First reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski; the Houston Rockets agreed to trade point guard Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards for point guard John Wall and a first-round pick. So goes the world of the NBA trades.
The blockbuster deal comes out of nowhere as rumors initially had broken out that the two organizations had inquired about each other’s current point guards. Westbrook and his camp had already leaked out to the public that he wanted out of Houston. The rumors about the swap was news to Wall as he hasn’t stepped foot on an NBA hardwood in almost two years. Wall was also shocked about the Wizards decision to build around shooting guard Bradley Beal going forward and felt spited by it.
Wall will now share the backcourt with James Harden who is now moving onto his third ball-dominant star point guard in just a short period of time. It’ll be intriguing to see how a high usage Wall who has a couple of similar characteristics to Westbrook and is fresh off an ACL and Achilles tear will mesh with Harden who’s also notoriously known for his own ball dominance and usage. Westbrook heads to Washington where he reunites with former Thunder and current Wizards head coach in Scott Brooks. Westbrook will look to ignite a Wizards team that missed out on the postseason and making the most of a career year from their franchise cornerstone Bradley Beal who became the first player in NBA history to average 30 points in a season and not be named an All-Star nor make an All-NBA team. Bonkers. The Wizards currently have Beal under contract until at least 2022 as he agreed to a two-year, $72 million extension back in 2019.
Last offseason Houston Rockets superstar guard James Harden lured former Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey to pull off one of the more surprising trades in recent memory; acquiring childhood friend and 9x All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook from the Oklahoma City Thunder. There was a lot of skepticism surrounding the acquisition mainly based around the question if two of the all-time highest usage rated players the game has ever seen would be able to share the basketball.
In their first year together Westbrook averaged 27 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists. The 2016-17 NBA MVP also posted a career-high in field goal percentage (47.2%), got his ninth All-Star nod, and made 3rd team All-NBA. A lot of his success was due to the fact offensive guru and then Houston Rocket head coach Mike D’Antoni took his small-ball approach to the next level advocating GM Daryl Morey to trade former Rockets center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks.
The trade of Capela opened up lanes for the superstar guard to maximize his strengths and be able to wreak havoc in the paint relentlessly. His backcourt mate James Harden posted 34.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists on 44% from the floor and 35% from the three-point line. Harden continued his historical career scoring stretch averaging at least 29 points for a fifth straight season. The Southern California childhood friends also became the highest-scoring duo since the ABA-NBA merger this past season surpassing Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Throughout the 2019-20 regular season a lot was at stake for the Houston Rockets including D’Antoni’s tenure as head coach. D’Antoni was up for a team option after signing a three-year, $15 million contract back in 2016. Though the optimism to have his team option picked up became a little rocky following ownership change and another postseason flameout the organization as a whole felt that both sides would eventually come to a compromise. D’Antoni’s long term future with the Rockets became cloudy when Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta had an interview with the Houston Chronicle back in May of 2019. Fertitta left D’Antoni feeling disgruntled with his comments about D’Antoni’s future as head coach. “Mike is going to be 69 years old and Mike doesn’t know what he wants to yet”. The timing of the comments was quite puzzling seeing negotiations regarding a contract extension for D’Antoni were reportedly being made prior to the interview. D’Antoni had previously had made it quite clear that he had no desire to leave the team. Immediately following the Rockets’ Game 5 in the Western Conference Semis where they were eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers D’Antoni let team officials on the flight home to Houston that he wouldn’t be seeking another contract with the organization and will be testing the free agency market.
After D’Antoni ultimately left and signed with the Brooklyn Nets to be an assistant coach under his former 2x MVP point guard Steve Nash trade requests broke out from both Westbrook and Harden. James Harden had recently been in talks with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving about his desire to find a way to Brooklyn to team up. Harden who has a lucrative $133 million left on his current contract over the next two years declined a maximum two-year, $103 million extension on top of his current deal and that really substantiated he indeed wants out of Houston.
As for Westbrook, who had one of the best statistical seasons of his storied career in Houston, he felt it would be best he parted ways with the organization though his reasons weren’t doubts that the Rockets wouldn’t be able to contend or the team’s ceiling but the culture internally. According to The Athletic “Westbrook has informed team officials that he has been uneasy about the team’s accountability and culture, and wants to join a team where he can have a role similar to his prior, floor general role in Oklahoma City”. Everyone on the Rockets sacrificed for what they thought was the best for the team this year, including Westbrook. Westbrook bought into D’Antoni’s offense and small ball approach where Harden is the primary decision-maker on every offensive possession and it worked to the best it could.
Who’s to say how the Rockets postseason run would’ve gone had Westbrook not gotten COVID-19 and then the straining of his quadriceps muscle. Someone as electrifying and relying as Westbrook is on his nuclear athleticism when one part of his body isn’t 100% it can throw off his game as a whole as seen in the bubble. An excerpt from The Athletics’ piece on Westbrook’s trade request stated that Westbrook, sources say, has made it known for some time now that he would like to see significant changes to the Rockets culture. Specifically, his desire for more team-wide accountability, discipline, and structure has been the focus of talks with team officials. During a January locker room meeting following a home loss to Portland, Westbrook, who was leading the meeting, went around the room indicating what was wrong and what each player needed to do to fix the losing streak, starting with himself, sources said. When it came to Harden, however, he wasn’t as receptive to criticism as other teammates, sources said.
It hasn’t been getting the attention it probably should have considering how alarming it is but this is James Harden’s third go-around with a star-caliber player after previous runs with Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. It’s pretty easy to make Westbrook the scapegoat in this situation because he’s not known for his outside shooting but more so for his ferocious zero to hundred balls to the wall style of play. But perhaps with the continuous pattern of Harden’s burnouts with his running mates that Westbrook may have been on to something requesting a culture shift in H-Town. Westbrook who himself is known for his own ball dominance sacrificed his style of play for Hardens. He watched the endless isolations and step backs and just lived with it because that’s the type of teammate he is and just maybe in this particular situation; that’s the type of bond he shares with Harden off the court. Perhaps new head coach Stephen Silas has a new identity and blueprint to bring to the Toyota Center that’ll help transcend the organization in a direction it deeply desires. But with the new additions of John Wall, Christian Wood, and Demarcus Cousins; James Harden will need to adapt to a more team-oriented playstyle and who knows what the ceiling is from then on or if he even still wants to remain a Rocket?
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