the personal relationships involved here. It could be that Harden, while he probably likes Westbrook after all the years they've spent together between OKC and Houston, is simply better friends with Wall and wants to play with his pal. It could be something else entirely.
But in terms of playstyle, Wall and Westbrook are somewhat similar players. Westbrook is capable of putting up monster numbers, but has a very serious problem with playing hero ball when things go south that reared its ugly head in Houston numerous times. He never seemed to entirely adjust to playing next to another ball-dominant star, which is part of the reason it didn't work out for the Rockets last year.
We've never seen Wall team up with that kind of star. Bradley Beal was far and away his best teammate during his time with the Wizards, and he didn't morph into the all-around scoring threat he is now until he was forced to take the reigns after Wall got hurt. Overall, though, Wall is a more balanced player than Westbrook. Westbrook, for all his gaudy stats, is undeniably a shoot-first, pass-later player. He averaged 22 shots per game his last year in Houston. Before Wall got hurt in December 2018, he was averaging only 17 field goals per game and still averaged 20.7 points to go along with 8.7 assists.
Westbrook's shots per game average was probably inflated by Houston's five-out offense, but the last time he only averaged 17 attempts per game, he was 25-years-old and still playing with Kevin Durant in OKC. Wall, on the other hand, has never averaged more than 18 shots per game in a full season, much less 22. He just doesn't need to have the same usage rate as Westbrook to make an impact.
But the fact remains that Wall has not played basketball in a professional setting in nearly two full years. It would be entirely unreasonable to expect him to immediately return to the double-digit assist, 20-point-per-game scorer he was before he got hurt. He might never get back there. For all of Westbrook's faults, you can be reasonably sure he'll reach certain statistical benchmarks. With Wall, everything is up in the air.
Maybe Harden will be happy to have Wall around, regardless of his play, and will decide to stick it out in Houston for the final two years of his contract. Houston is clearly hoping that's the case, because otherwise, they're stuck paying Wall over $40 million a year for the next three seasons, and they have no idea what kind of Wall they're getting.