The John Wall trade looks worse all the time. And it never looked all that great to begin with.
To recap, the Wizards paid out a draft pick back at the beginning of December for the privilege of swapping Wall—a diminished point guard on the wrong side of 30, with a huge salary and deep ties to the local community—for Russell Westbrook, a diminished and even older point guard with a huge salary and no ties to the local community whatsoever. They did this just a few days before Wall, one of the greatest and most beloved players in the extremely poor history of the extremely crappy Bullets/Wizards franchise, was due to make what would have been an emotional return from the nearly two years he lost to injuries and surgery.
What made the trade calculus appear to work (and, full disclosure: I grudgingly praised it at the time) was a wager on Wall, who’d always depended on his speed and athleticism and who’d begun declining even before he missed those two years, having been ruined by the left Achilles tendon rupture he suffered while rehabbing from heel surgery in January of 2019. If it was a safe bet, it was also an ugly and cold one for the franchise Wall had lugged within sight of relevance for the first time in decades; it was the type of move that occasions all parties saying things like “We all know this is a business,” as if the decision to relocate a person’s workplace 1,400 miles based on the conviction that they’re washed up is anything but intensely personal.
So it’s been sort of bleakly fun to watch the trade fail even on its own ugly terms. For however diminished Wall is—and he is—Westbrook is a hollow shell of himself, worse than replacement-grade (minus-0.1 VORP, according to Basketball Reference) and all but totally nonfunctional at the offensive end of the floor; his presence on the court functions as something like a “LOSE” button for the Wizards. If he was meant to boost the team’s competitive standing, as part of a campaign to retain Bradley Beal, well: They’re a league-worst 3-10, and an even worse 1-8 in games in which Westbrook has appeared. If moving on from Wall was meant to reassure Beal of his unchallenged stature as the face of the franchise, it’s worth asking who exactly would want to be the face of the sport’s feeblest and most embarrassing outfit, and whether it’s even worth clearing the decks to reassure a guy who can’t lift the team out of the deepest recesses of the league’s toilet.
Anyway that’s all prelude to last night, when Wall faced the Wizards for the first time since the trade, and kicked their asses.
OK, so 24 points on 9-for-21 shooting isn’t exactly LeBron James hanging 46 on the Cavs to make a point. But the Rockets won handily, outscoring the Wizards 32-18 in the fourth quarter, with a clearly fired-up Wall accounting for all of Houston’s points during a key 9-2 run that broke the game open. He flashed enough classic John Wall stuff to make this Wizards homer’s chest hurt, including that absolutely gorgeous behind-the-back layup at 2:05 in the above video, which prompted the NBA to pull together a compilation of some of the many previous times he’d pulled that move:
He even got a silly technical foul for trash-talking Westbrook after stumbling and falling while defending him. It mattered to John Wall: After the game, he told the Houston broadcast, “I just feel like the [Wizards] organization thought I was done. No matter how much hard work I put in over the summer, they came and watched me, and I thought they thought I was done, and that’s why I came out here and did what I did.” It fits. By my count, this is at least the 574th time in his career that a Wizards game has mattered more to John Wall than it deserved to.
The Wizards were not going to be good this season under any set of plausible circumstances, so I do not want to make too much of this. And Wall is not exactly lighting it up in Houston: He’s already missed games due to both COVID-19 protocols and knee soreness, and the numbers he’s put up in between put him on pace for his worst season since he was a rookie. The Rockets are below .500 in games he’s played.
But every week the Wizards spend transiting the most distant and irrelevant orbit of the NBA makes a more compelling argument against the trade: The best thing—perhaps the only good thing—that team could have delivered to fans this season would have been the sight of John Wall playing basketball in a Wizards uniform again. Him flashing some of the old skills in a different uniform, punting the Wizards into the rearview mirror, and making them look all the more foolish for quitting on him, is a pretty bitter substitute—but a surprisingly fun one to watch.