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John Wall Will Finally Get Another Chance To Be A Basketball Player

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The Houston Rockets agreed Monday to buy out the remaining year of John Wall’s contract, which will make Wall an unrestricted free agent later this week, at the start of the NBA’s free agency period. Assuming this agreement is in fact consummated, and assuming that Wall will then join up with the Los Angeles Clippers, as has been reported, the next few days will bring to a close what is likely to be remembered as one of the worst long-term contracts in the history of the NBA. After three seasons of injury hell and another two stuck on a Rockets team transitioning into a multiyear tanking project, Wall should soon have the opportunity to once again be a regular damn basketball player.

The word “regular” is not meant in this case to mean “normal” or “average,” but rather regular in the sense that a healthy bowel will produce regular bowel movements. Wall would probably prefer that basketbloggers who discuss this unfortunate chapter of his career reference something other than poop, but unfortunately we are accountable to our readers for at least indirectly acknowledging the statistical record. It has been a long, long time since Wall has had a stable role in an NBA rotation—he has participated in just 76 of a possible 342 regular-season games since late January 2018—and it has been an even longer time since Wall’s play could be described as “good” without eliciting some cocked eyebrows. Lower leg injuries had already robbed him of stamina and mobility by the end of his last full season, in 2017, and overdue knee surgery the following January mercifully ate a chunk out of what was shaping up to be the worst season of his career. He was a miserable, depressing shell of himself for 32 games of the 2018–19 campaign, and he has now missed two of the last three seasons, one to an Achilles injury and another to Houston’s absolute disinterest in having a rusty 30-year-old propel their rebuilding project to a counterproductive five or so extra wins.

The terms of a given buyout depend quite a lot on leverage. In Wall’s case, the Rockets were on the hook to pay an awful lot of money (35 percent of the salary cap) for a player they do not want, and whose age, injury history, and income made him untradeable for anyone except possibly Russell Westbrook, the only player in basketball with a contract anywhere near as toxic as Wall’s. Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Wall’s buyout will save the Rockets about $6.5 million, or roughly the same amount as the CBA carveout that the Clippers will reportedly use to fold Wall into their roster, allowing Wall to collect the full $47 million of the final year of that four-year “super-max” extension, signed in 2017. That’s nice for Wall, apart from whatever sting comes with the knowledge that an NBA team is willing to pay him $41 million to play for someone else. That doesn’t mean Wall cannot help a team—part of why the Rockets prefer the savings is precisely because they are not yet at the phase of their rebuild where they have any interest in winning—but he will be a lot more attractive as a flier at the taxpayer midlevel exception than with the salary of a superstar.

It’s weird to think that Wall could be described as lucky, but this latest turn in his career made me think this morning of two of his contemporaries: Westbrook, who has achieved much more than Wall, and has had much better injury luck, but who now finds himself in one of the most busted situations in all of American professional sports, as the deeply unwanted third wheel of the ultra-expensive superstar core of the insanely busted and wonderfully accurséd Los Angeles Lakers; and Isaiah Thomas, who is about 18 months older than Wall and who, despite reaching a significantly higher career peak than Wall’s, has earned less across his entire 11-year NBA career than Houston will pay Wall to play for Los Angeles just this season. I have to imagine Westbrook would give up a lot more than $6.5 million of the final $47 million of his own super-max contract to slot into a right-sized role on a well-constructed and infinitely less neurotic contender. Thomas—whose own career-altering lower-body injury robbed him of a superstar-level payday and recast him as a tragic basketball nomad—hasn’t played on a long-term contract since 2018, is currently without a team, and would presumably give up several perfectly good toes to slide into a reasonable contract for a stable role on a good team.

The Clippers seem like a great fit for Wall at this stage of his career. For one thing, the entire concept of the team this season rests on the belief that good players can recover from long injuries and form the core of a contender, a theory that will be tested as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George return from extended absences of their own. For another, Tyronn Lue’s rotation will be filled almost entirely by switchable, roughly wing-sized players of overlapping skillsets, and Wall, who is a big and sturdy point guard capable of playing well above his 6-foot-4 frame, at least looks the part. Importantly, the Clippers also should present Wall the first opportunity of his 12-year NBA career to fit into the orbit of other, established, star-level players. However much confidence he might have in whatever is left of his abilities—a real open question, despite some promising flashes in 40 games of an aborted 2020–21 season—the days when any serious team would orient its offense around Wall’s playmaking are probably long gone. A healthy Clippers team will not rise and fall according to Wall’s streaky scoring; with Leonard and George entrenched as the primary creators, Wall should have an easier time devoting his energy to point-of-attack defense, supplementary scoring, and his usual all-out assault in transition.

The abject failure of the Westbrook Experience in Los Angeles demonstrates some of the dangers of hoping that a ball-dominant veteran point guard can smoothly shift into the reduced role of an off-ball, secondary playmaker, and however much it might pain Wizards fans to admit it, Wall has never been as good an offensive player as Russell Westbrook. When the Wizards attempted to shift some of Wall’s playmaking duties to Bradley Beal, after Beal’s breakout 2016–17 season, Washington’s chemistry turned sour, their offense fell off, and the team went from frisky to mediocre and never returned. On the other hand, this decline coincided very closely with Wall’s run of severe lower-leg injuries, so who the hell knows. There is reason to hope. If Wall is in fact fully healthy for the first time in five years, the Clippers should have a significant talent upgrade over Reggie Jackson, and the rest will be working out matters of role and fit, all of which fall under the category of good problems. If he’s the same ho-hum version we saw in Houston, at least he and Jackson can team up to give the Clippers 48 minutes of sturdy, competent, occasionally infuriating but occasionally heroic point-guard play. It’s worth a try.

But it’s only really worth a try at the midlevel exception, something that will only be made possible for Wall this season via the buyout, which is on the table at all only because the Rockets are happy to be bad, and therefore care not at all to see if $41 million can buy them more than $6.5 million in savings. It’s a stroke of luck that Westbrook has never really enjoyed, because he was healthy, and because here and there he has performed well enough to convince foolhardy teams to give him roles he either can no longer manage or cannot yet abide. Wall is now a flier for a good team with high ambitions. If Leonard and George are good and he is not, the Clippers are probably a playoff team. If they are good and he is too, they might find themselves hunting a title. This hasn’t been the career arc that Wall would’ve wanted or maybe even that he deserved, but there are worse outcomes.

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