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This Is Getting Awkward For The Rockets

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 12: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets reacts during the third quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Five of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 12, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

James Harden has made his desire to get the hell away from the Rockets as plain as possible without sending a Trade James Harden parade down whatever the main drag is in Houston. It makes sense: Daryl Morey, the architect of more than a decade of sustained success, is now gone; Tilman Fertitta, the fake-rich bozo who bought the team from Leslie Alexander in 2017, sucks and is broke and has no intention whatsoever of paying what it will take to get the Rockets over the hump in an endlessly loaded Western Conference; and 31-year-old Harden isn't getting any younger. If he wants to see whether the grass is greener someplace else, now is the time.

Because Harden is still a top-10 offense unto himself, because it will be nearly impossible to get back equal on-court value in any trade, and because the NBA's salary cap and luxury tax structure will make it extremely difficult for other contenders to absorb Harden's contract, which pays him $132 million over the next three seasons, the Rockets are committed, at least for now, to changing Harden's mind about leaving. The pitch with the best chance of working will presumably revolve around a convincing case that the Rockets are better positioned than ever before to win a championship. They can always just not trade a guy who wants to be traded, but retaining a version of Harden who would rather catch the plague than join the team is not so different from flushing that huge chunk of salary they've invested in one player. If they're stuck with each other, they have to find a way to mutually make the best of it.

That's where John Wall comes in. Wall was looking for his own greener grass when he agitated his way out of Washington. Because of Wall's own hefty contract, which is worth $133 million over the next three seasons, the Rockets will need Wall to be excellent in order to be even a serious playoff team, to say nothing of a championship contender. Wall is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, which not too long ago was a career-ender for people who run and jump for a living. This preseason isn't just a tune-up for Wall and his new Rockets teammates—it's a live, real-time pitch, where Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and Christian Wood and the Rockets organization prove to Harden that they can be as good as any team in the league. That's a real tall order!

The first stage of this is establishing whether Wall is fully healed. There's good news on that front: Through two preseason games, Wall looks spry and healthy, and is even engaged defensively in a way that he was not as his health declined in Washington:

The problem, here, is that there are really three questions, and not just one simple one, when it comes to Wall's recovery. The first and easiest is whether he can return to something like pre-injury form over the remainder of his contract. It's nice to see him running and leaping and dishing and making eye-catching athletic plays out there, and it would appear that he is back to being a fine NBA player. That's great!

The second question is trickier, because it has to do with whether Wall, even at pre-injury condition, is all that suited to playing winning basketball in this particular era. He has always been a ball-dominant guard with a streaky jumper, and though he is one of the best passers and pick-and-roll operators in the sport, a lead guard who isn't a knockdown shooter puts a cap on what an offense can do. This was part of the friction in Washington as Bradley Beal blossomed into a dominant offensive force—how much ball-handling duty should be given to a guard who can't stretch the defense when you have another dynamic ball-handler without that hole in his game?

The Wizards weren't necessarily hoping that Wall would come back with a knockdown jumpshot so much as they were hoping that he would come back with a new commitment to working as hard off the ball as he does with the ball in his hands. Darting cuts, decisive moves around the perimeter, a willingness to hunt catch-and-shoot opportunities, and the occasional screening duty would go a long way toward making Wall a functional part of an offense sometimes oriented around someone else's ball-handling, which would need to be more of a thing in order to maximize Beal's on-court value. And this would be even more of a necessity on a team with James Harden, who is the single most ball-dominant player in the modern NBA and one of the most ball-dominant of all time.

But it's hard to know whether Wall has added stuff to his game that suits him to playing with James Harden if he doesn't have a chance to, you know, play with James Harden. Through two preseason Rockets games, Wall's most dynamic ball-handling teammates have been Eric Gordon and ah DeMarcus Cousins, and the drop-off from there is vast enough that you will find a guy with Being Hit By A Car on the back of his jersey before you land on another rotation player. Without Harden around to orchestrate and give Wall someone to orient around, he has shown all the bad offensive habits he had in Washington. Wall so far has often been found waiting tentatively above the break, presumably so that Danuel House will have someone to throw the ball to in a panic when his second dribble deflects off his knee. There's no cutting, no screening, no sprinting, no catching-and-shooting. There's a lot of milling around and, worst of all, several too many of those dreaded pull-up 18-footers that are anathema to the Rockets' whole theory of basketball.

So, yes, Wall looks restored, but he looks restored to the exact player type that never would've made much sense on a team with James Harden to begin with, and until he shares a court with Harden, it will be difficult or impossible for the Rockets to make the case that Wall is suddenly a perfect piece of a contender built around Harden's singular offensive brilliance.

And that leads us to the third question, which is the only one that matters to Houston's courtship of a discontented James Harden: Is a rejuvenated John Wall someone that Harden is particularly interested in playing with? Even if Wall proves he's fully restored, does James Harden want to play on a team with him?

The arrival of John Wall has left All-NBA guard James Harden unmoved and uninterested in pursuing a new partnership, and the franchise star continues to push the Houston Rockets for a trade, sources told ESPN.After making his Rockets preseason debut this past weekend, Wall expressed hope that Harden might become excited about playing with him in a backcourt -- a prospect that Harden is rejecting as he prepares to rejoin the team Monday in practice, sources said.

Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski/ESPN


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