Swapping Toxic Contracts: Russ for Wall

Three years ago, trading John Wall for Russell Westbrook would be a fantastically interesting challenge trade.  Now it feels like….well not quite so fantastic but still a challenge trade of a sort.  Let’s break it down by bullet points:

-Their contracts are virtually the same (three years and $133 million left).  Both players have $47+ million player options in 2022-23.  We have a hunch they will both exercise those options.  We have a further hunch that they may have already sent notice that they will exercise these options just in case.

-This isn’t quite a pure challenge trade.  Houston got a 2023 first rounder to balance the scales slightly, though the pick is heavily protected.  According to Shams Charania, the pick is lottery protected in 2023, top 12 protected in 2024, top 10 protected in 2025, top eight protected in 2026, and morphs into two second rounders if used in 2027.  So, while the parties clearly agree Russ has more value, the additional pick will be, at best, a solid pick (a ninth pick is a good asset and can usually yield a solid starter but is far from a sure thing).

The State of John Wall: He is turning 30 and last played an NBA game nearly two full years ago. At age 26, in 2016-17, Wall was a bona fide star and was at his absolute peak in all his advanced stats:

2016-17: 78 games, 23.2 PER, 8.8 WS, .149 WS/48, 4.7 BPM, 4.8 VORP

Since then he played half seasons in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 and the aggregate stats from those two years are less inspiring:

2017-18 + 2018-19: 73 games, 18.6 PER, 3.9 WS, .074 WS/48, 2.0 BPM, 2.6 VORP

The total stats do not quite do justice to the decline we see between the two seasons, as his BPM went from 3.0 in 2017-18 to 0.9 in 2018-19.  Wall’s defense, which was pretty good, has gone quite negative.  Hopefully, the 2018-19 numbers were caused primarily by the heel issues and hopefully those issues are resolved.  We haven’t seen the medicals but the bad history of players recovering from Achilles injuries is now well-documented.  The fair guess is that the Rockets will be lucky to get anything close to 2017-18 Wall.  In other words, this deal will not push the Rockets towards contention and has a high chance of being a total dud where Wall is a non-factor or a negative value player. 

The most likely good scenario isn’t great either.  Wall, as an average(ish) point guard who supplements James Harden, sounds uninspiring.  If the Rockets choose to keep Harden, the lineup will be: Wall, Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker (age-35), Christian Wood/DeMarcus Cousins (who has had major injuries three years in-a-row) off the pine.  This is a playoff team but not likely as good as even the 2019-20 model.

-The State of Russ:  Westbrook will be 32 this year and relies on athleticism more than most players.  Also, he was terrible in the bubble, which hopefully was not representative of the new Russ but was, instead, due to the weird playoff format and his COVID issues.  Here’s where Russ’ advanced stats have been the last two years:

2018-19 (OKC): 73 games, 21.1 PER, 6.8 WS, .124 WS/48, 5.2 BPM, 4.7 VORP

2019-20 (HOU) 57 games, 21.0 PER, 4.2 WS, .098 WS/48, 1.5 BPM, 1.8 VORP

The raw stats look pretty close but BPM and VORP show huge declines.  The decline is attributed mostly to defensive slippage.  His DBPM was 2.4 for OKC and -0.1 for Houston.  Generally, however, Westbrook’s trend line has been going downward since his crazy triple double season.  This downward slope went from All-NBA in OKC to good guard with the Rockets (the Houston version of Westbrook does not rate as better than even the declining 2017-18 John Wall in fact).  Again, 2019-20 was a strange season and playing with James Harden definitely affected Russ’ approach to the offense (and might’ve made his defense look worse too).  An uptick for Russ in Washington is possible for those reasons, if not probable.

Westbrook’s shot chart shows that he was taking many fewer three-pointers last year (16.6%) than any season since 2011-12.  Rather, Westbrook was going to the rim, having taken the most shots within three feet of the basket (41.5%) since his rookie year, and making them at a pretty good rate (64%).  The x-factor is Westbrook’s constantly flat jumper.  He was making it okay (for him) in the regular season but the three-pointer making was an unacceptable .258%.  Westbrook has always been a bad three-point shooter (.305% for his career) but he is dipping into territory where he doesn’t need to be guarded out there (or, more precisely, guarded even less than he was before). 

The Wizards are buying into a declining market and the contract will get ugly by the end of the deal but Westbrook should be good in 2020-21.  Not as good as the OKC version but still solid.  The Wiz have a great two guard in Bradley Beal and two decent players (Davis Bertans and Thomas Bryant).  Westbrook, even if he has declined on defense, has to help over the execrable defense of last season.  Washington had the worst defense in the NBA and point guard was their worst defensive area.  Westbrook will replace the two worst Wiz defenders by DBPM (Isaiah Thomas and Justin Robinson).  That gives a lot of room for Washington to improve.  The Wiz won’t be good but will be in the hunt for a low rung playoff seed.  Is it worth trading an angry Wall and a pick for one (or two) .500ish seasons?  The trade results sound underwhelming but the Wizards had little choice but to make the best of a bad situation.

-Toxicity in the City: To paraphrase System of a Down, the large NBA contracts doled out have an element of inevitable toxicity.  This has been true even in the older NBA (remember Allan Houston’s 2001 deal?).  The salary numbers have gotten higher with an increase in revenues but the concept remains the same: NBA teams have to overpay for frontline talent and hope that it retains its value to avoid truly untenable situations down the line.  Inevitably, we are going to see an NBA player making $50+ million per year with a true market value of so much less that it’ll be a huge mess for all involved.  This is just how the market works in the NBA and you just have to hope your team correctly identifies the talent as front line when they pay and avoid overpaying players who aren’t truly max guys (like Houston and Wall).

Once the toxicity starts to set in, all the teams can do are: (a) swap toxic contracts, (b) negotiate a buyout with the player, (c) hope that you can package the player with enough positive value contracts so that another team will take the bad contract too, or (d) hope the new NBA collective bargaining agreement gives teams mulligans on these bad deals like they have in past.  In the case of Wall and Westbrook, the trade was plutonium for uranium.  More of these swaps await us.